Before he was an NFL star, his dad asked him a simple question. It changed everything.
'If you reach for the stars, you never know how far you’re going to get.'
When Russell Wilson was growing up, his dad would often ask him, "Where are you now?"
"He'd say, 'Russ, you're 17, where are you now?,' or 'You're 25, where are you now?' or 'You're 35, where are you now?'" recalls Wilson.
The hypothetical questions were meant to encourage him to write his own story, to make him really think about what he wants to be doing and how he's going to be making a difference.
Russell Wilson in high school with his dad. Image via Russell Wilson, used with permission.
And while those prompts definitely inspired Wilson, it was another favorite question of his dad's that helped him craft his future: "Why not you?"
That question became his driving motivation, inspiring him to achieve his dreams no matter what obstacles were in his way.
Wilson playing for the Seattle Seahawks. Image via Larry Maurer/Wikimedia Commons.
It led him all the way to starting quarterback for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. But that's just one of many things Wilson's already achieved in his young life. He played football and baseball for North Carolina State University and even played in the minor leagues before transferring to the University of Wisconsin in 2011. There, he set the Football Bowl Subdivision record for passing efficiency and led the team to a Big 10 title in 2012.
He was picked up by the Seahawks in the 2012 NFL Draft and named Rookie of the Year that same year. One year later, he was leading them to their first Super Bowl win.
And even though his father was no longer around to see him accomplish such incredible goals, his encouragement lives on in Wilson.
Now, Wilson is taking his father's message and using it to propel kids all over the world forward through his nonprofit Why Not You.
"It’s the question we all have to ask ourselves," says Wilson.
Image via Russell Wilson, used with permission.
The foundation's mission is simple — empower change in the world one individual at a time and one child at a time.
It starts with reminding kids they have the power to break through their individual glass ceilings. And yes, that includes his own kids.
"I want to encourage my kids to go places they never thought they could go," says Wilson. "Encourage them to dream bigger than they ever thought they could."
He started Why Not You in 2014, and since then, the foundation has donated millions of dollars to organizations that align with his mission, including Strong Against Cancer and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
However, what's most inspiring is the work Wilson's done on the ground to give back and lift kids up.
Wilson visiting a patient at Seattle Children's Hospital. Image via Russell Wilson, used with permission.
In 2015, he visited Seattle Children's Hospital every Tuesday, sometimes bringing gifts for the kids being treated.
One kid in particular made a profound impression on Wilson. Milton Wright III was diagnosed with leukemia three times before he was 20, and when Wilson met him, he had essentially been given a death sentence. Wright's doctors told Wilson the young man's only shot of getting better was to try T-cell immunotherapy, but Wright felt hopeless and not motivated to proceed with treatment.
So Wilson went to Wright and told him how his dad was days away from dying, but he refused to give up. He kept on fighting, and eventually came out of a coma and lived for another two years.
After hearing that, Wright agreed to try T-cell immunotherapy, and the treatment miraculously put him on the road to remission. "Within two weeks, he was cancer free," says Wilson.
It's stories like Wright's that remind Wilson he's making a difference, thanks to the strength his dad's simple question gave him.
Image via Russell Wilson, used with permission.
But it's these kids' stories that compel him to keep moving the needle forward now. It's why he's going to be wearing cleats with the aspirations of six different kids from Seattle Children's Hospital printed on them for NFL's initiative My Cause My Cleats during week 13 of the season.
As for his foundation's future, Wilson says the horizon is endless in terms of what he hopes and knows they can accomplish. Based on how far he's already come, thanks to unforgettable familial support, the impact will likely be significant.
It just goes to show how important it is to tell your children that their potential is limitless. Or as Wilson's dad put it:
"If you reach for the stars, you never know how far you’re going to get."
Russell Wilson is one of more than 750 NFL players who will lace up for charitable causes as part of the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats initiative. Starting Nov. 28, 2017, NFL players will reveal their custom cleats, many of which will be auctioned to raise money for the charitable organizations they support. For more information, visit www.nfl.com/mycausemycleats.