Russell Wilson remembers watching Tom Brady win his first Super Bowl with New England, after the 2001 season.
Wilson was 13 at the time, but already on his way to three-sport stardom in Richmond, Va.
Thirteen years later, Brady is in position to join Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowl titles.
But before the Greatest of All Time debate can begin, Brady first must prove he’s the best quarterback on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX.
Standing between Brady and a fourth ring are the defending champion Seahawks, the league’s top-ranked defense – and the diminutive quarterback from Richmond who’s trying to become the youngest quarterback to win two Super Bowls.
“Usually when you have a great quarterback on the other team, the other team’s great. So you really focus on the team more than the quarterback,” Wilson said. “I’m not playing Tom Brady. Tom Brady and I aren’t out there tackling each other. I think it’s a rise-to-the-occasion type moment. You always want to step up.”
Wilson and Brady present a fascinating study in similarities and contrasts.
Neither was a high draft pick. Brady famously lasted until the sixth round in 2000, while Wilson went to Seattle as a third-rounder in 2012.
Both are former baseball players with big personalities and movie-star looks. But behind the winning smiles are two intensely competitive players with a knack for willing their teams to victories.
And that’s where the similarities stop.
“I think this is such an extraordinary contrast in athletes,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said this week. “It demonstrates that there’s not just a perfect model for how quarterbacks come together.”
“Tom is a classic. He’s been an extraordinary competitor forever and has great leadership, great command and great playmaking ability with the come-throughs, the comebacks and all of that kind of stuff. As a sixth-rounder, he has shown that it isn’t where you start, it’s how you finish, and he’s finishing in famous fashion.
“Then, Russell is such an extraordinary player in his own right. He has an entirely different makeup in size, shape and formula that he presents to the game.”
A shared drive
Wide receiver Brandon LaFell spent four seasons in Carolina before signing with New England last offseason. When he arrived at the Patriots’ facility in Foxborough, Mass., teammates told him about Brady’s multiple personalities.
“When I first got here, they were like, ‘There’s three different Toms. There’s the Tom you see at practice, there’s the Tom you see in the OTAs and offseason – the guy that works out and is laughing and joking,” LaFell said. “The guy you see at practice is game-day Tom. The game-day Tom is the guy you want on your field.”
LaFell says he gives Brady a wide berth in the locker room before games, not wanting to approach him and disrupt his laser-like focus.
“He’s got that look on his face like, ‘I’m ready to play.’ But you don’t know what he’s thinking,” LaFell said. “I’m going to give Tom his space, I’m going to leave him alone. And once we get out there, we’re going to make something happen.”
On the sideline during games, Brady will pat a teammate on the backside one series and get in his face and yell at him the next, if he thinks it’s going to help the Patriots win.
That competitive drive extends beyond the football field.
“If you shoot basketball with him, playing a game of P-I-G, he’s going full out – full out trying, full out trying to win that game,” Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “He doesn’t care who it’s versus. He’s maybe one of the top competitors I’ve ever met, and it just brings it out in everyone when it comes to game time.”
Wilson has the same type of passion.
The Seahawks signed free agent quarterback Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million deal a month before drafting Wilson, a former N.C. State standout who played his final college season at Wisconsin.
The popular thinking was Flynn would be the Seahawks’ starter, and Wilson would compete with Tarvaris Jackson for the backup job and maybe play in a situational package – a role the Carolina Panthers envisioned for Wilson if they had taken him in a later round.
Wilson had other ideas.
Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said it quickly became apparent Wilson – despite his 5-foot-11 stature, or maybe because of it – was the best option.
“Obviously, when you go out and get a guy and pay him as much as we did (Flynn), and then start Russell, it showed itself pretty early in training camp and OTAs that that was definitely the way we needed to go,” Bevell said. “It was pretty black and white.”
Wilson might have trouble throwing over the line at times and might not spin the prettiest spirals, but he finds ways to win. His 36 regular-season wins and 42 overall victories are the most by a quarterback in his first three seasons.
Wilson’s 15 fourth-quarter comebacks rank first in the NFL since the start of the 2012 season. That total includes two come-from-behind wins against the Panthers and a 16-point comeback against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game two weeks ago.
Wilson threw three interceptions and had a zero passer rating in the first half against the Packers, but never lost his pep.
Wilson led the Seahawks to 15 points in 44 seconds – aided greatly by an onside kick recovery – to force overtime, then lofted a game-winning, 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse to complete the third-biggest comeback in a conference championship game.
“I say all the time, the belief system he has in himself, he refuses to let himself fail. So it doesn’t really matter what happened the game before, or even in the game,” Bevell said. “Last week a four-interception game and he’s coming to the sideline telling me we’re going to win the game.”
The NFL’s postseason record book is dotted with Brady’s name.
The former Michigan man – who watched six quarterbacks get drafted ahead of him, including Hofstra’s Giovanni Carmazzi and Spergon Wynn from Southwest Texas State – has more career postseason games (28), wins (20) and touchdown passes (49) than any quarterback in NFL history.
Brady, 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, is the prototypical drop-back passer. The majority of his 53,258 career passing yards have come from the pocket, and if the Patriots win Sunday, it won’t be on the strength of Brady’s legs.
In 13 seasons, Brady has rushed for 823 yards – a total Wilson surpassed this season with 849.
While the Seahawks will roll Wilson out Sunday to give him clearer passing lanes and ask him to run the read-option package, Brady will take aim at the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary behind center.
“It’ll be a tremendous contrast to watch them perform in this game on Sunday and to see the results that come from just totally different styles,” Carroll said. “I think they are both just great statements in character and leadership and competitiveness. Those are the elements that make for the great players. It isn’t about where you come from or your size, shape, where they picked you or any of that kind of stuff.”
Brady respects the way the Seahawks have tried to maximize Wilson’s skill set.
“Every quarterback has a different way to get things done,” Brady said. “You try to play to the strengths of your players. Russell has a lot of strengths. You can see it on the field.”
Wilson is a remarkable 10-0 against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and will try to extend that streak against Brady, who has traded emails with Wilson through a mutual friend.
With Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick appearing in their sixth Super Bowl together, there has been a lot of talk about legacies this week. The Patriots won three titles in Brady’s first four seasons as a starter, but it has been 10 years since their most recent Super Bowl win.
Brady, 37, idolized 49ers quarterbacks Montana and Steve Young as a kid in northern California, and said it was hard to think about being compared to Montana and Bradshaw among the all-time greats.
“I never imagined this is my wildest dreams,” Brady said. “To get a chance to play in the Super Bowl, I never thought I’d play in one. So it’s pretty unbelievable to play in six.”
Wilson is quickly creating his own legacy.
If the Seahawks beat New England, Wilson will become the only quarterback to win two Super Bowls in his first three seasons.
One way or another, a quarterback is making history Sunday.
“I don’t know, when the history books are written, where (Wilson) is going to end up. But as a quarterback, you are supposed to win the game,” said Bevell, the Seahawks’ offensive play-caller.
“He is doing a pretty good job of that right now. If he continues to do that, if he continues to lead his team, win games, win Super Bowls, he will definitely be in that conversation in the end.”