You know about Super Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning’s Mississippi background – dad Archie born in Drew and mother Olivia from Philadelphia.
But did you know the other Super Bowl quarterback, Russell Wilson, has Mississippi roots as well? He most certainly does. Russell Wilson’s late father, Harry,was born and spent his formative years in Jackson. His grandfather, Harrison B. Wilson, was an incredibly successful basketball coach at Jackson State before going on to a distinguished career as a college administrator in Tennessee and Virginia.
The Manning family story is well-known, not only in Mississippi but across the nation. The Mannings are the first family of American football. The Wilson family story is incredible in its own right, as we shall see.
Let’s start with Harrison B. Wilson, Jr., who was head basketball coach at Jackson State from 1951-1967 and led teams that won a remarkable 340 games while losing only 72. Yes, and as splendid as his basketball record was, his record as a father rates even better. His four sons all graduated with honors from Dartmouth.
Originally from Amsterdam, N.Y., Harrison Wilson, Jr., played basketball in the Navy and at Kentucky State before getting his Masters at Indiana. Straight out of Indiana, he took JSU basketball job at age 26. His teams won 75 percent of their games and numerous conference championships, but his legacy at JSU goes much deeper than that. He also coached the football team’s wide receivers, including such NFL legends as Mississippi Sports Hall of Famers Harold Jackson and Willie Richardson.
The Wilsons lived first on the Jackson State campus and then on nearby Pittsburg Street. Ben Wilson, the oldest of four sons and Russell Wilson’s uncle, remembers growing up in the college atmosphere and going to practices and games.
“What I remember most of all is that my dad’s teams didn’t lose many games,” Ben Wilson says. “We beat Grambling when they had Willis Reed, Prairie View when they had Zelmo Beatty, Winston Salem when they had Earl Monroe, and North Carolina Central when they had Sam Jones.”
Harrison Wilson, 88, and now living near Norfolk, Va., is more proud of another legacy. “All my basketball players graduated and most of them got their Masters,” he says. “I had mostly Mississippi kids and they were great kids, hard workers.”
At 15, Ben Wilson was about to enter Jim Hill High School when a Jackson State professor, who was close to the family, suggested he already was smarter than her college students and that the family should consider sending him to prep school in the northeast. Ben took an entrance exam for Wilbraham, near Springfield, Mass., qualified for a scholarship and off he went first to Wilbraham and then to Dartmouth. His three younger brothers, including Harry, followed.
Harry, Russell’s dad, was born at the JSU Health Center on campus. He became an athletic standout at Dartmouth, a record-breaking wide receiver in football and a middle infielder in baseball.
When Ben Wilson, a successful lawyer in Washington D.C., looks at Russell Wilson, he sees Harry, his brother, who died of complications from diabetes three years ago.
“It’s uncanny the physical resemblance,” Ben Wilson says. “He’s the spitting image of my brother. It’s just striking how much they are alike, their mannerisms, the way they walk, the way they talk. Don’t get me wrong, I love Russell, but when I’m around Russell it makes me somewhat melancholy. I miss Harry; I loved him so much.”
Says Harrison Wilson of his son, Harry, and Harry’s son, Russell: “They could be twins. It’s uncanny.”
Harrison Wilson says he will watch the Super Bowl on TV: “I’m too old to sit out in that weather.”
Ben Wilson will take it all in. And he will be thinking of Harry.
Says Ben Wilson: “Russell is a special young man, focused and intelligent, just like his dad was. He has always been on a constant quest to get better, always working to be as good as he can possibly be.”
Sounds like another quarterback with Mississippi roots, the one named Peyton Manning.
“Russell has all the respect in the world for Peyton Manning,” Ben Wilson says. “Peyton Manning is the gold standard for NFL quarterbacks and Russell respects that. He respects the game.”
This Super Bowl should be a splendid game, befitting the uniquely successful families of both quarterbacks.
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