Local Lifestyle

Wednesday, Feb 06 2013 06:00 PM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: In a sea of losers, an athlete worth emulating

By The Bakersfield Californian

Oh, Lance, Lance, you have let down so many people whom you don't even know. Lance Armstrong was, at one point, a role model in two worlds, for cyclists and for cancer patients, his narrative one of heartening survival and impossible dominance in his field. As it turns out, his story actually was impossible, at least without the help of banned substances and a sticky web of duplicity. Armstrong now goes to the back of the line of disgraced sports stars, behind O.J. and Tiger and all those baseball players who beefed up on steroids, role models turned cautionary tales.

Sports figures in America are role models whether they like it or not, and whether we like it or not. They are larger-than-life athletes in the public eye, competing for large prizes, accomplishing feats most of us can barely imagine doing, and glorified as celebrities in popular culture. Some athletes are not comfortable with idol status, and some do not deserve to be imitated by anyone, let alone kids in their formative years. So it's a pleasure to note, among the new role models of the year, a remarkable young man: Russell Wilson, the rookie quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks.

Russell Wilson was not the flashiest rookie in the NFL's 2012 season, like Heisman-Trophy-winning Robert Griffin, Jr., or the most anticipated player out of college, like Andrew Luck, but a third-round draft pick, an afterthought, a trainable back-up for Seattle's real quarterback. But the talented Wilson earned the starting job for the Seahawks and quarterbacked them to the play-offs. Russell Wilson will be back to play football next season, and he is a fellow for younger boys, and girls, to emulate.

Wilson's father died in 2010 at age 55 from complications from diabetes, but not before teaching his children to live their lives with faith, humility, grace, and hard work.Wilson frequently honors his dad in interviews. His saying, "separation is in the preparation," means that he learned to outshine competitors by training, studying, and committing fully to his work. He is reportedly the first to arrive for practice and the last to leave the locker room afterwards.

The main reason that Wilson was chosen so late in the draft process, in spite of his excellent performance as a college quarterback, was his height: at not quite 5 feet 11, he is considered too short to make it in the pros. Wilson relates that when he was told time after time that he was too short or too small for football, his dad told him to let the discouraging doubts of others motivate him, and that he might never know what younger kid was looking to him as an example of someone persevering in the face of naysayers. This young man took the job of role model seriously even before he was a role model in the national spotlight.

One of Wilson's traits I like best is that he is a writer. Not in the sense that he is working on a novel, but that he seems to take every advantage of the power of the written word. Wilson told an interviewer that he writes down three goals each day, small things to work on for his self-improvement, another lesson learned from his father. The interviewer confessed to being taken aback, thinking in surprise, three a day? The rookie quarterback writes notes to his receivers and puts them in their lockers, which apparently did not endear him to the veteran players at first. But his helpful notes have grown into mass texts that he sends to the whole team before games, indicating a gift for leadership beyond his calendar years.

"Make good choices," I used to tell my teenage girls, whenever they left with car keys in hand and anticipation in their eyes. Wilson does just that. Hardworking, future-oriented, humble, and grounded, this seemingly too-good-to-be-true role model also spends every Tuesday at Seattle Children's Hospital. In the face of the playoff loss that ended his rookie season, Wilson acknowledged his disappointment, but noted with grace that he was "excited for next year."

Forget Lance Armstrong: here's hoping more kids will be Russell-Wilson-strong.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.

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