Wilson played baseball for NC State each spring. In the summer of 2010, he was drafted into the majors again, this time by the Colorado Rockies. In January of 2011 Wilson announced that he’d report to spring training with the team. It was a decision that didn’t sit well with NC State head football coach Tom O’Brien, and as the story evolved, it became apparent that if Wilson returned to Raleigh, he would be coming in as a backup. So Wilson requested—and was granted—a release from his scholarship, under the provision that he would not sign with any team in the ACC or on NC State’s schedule. “I believe it is in the best interest of the players and coaches involved to end any speculation of my return to the Wolfpack. It has become apparent that the time has come for the program to move on without me,” Wilson said in a press release.
He played baseball with the Rockies’ Class A affiliate, the Asheville Tourists, in the summer of 2011, but his heart never left football. He had reached a crossroads: Should he take the near-guaranteed money in professional baseball or take one more shot at football? “I would be on the phone with Russell for hours on end talking about what [sport] he wanted to [play], weighing the options,” recalls Wilson’s older brother, Harrison Wilson IV. “Ultimately, what trumped everything else was that he had another year of eligibility to play football. He knew that 10 years from now, he’d regret not seeing [football] through for another six months.” Halfway through the 2011 baseball season, Wilson made his decision. He would transfer out of NC State to play one more season of football. University of Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema announced that Wilson would be a member of the Badgers football team in the fall. The NCAA allows students with a degree (Wilson had earned his B.A. in communications in three years) to bypass the usual year of bench time that accompanies most transfers, so Wilson, soon to be a grad student, would be eligible to play immediately.
“I took a huge risk leaving baseball, because I was predicted to play in the big leagues,” Wilson explains as he gazes out the window. “I’m kind of a prototypical second baseman.” But it wasn’t the same as being the QB. “For anyone—not just Russell—in baseball, if you bat .300 throughout your career in the major leagues, you’re going to go to the Hall of Fame,” Harrison says. “You’re failing 70% of the time, and you’re considered the best of the best. If you look at it from the football standpoint, if you fail 70% of the time, you’re not going to have a job.”
“[When I transferred to Wisconsin], that’s when I really realized that [football] is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Wilson says as we meander around a turn. “I knew I could play the game of football, I knew I could make great decisions [with the football], and I knew I could throw. I just needed an opportunity.”
It might’ve been more accurate to say that Wisconsin got an opportunity with Wilson. After one season at the school, he’d set the NCAA single-season record for passing efficiency while setting school records in passing yardage, completions, TD passes, and total yards of offense, capping it all off with a Big 10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth.
“My ultimate goal professionally is to be one of the best to ever play the game, and I think I’ve got a long way to go,” Wilson says as we enter Minute 30 of our 15-minute ride.
At this point, the conversation veers away from questions about Wilson’s football career and toward a common issue—namely, where we are (or aren’t, depending on how you look at it). We’ve been driving for a half hour and the obstacle course is nowhere in sight. Wilson, like most professional athletes, has almost all of his time accounted for, and it appears that I’m wasting it. Bracing for the worst, I prepare to apologize profusely for my miscalculation. Instead, Wilson breaks the silence by asking me where I’m flying out of—and to ensure that I have enough time to make my flight comfortably.