Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Before Harrison Wilson III died last year, he made sure his son knew what he considered the ultimate achievement in football.
"My dad used to always tell me back in the past, 'Man, there's got to be some way you get to the Rose Bowl,'" Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson recalled. "'You've got to get there.' The best part is, I finally got here."
Russell Wilson's landmark achievements in his much-chronicled single season at Wisconsin finally started to sink in this week when he stepped on the Rose Bowl turf for the first time, a week before the Badgers (11-2) face Oregon (11-2).
Most of the Badgers already had been to Pasadena last season, when since-graduated quarterback Scott Tolzien led them to a Big Ten title and a narrow loss to TCU. Wilson, who already has his degree from North Carolina State, stepped into the program last June and led Wisconsin back to the hallowed turf his father always hoped he could reach.
His teammates were less awed by the Rose Bowl this time around. Wilson allowed himself to be amazed.
"I just thought about all the things I've been through in my life, and all the things that have happened to me in the past year, past two years," Wilson said. "I also thought about some of the sad things that have happened, with my dad passing away. I just feel like he'll be standing there, right on the 50-yard line, just watching me. It's going to be an incredible moment for me."
The Badgers will take the field against the Ducks on Monday with Wilson leading the way at the close of a stunningly successful season since he left minor league baseball to return to college football and a run at the Roses. The all-Big Ten quarterback has changed the college game in a small way, reaching incredible superlatives in just one season in offensive coordinator Paul Chryst's system.
"Russell is an exceptional human being, but the most impressive thing he's done is to fit into our system so well," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "He was smart enough and mature enough to know how to do it, and we had a system that was ready to plug in somebody. It's working out very well."
Bielema is being modest. Wilson entered bowl season second in the country in passing efficiency (191.6) behind Baylor's Robert Griffin III, with both men ranking ahead of the NCAA record-holder, Hawaii's Colt Brennan (186.0). Wilson already has set an NCAA record with a touchdown pass in 37 consecutive games, and the Rose Bowl will be the 50th start of his college career.
"I never could have imagined the experiences I've had this season," Wilson said. "First of all, being from Virginia, I would never have thought I would come to Madison, Wisconsin, of all places, but I did."
Wilson's father played football at Dartmouth and briefly suited up for the San Diego Chargers before becoming a lawyer, and he taught the game to his sons with daily predawn workouts throughout their childhood at their prep school in Richmond, Va. After several years of poor health, Harrison Wilson died of complications from diabetes on June 9, 2010 — one day after the Colorado Rockies drafted his son in the fourth round.
"I went home and saw him in Richmond and told him I got drafted, and then two hours later, he passed away right in front of my mom and I," Wilson said. "I know he'll be my king in this crowd at the Rose Bowl."
The Badgers didn't need long to figure out Wilson was the perfect man to lead them. Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball checked out Wilson on YouTube immediately when he heard about the quarterback's move to Madison, but the star tailback didn't really understand what the Badgers had until summer conditioning workouts.
"Just right off the bat, he was critiquing my routes," Ball said. "I was looking at him like I've been here for a little bit, but I just followed what he was telling me. He took me under his wing, and I believe he made me a better player overall."
Ball says Wilson further endeared himself to his teammates when he stood up in an early meeting and told his new teammates, "I'm here to get you guys to where you want to get." From then on, Ball and his teammates looked at Wilson as a team captain.
While his father will be on Wilson's mind throughout his preparation for the Rose Bowl, he'll spend more time making sure the Badgers are prepared to win the game they lost last season before he arrived. With everything Wilson has accomplished in one year, it's tough to bet against a quarterback living his father's dream.
"I think my competitive edge is unmatchable, for the most part," Wilson said. "You don't see it on the field in body language or anything, but I think I'm usually the most competitive person on the field."
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