SEATTLE — Back in the day, the competition between them was fierce but friendly. Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon, then the first- and second-string quarterbacks at North Carolina State University, respectively, competed each day during practice to see who could complete more passes, make longer throws and move the offense better.
Today, these two old college buddies will go at it again. This time, though, the competition will be all business.
Wilson and Glennon have graduated — Wilson to the Seattle Seahawks and Glennon to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — and their talent and good fortune will bring them together at CenturyLink Field, where they will star in one of the more unique quarterback battles the NFL has to offer.
“It’s a pretty cool experience,” Wilson said of playing in a game featuring two quarterbacks who were competing for snaps at the same school three years ago. “That doesn’t happen too often.”
It probably wouldn’t be happening today had Wilson not challenged then-N.C. State football coach Tom O’Brien and taken a run at a professional baseball career with the Colorado Rockies during the spring of 2011. As soon as Wilson, a second baseman chosen by the Rockies in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, left for spring training that year, O’Brien set in motion the string of events that led to today’s matchup.
Concerned about Wilson’s commitment to the Wolfpack football program and the fact he would miss spring workouts, O’Brien released the three-year starter from his N.C. State scholarship.
It was no easy decision. Wilson had just guided the Wolfpack through a 9-4 season in which he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in passing yards per game (274.1) and total offensive yards per game (307.5).
That made the move as controversial as it was curious, but O’Brien wasn’t all that concerned. He had Glennon waiting in the wings and was convinced Glennon could do as much for the Wolpack as Wilson.
“He’s always had a lot of intangibles,” O’Brien said of Glennon. “Nobody’s going to out-work him or out-study him, and nobody is going to compete harder than he does. And I knew that.
“And when you put all of that together with the God-given ability that he has — which you could see even when he wasn’t starting — I always thought he could be just as successful as Russell was.”
Glennon didn’t waste any time proving O’Brien right. In his first year as State’s starter, he completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,054 yards, 31 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Wilson, who transferred to the University Wisconsin before the 2011 season, was only a little better, completing 73 percent of his passes for 3,175 yards, 33 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The difference was in where the quarterbacks took their respective teams.
Glennon led the Wolfpack to an 8-5 season that included a Belk Bowl victory over Louisville. Wilson led Wisconsin to an 11-3 year that included a Big Ten title and a berth in the Rose Bowl, where his Badgers were beaten by Oregon.
Their careers have remained on somewhat parallel paths. Though it happened a year apart, each was drafted in the third round and became a starter in his rookie season.
The difference, again, is where they’ve taken their teams.
After leading the Seahawks to the second round of the playoffs last year, Wilson has guided Seattle to the top of this season’s NFC standings with a 7-1 record.
Glennon, meanwhile, is still looking for his first win after four NFL starts. But after throwing five touchdowns passes and one interception in his past three games, the Bucs believe that could come soon.
“It was very unique the way that whole situation (in college) went down, but it has ultimately worked out for both of us,” Glennon said. “It gave me the chance to start for two years, and that gave me an opportunity to get drafted.
“So, it really has worked out well, and we have stayed in touch through it all. He texted me ‘Congrats’ after I got the starter’s job here. And after I got drafted this year, I talked to him on the phone for about an hour, just trying to pick his mind about how he approached things last year.”
There was no picking of brains this past week, only two former college roommates picking on each other’s individual quirks as they told stories of their three years at N.C. State.
For example: “I heard (Glennon) made fun of my music earlier today,” Wilson said during a Wednesday conference call with Tampa reporters. “I think he said something about my jazz music. I don’t listen to jazz. I listen to oldies.”
Wilson quickly countered with a story about Glennon eventually buying into his college teammates’ penchant for calling him “Napoleon Dynamite’’ by dressing up as the movie character for Halloween one year.
“You’ll have to ask him for the pictures,’’ said Wilson, who otherwise didn’t have a sour word to say about his former teammate and competitor, describing Glennon as a “fun guy’’ and a “good football player.’’
Glennon offered a similar description of Wilson, saying he has a quirky sense of humor that isn’t always on display in public settings and a work ethic Glennon quickly found exemplary.
“He does all the little things the right way,’’ Glennon said. “When he’s in the weight room, his focus is solely on lifting. Once he leaves the weight room and gets to the meeting room, his focus is on getting better in that meeting room. And once he hits the practice field, it’s the same thing every single day. He’s focused on the task at hand and on making himself a better player — every day, every drill.
“The way he goes about his business, it really rubs off on people.”
O’Brien could see it rubbing off on Glennon long before he made Glennon his starter.
“Every day in practice they tried to one-up each other,” O’Brien said. “If one could do this, the other one was going to try to do it better, and I think that good, friendly competition (made them better).
“Michael knew he had to wait his turn (because) Russell was the guy. And Russell knew he was the guy, but he also knew he had this young guy behind him that was a pretty good football player. So, it was fun to watch them prepare.”
There was a serious side, as well. And as Glennon thought back on those daily battles with Wilson, he wondered if either would be where they are today without them.
“Russell used to say to me, ‘I want you to push me, because that makes me a better player,’ and I think we both felt that way,” Glennon said. “When he was out there, it was making me a better player because I saw what he could do.
“And then I was right on his feet, right there, trying to get that job from him. So, I think, ultimately, it made us both better players. And I think he would say the same thing.”