Kyle Parker remembers talking football with Russell Wilson when they were teammates on the 2011 Asheville Tourists in the Colorado Rockies system.
Parker, the Rockies’ 2010 first-round pick, was done with football, which he’d played at Clemson. Wilson, however, wasn’t quite done with the gridiron, even though he’d signed for $250,000 as the Rockies’ fourth-round pick in 2010.
“I knew he was looking at going to play football at a couple of different places,” Parker said Friday afternoon in a telephone interview. “At the time, that didn’t mean he would have to leave the Rockies. He could have come back and played that next year. I knew he was looking and kind of felt, if that’s what he needed to do, he should.
“Obviously, the story goes from there.”
Where the story has gone is the surprise. Wilson, who played baseball and football at North Carolina State, transferred to Wisconsin for the fall of 2011. He threw for 3,175 yards and 33 touchdowns, leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, and worked his way into being the Seattle Seahawks’ third-round pick.
His football success prompted Wilson to give up his baseball career after just one full season, but he seems to have made the right decision. He’s led the Seahawks to a matchup with the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, which will be played Sunday in New Jersey.
The Rockies have drafted plenty of quarterbacks through the years, having success with franchise icon Todd Helton, who retired after the 2013 season, and outfielder Seth Smith, now with the Padres after spending the past two seasons in Oakland. Colorado scouting director Bill Schmidt has said that he values the toughness and physicality of quarterbacks as well as their athleticism and leadership qualities.
The Rockies also valued Parker’s righthanded power. His path led him to stick with baseball, though not until after he played one last season for Clemson. He signed for a $1.4 million bonus in August 2010, then passed for 2,213 yards and 12 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore that fall, with the team going just 6-7 after a 9-5 campaign in his freshman year, when he threw 20 TDs.
“At that point I didn’t really know what wanted to do,” Parker said. “I played football and wanted to see what would happen. I was interested to see what would happen after that year of me playing in college. That’s why I went back. I got some questions answered that I didn’t know the answer to.
“I made the decision to come out and just play baseball and it worked for me, because I had a peace about it. I didn’t really second-guess it. I knew just what I wanted to do.”
That first pro season tested both Wilson and Parker, as the daily grind of the minor leagues—from bus rides to games every day to a season that stretches far past the 56-game college baseball slate—took its toll. Parker persevered to hit .285/.367/.483 with 21 home runs, but Wilson struggled, hitting just .228/.366/.342 with 82 strikeouts in 193 at-bats.
“They tried to keep the footballs out of the locker room,” Parker said. “But the Rockies do like football players.”
A second baseman in pro ball, Wilson had more catching up to do. While Parker had played baseball for three years at Clemson as an everyday player (689 career at-bats) Wilson was a part-timer at N.C. State, with 241 career college at-bats, at times pitching in relief but mostly platooning at second base and left field as a junior. Scouts flocked to games when they knew he’d be facing a lefthanded pitcher to see him in the lineup, and he got just 98 at-bats in 2010 for the Wolfpack.
N.C. State’s football coach at the time, Tom O’Brien, wasn’t keen on Wilson playing two sports, and baseball coach Elliott Avent made some waves this week when he pointed out the obvious, telling WRAL-TV in Raleigh, "It was something I wasn’t very happy about. I think it was one of the bad decisions in college sports—and not on Russell’s part. I’m just saying we should have found a way to keep Russell Wilson (at N.C. State)."
Parker roomed with Wilson in spring training in 2011 and on the road with the Tourists. He recalls Wilson saying that if he had returned to N.C. State that fall—after missing spring practice due to his pro baseball career—he would be second string behind Mike Glennon, who is now the starting quarterback of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I just kind of looked at him and said, ‘Wait, what? You’re about to set the ACC record for touchdown passes.’ But it all came down to the program. They were young that year and they were trying to rebuild the program, so that made it more of an issue that he wasn’t there, I guess.
“I had a great experience at Clemson," Parker said. "From the moment I walked on campus, it was already agreed upon that I would play baseball. I was never really pressured into having to quit or be one place or another . . . My experience at Clemson was pretty much as good as it can get. Russell’s situation may have been a little different. The conversations he would have with coaches were obviously completely different from what I experienced.”
Wilson was selected by the Rangers in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft in December, but his baseball career is over thanks to his football success, which includes 6,475 yards and 52 touchdowns (with just 19 interceptions) the past two seasons. He and Parker still have conversations, usually via text messages, though this time of year Parker said he tries to leave Wilson alone. Parker's rooting for his friend, though, as a member of the Rockies organization, he knows what a Super Bowl victory for the home-team Broncos would mean. He’s just rooting for a good game Sunday, and hoping his friend plays well.
“I think Russell really loved playing baseball and he would always talk about how good he could be if he truly just focused on one sport,” Parker said. “In college you just show up when baseball starts and you’ve probably taken half the reps of the guys you’re competing with. You have to think about how you would do if you really put time into it. It’s something we were both trying to figure out.”
Parker, who played well in the Arizona Fall League and ranks as the Rockies’ No. 4 prospect, is close to realizing his dream and becoming a big leaguer, making his baseball choice pay off. Wilson’s choice has proven to be a good one, but baseball fans will always wonder what kind of career Wilson might have had if he had chosen baseball.