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Super Bowl QB has family roots in Rug City

Saturday, February 01, 2014 - Updated: 4:09 AM


The story of Seattle Seahawks starting quarterback Russell Wilson is well-known by this point: Star signal-caller in college at both North Carolina State and Wisconsin, drafted by the Seahawks in the third round -- mainly because at 5-foot-11, he was thought to be "too short" to play quarterback in the National Football League by most draft experts -- anointed as the starter out of training camp.

And now, just two seasons into his career, about to lead the Seahawks into Super Bowl XLVIII Sunday against the Denver Broncos in East Rutherford, N.J.

Pretty good story, huh?

Well, dig a little deeper into history, and the roots of the Wilson story track back to Amsterdam and both his great-grandfather, Harrison B. Wilson Sr., and his grandfather, Dr. Harrison B. Wilson Jr.

The senior Wilson, the son of a slave, settled in Amsterdam in the early 1900s after leaving Kentucky. He began working as a plasterer, later working for Amsterdam builder and landlord Thomas McGibbon.

Local radio host Bob Cudmore was acquainted with the story of the Wilson family, and delved deeper into it in recent years when he was working on his book, "Hidden History of the Mohawk Valley."

"My interest in the family at that point had nothing to do with Russell Wilson, he was probably 18 years old or 16 years old," Cudmore said. "It was just the story of this African-American family that lived in Amsterdam, where the people were hard-working, they believed in education and were great athletes, and all the members of the family went elsewhere and did very well."

In 1943, Wilson Sr. saved two female bowling pin-setters from a major fire in a building owned by McGibbon, and eventually took over operation of the McGibbon-owned parking downtown parking lot on Federal Street after McGibbon's death later that year.

"McGibbon died, and Wilson in a sense took over the parking lot," Cudmore said. "I still believe he derived revenue from it, but it stayed with the widow of McGibbon and (Wilson) kind of helped care for her. It was almost like 'Driving Miss Daisy,' where he would take her places and help her out, and she helped him out with the parking lot."

Harrison B. Wilson Jr. was one eight children of Wilson Sr. and his wife Marguerite. Born April 21, 1925, Wilson Jr. was a star athlete at Amsterdam High School, especially excelling in basketball and baseball.

"He was a good ballplayer, and him and I always had a nice time," said Walter Frisch, of Amsterdam, a friend and teammate of Wilson Jr.'s in high school.

Wilson Jr. left Amsterdam and served in the U.S. Navy before enrolling at Kentucky State University, where he earned his bachelor's degree and was a star athlete in baseball, football, baseball and track and field.

Eventually, he became the head basketball coach at Jackson State University, winning 371 games over 17 seasons, before he moved on to a career in college administration.

In 1975, he became the second president of Norfolk State University in Virginia, serving for 22 years until his retirement in 1997.

Frisch said he last saw Wilson Jr. at a class reunion several years ago, and was glad for the chance to reconnect -- though then, he had no idea his no idea his old teammate's grandson would eventually go on to quarterback a team to the Super Bowl.

"I saw him at the 65th anniversary of our graduation, and he mentioned me as one of his best friends from when he went to school," he said. "He didn't make (it to) the 70th -- there were only four of us left at the 70th."

A request was made for an interview with Wilson Jr., who currently lives in Virginia with his wife in Virginia. His daughter, former television news personality April Wilson Woodard, said her father's current health issues precluded him from granting an interview, but expressed the family's immense pride in Russell Wilson in an e-mail to The Recorder.

"We are all so thrilled about Russell's success and while some of our family will brave the cold in New Jersey, we are looking forward to watching the game in a warm intimate setting in Virginia," Woodard said.

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