NFL quarterback Russell Wilson gets hometown welcome

Joey Matthews | 4/8/2016, 7:20 a.m.
Seattle Seahawks All-Pro quarterback Russell Wilson scored a touchdown with a hometown crowd of 4,500 people at the Richmond Forum, ...
With a large screen illuminating their onstage presence Saturday, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson talks about growing up in Richmond with Harvard University professor Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. at the Richmond Forum. James Haskins/Richmond Free Press

Seattle Seahawks All-Pro quarterback Russell Wilson scored a touchdown with a hometown crowd of 4,500 people at the Richmond Forum, where he was the special guest and speaker Saturday night at the Altria Theatre.

Wearing his trademark million-dollar smile and accompanied by his stylish fiancée, Grammy Award-winning singer Ciara, Mr. Wilson talked about his youth and other life experiences as Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. unveiled Mr. Wilson’s family and ancestral lineage for the program called “Roots of a Champion.”

“To be here is really, really special,” Mr. Wilson, a former three-sport standout at Collegiate Schools in Henrico County, told the audience that responded with enthusiasm and delight.

“Our city couldn’t ask for a better ambassador,” Charlie Agee, the Richmond Forum’s director of corporate citizenship whose son, Marshall, attended Collegiate with Mr. Wilson, said in his introductory remarks.

Mr. Wilson, 27, was moved by the information presented by Dr. Gates, who is in his third season of hosting the popular PBS show “Finding Your Roots.”

Their conversation at the Richmond Forum will air locally 9 p.m. Thursday, April 14, on WCVE-TV, channel 23, said Bill Chapman, executive director of the Richmond Forum.

The two began by discussing Mr. Wilson’s childhood playing football, basketball and baseball on weekends in the backyard of his family’s Henrico County home with his older brother, Harry, and neighborhood friends.

“If you hit the tennis ball over a neighbor’s house, it was a home run,” Mr. Wilson recollected, laughing.

He recalled the games as being very “competitive.” And he said he is “grateful” that Collegiate required students to participate in at least two sports each year.

He said his life today is guided by his deep Christian faith. His parents, he said, fueled his early spiritual growth by requiring him and his siblings to go to church every Sunday.

He said his favorite Bible verse is Matthew 33, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

Mr. Wilson credited his parents with instilling in him the tenets of “commitment and dedication.”

After high school, he earned a scholarship to North Carolina State University, where he excelled in football and baseball. He transferred to the University of Wisconsin in 2011 and led the Badgers to the Big 10 championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl.

He said he chose to concentrate on football exclusively after the Seahawks drafted him in the third round in 2012. He called giving up his quest to play baseball professionally “one of the hardest decisions of my life.”

Before he and Dr. Gates delved into the “Book of Life” and his ancestry, Mr. Wilson glowingly acknowledged Ciara, who accepted his marriage proposal in March, and a bevy of family members that included his mother, Tammy, his older brother and his younger sister, Anna, who will attend Stanford University on a basketball scholarship in the fall.

He said he regretted that his father was not there. His father is the late Harrison B. Wilson III, a former Richmond attorney whose office once was located in the Imperial Building, home of the Richmond Free Press. He also was a former two-sport college athlete who died in 2010 at 55 after a lengthy and difficult battle with diabetes.

Mr. Wilson also praised his grandmother, Carolyn Wilson, and grandfather, Harrison B. Wilson Jr., who served as Norfolk State University’s second president from 1975 through 1997 and was a winning basketball coach at Jackson State University in Mississippi with a record of 340 wins and only 72 losses.

As they discussed his family roots, Mr. Wilson was wide-eyed and repeatedly shook his head in wonderment as he learned of a heritage that included enslaved and freed black people and white ancestors.

“I knew it!” Mr. Wilson exulted at one point as he stood and shook his fist in delight to applause after Dr. Gates informed him his ancestors included King Henry II of England who was born in 1133; Charlemagne, king of the Franks, who was born in 782; and Saint Arnulf, the bishop of Metz, who was born in 582.

He also learned about his maternal grandfather, Alexander B. Jackson, a renowned painter and teacher who became the first full-time African-American professor at Old Dominion University in 1967. He died in 1981. President Lyndon B. Johnson purchased some of his artwork.

Mr. Wilson also learned that some of his perseverance could be traced to Charity Southgate, his paternal great-great-great-great-grandmother. She was born free to a white woman and black man and should have remained that way, according to the law at that time, but she later was enslaved, Dr. Gates said.

She fought for her right to be free starting as an 18-year-old in 1824, but it took 23 years and two lawsuits before she and her family finally gained their freedom.

Dr. Gates showed Mr. Wilson a pollbook from 1967 that showed that his maternal great-great-great-great-grandfather, Britton Turner, and his son, Washington, had registered to vote two years after the end of the Civil War.

At the end of the forum, Mr. Wilson told the audience, “Some of our ancestors may have grown up as slaves. Some may have been slave owners. We forget we’re all human.”

What it comes down to now, he said, is “really loving people.”

“Sometimes, you have to forget what a person looks like, forget what a person believes in, forget what a person does have or does not have … You have to look deep inside and love.”

After a brief pause, he laughed and added, “Because you’re probably connected” in some way.