There is an assumption by many youth sports parents that laser-focused specialization is the only way to launch a stellar athletic career for their son or daughter. With so many hours dedicated to practices, training, and competition, other childhood activities get crowded out. Somehow, though, the two quarterbacks in this weekend’s Super Bowl rose to the pinnacle of their sport despite parents who stressed a normal family life with education as a priority.
Long before he won the starting quarterback position for the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Wilson learned how to use his natural leadership abilities to get the best for himself as well as others. In his early school days, “They’d have a game or something they’d be playing and Russell would sit in the rocking chair and the other kids would be on the floor and he’d kind of run the game,” says Russell’s mom, Tammy Wilson, in a recent interview.
In high school, he learned quickly how important education was in his family. If he was struggling in a subject, he would seek out smarter classmates and trade athletic tips and tricks for tutoring. He used his sports skills and his good grades to get into Collegiate School, an elite preparatory school in Richmond, Virginia. One thing was clear; he was there for education first. Charlie McFall, Wilson’s football coach at Collegiate, remembers a conversation with Harrison Wilson, Russell’s dad, he said, “Let me tell you something: I didn’t put Russell in Collegiate for sports, I put Russell in Collegiate to get the best education he could get.”
Because of the strict focus on being a complete person, winning a Super Bowl may just be the next chapter of Wilson’s accomplishments. “He could run for governor in North Carolina, Wisconsin or Washington and win,” said Harry Wilson, Russell’s brother.
While everyone knows about Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Denver Broncos and his younger brother, Eli, quarterback of the New York Giants, not many know that their older brother Cooper could have been the third Manning in the NFL. An all-state high school wide receiver, Cooper caught passes as a senior from his sophomore brother Peyton, before a rare spinal condition forced him out of the family sport.
However, Archie and Olivia Manning never pushed their sons into football or any sport for that matter. Having lost his own dad when he was a 19-year-old quarterback at Ole Miss, Archie was determined to be a supportive father. Even with his own experience as an NFL player, Archie is convinced that all of the success that Peyton and Eli, as well as Cooper, have enjoyed has just been a byproduct of a close family.
“We just tried to raise kids,” said Archie Manning in the ESPN film, The Book of Manning. “We tried to raise good kids and have a good family. I don’t like the perception that it was a plan. You know that I was an NFL quarterback for a while and then I’ve got these boys, I’m going to mold them into being NFL quarterbacks. Not so. You can do that and they might be an NFL quarterback, but I’m not sure you’re going to have a great father-son relationship. That’s what I wanted.”
Not two football families, but two strong families who happen to enjoy football. Just as easily, they could have excelled in music, astronomy, entrepreneurship or any other activity. The secret is providing a solid foundation for kids to explore their interests, knowing that their parents’ only goal is for them to be happy.
Dan Peterson is exploring the intersection of sports skill development and cognitive science at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental. Studying how the brain learns and adapts to the physical and emotional demands of sports, he has authored over 250 science-based articles for parents and coaches trying to understand their young athletes.
Photo credits: Russell Wilson via Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Larry Maurer
Peyton Manning via Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Jeffrey Beall