Sitting in the gold and maroon private room in the Altria Theater with 99 other Collegiate students on the evening of Saturday, April 2, the anticipation and excitement was almost palpable. We whispered energetically and stole hurried looks at the door when anyone happened to enter the room, easily showing our eagerness to see our special guest. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only ten minutes, the time had finally arrived. The first to enter was a massive security guard, who filled the entire door frame with his size and black suit. Next followed a slender and elegant Ciara, who wore a stunning red dress. However, she was not the individual we were waiting for. The last and most celebrated guest to walk through the door caused everyone in the room to crane their necks to achieve a greater view. The man himself, and perhaps the most well known Collegiate alum, Russell Wilson had finally arrived.
One of the first things I noticed about Russell is that he has a certain aura about him– one of confidence and surety. From the very moment he walked into the room, all attention was fixated on him. It was as if there was a
certain pull towards him. After being introduced by Matty Parhen (17’), he proceeded to walk around the room and hug the teachers he had when he attended Collegiate, including English teachers Dr. Linda Rouse (Upper School) and Weldon Bradshaw (Middle School). To commemorate Russell’s accomplishments, students Ahrea Jones (17’) and Will Allocca (16’) presented him with a golden football that Collegiate received from the NFL, given to all high schools who had a player compete in a Super Bowl, in honor of its 50th anniversary.
After the formalities and a group picture, we began to settle in. With the same amount of professionalism and enthusiasm he brings to post-game press conferences, Wilson began to address us, talking about his career as well as his life at Collegiate. He specifically focused on how he began to set his goals and “see the bigger picture” when he entered the ninth grade.
Afterwards, he opened the floor to questions, allowing us to pick his brain on anything we liked. The first question came from Zack Hunnicutt (19’) as he asked, “How do you define success?” Russell began to answer this question adeptly and without pause. He explained that winning is crucial and key in sports, and that having a positive attitude as well as a positive outlook on life helps spawn success. I had the opportunity to pose the second question, and I asked Russell to expand upon how his relationship with his father helped shape who he is today. He elaborated that his father made sure to push him hard in school, and that his dad always asked him questions about what Russell wanted to be and how he would accomplish those things. “My dad told me I’d be a Super Bowl quarterback, and I believed it!” A brave young fourth grader, Will S. (’24), asked how Russell “managed social media,” to which he responded, “Surrender and surround. Surrender to your cause, and surround yourself with people who share your vision.”
After answering our questions, Russell then proceeded to leave our private room and go to the main event of the night, onstage with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an extremely accomplished African American intellectual, professor, literary critic, and filmmaker. Specializing in African American studies, he served as co-host and producer of African American Lives, a televised show on PBS where he researched the genealogy and ancestors of prominent African American individuals, and on the show he reveals his results to them.
Deciding to expand his guests and his audience, he began a series called Finding Your Roots: With Henry Louis Gates, Jr., where he researches the ancestry and genealogy of well-known figures, usually celebrities. Russell and Dr. Gates collaborated together on the Altria Theater stage to perform the first live edition of Finding Your Roots.
After the national anthem, performed by Olivia Laskin (17’), preceded by a performance by the Collegiate Upper School Jazz Band, Russell and Dr. Gates settled onstage. Before delving into his genealogy and extended family, Dr. Gates asked Russell questions about his parents, as well as his decision to play football over basketball. When Russell responded to these questions, he remarked that at his mom’s advice he picked a piece of scripture from the Bible to lean on, Matthew 6:33, to support him through all of his endeavors. One of the most striking questions of this exchange was when Dr. Gates asked Russell how it felt to be only the second African American quarterback to win the Super Bowl, to which Russell responded, “My parents didn’t raise me on race, and my dad never said I would be an African American quarterback. I’m just a quarterback. Race or anything else doesn’t matter in the huddle. It’s just to win.”
Dr. Gates handed Russell his “Book of Life,” which included pages that held various clippings and photographs of his ancestors. I was shocked at the thoroughness of Dr. Gates’ research and the amount of depth that he was able to achieve in his work. Tracing Russell’s lineage back into the age of slavery, Dr. Gates managed to uncover Russell’s great great grandfather John, who was one of 20 children, and sold as property for $1000. In addition, Russell was related to an African American who served a Union colonel in the Civil War. Adding to his already diverse and unbelievable lineage, his four-times-great grandparents lived in Jerusalem, Virginia and were contemporaries of Nat Turner, the infamous leader of a slave rebellion.
One of the most remarkable of Russell’s ancestors was named Lucinda Southgate, who was the daughter of a white man and a black woman in the beginning of the 19th century, to which Russell commented, “That’s some tricky stuff.” However, the most excited and animated Russell was the whole night was when Dr. Gates revealed that he was related to Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, and other royalty from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Referring specifically to his DNA, Dr. Gates revealed to Russell that he had approximately 60% of African heritage, originating from various tribes. Not only was this information interesting, but Russell and Dr. Gates let their personalities show during the event. Their banter was humorous and vibrant, and it was a great opportunity to see Russell under the spotlight in an area that was different than the sports that he is always associated with.
When asked his impressions of the evening, Andrew Cooke (’18) commented that his favorite part of the forum was having the opportunity to talk to Russell privately. “It was nice being able to talk to Russell alone, and have the ability to ask him our own questions.” However, Cooke reflected that the two things that will always resonate with him will be the handing of the golden football, and the showing of Russell’s family. “It was intriguing,” he says. Cooke also stated that in addition to the engaging forum, “It was amazing to see Ciara only ten feet away from me.” However, the forum experience was not limited to simply enjoyment for Cooke, but it was educational as well. “I learned a lot about genetics, and how far it is possible to trace your ancestors,” he said thoughtfully, “I also learned about the importance of ancestry and having knowledge of your ancestors.” When asked if his view of Russell had changed after this event, Cooke responded, “I would have to say a little bit. I knew that Russell was very hardworking, but it was very interesting to see how his ancestors fought for their own freedom. Hard work runs in the family.”
Grant Villanueva’s (’17) favorite part of the forum was listening to Dr. Gates and Wilson while being able to learn about Russell’s lineage as well. Specifically regarding the private time with Russell Wilson, Villanueva enjoyed viewing the connections between people, such as “Seeing his teacher’s faces light up, and the mutual respect and friendship between the people and teachers he knew in the past.” The most memorable aspect of the forum for Villanueva was learning about Russell’s ancestor Lucinda, as she “valiantly fought for her freedom.” While at the forum, it gave him the opportunity to see Russell in a different light. “Normally you get the same thing every time you see him,” says Villanueva, “but at the forum he seemed more comfortable, it seemed like you were getting the real Russell.” After seeing Dr. Gates, it helped Villanueva, “understand what a miracle your life is,” he says. “If one aspect of your ancestry or lineage changed, so would your whole life, maybe you wouldn’t have been born.”
All photos courtesy of Collegiate School.