NEW YORK -- One day in 2009, Russell Wilson found himself addressing hundreds of students at St. Timothy's School in Raleigh, N.C.
The topic was bullying.
At the time, Wilson was the starting quarterback for NC State and a first-team All-ACC selection. Maura Horton, the wife of Wolfpack offensive line coach Don Horton, had invited Wilson to speak at St. Timothy's because the couple's daughter attended the school and a friend of the family who worked there wanted to be proactive in starting a dialogue about the harmful effects of bullying.
They all figured the amiable Wilson was the perfect guy to stand up and talk about doing the right thing. What they didn't know was that he also had a confession to make.
Turns out, Wilson had been a bit of a bully himself.
It sounds hard to believe for anyone who has followed Wilson's ascension to football's biggest stage. On Sunday, the 5-foot-11, second-year pro will lead the Seattle Seahawks against future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
But Maura Horton remembers watching all the kids that day at St. Timothy's as they listened with rapt attention to the young man whose ease and openness allowed him to immediately connect with his audience.
"We were surprised to learn what he said," Horton told espnW this week. "Russell doesn't seem like someone who ever could have behaved that way. But because of his honesty, the kids were blown away by him."
Wilson told the students that when he was younger he would sometimes be mean to his classmates on the playground because he thought that would make the "cool kids" like him more. It took a teacher pulling him aside one day for Wilson to realize there was nothing cool about taunting someone.
"You don't want to act like that," the teacher said, reminding Wilson that being good at sports wasn't a free pass for bad behavior. The message: Sports are fleeting, but words and deeds are permanent.
"Your actions stay with you forever," Wilson told the students, "so you want to make sure those actions are something you're proud of in the future."
The Horton family knows a thing or two about Wilson and meaningful actions. To them, he is a man whose awareness and sensitivity changed their lives.
About a year ago, Maura launched Magna Ready, a business inspired by an interaction between her husband and Wilson after NC State lost a road game during the 2009 season. Don Horton suffers from Parkinson's disease, although he had not told anyone on the team back then. Because of media obligations, Wilson was one of the last players getting dressed that day, and he noticed that Horton was struggling to button his shirt. The team bus was waiting outside, so the sophomore quarterback stopped what he was doing and, without saying a word, buttoned his coach's shirt.
When Don arrived home that night, he told his wife what had happened. He confessed his embarrassment and felt distraught that a layer of his independence had been stripped away. But an idea was born: magnetic buttons for dress shirts.
Maura Horton sent Wilson a handwritten thank-you note after hearing about his interaction with her husband. She says she believes Wilson's awareness in the locker room was heightened by what was happening in his own life as he watched his father's health decline. Harrison Wilson III died in June 2010 of complications from diabetes. Russell then transferred to Wisconsin after his junior season.
"Most players are focused on themselves after a loss," Maura Horton said. "It was just a brief moment, but his dad was sick at the time, and I think Russell had a higher sense; he was just one of those guys who got it."
Last summer, the Hortons and their two daughters visited Wilson at his passing academy in his hometown of Richmond, Va. At one point, the conversation turned to hopes and goals, and Wilson said he wants to win four Super Bowls. Unsure why he picked that number, Maura Horton went home and did a Google search, learning that if Wilson someday wins four titles he will tie Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the quarterbacks with the most Super Bowl rings.
During Wednesday's media availability in New Jersey, Wilson discussed his pursuit of greatness.
"If someone tells me no, I'm going to try to do the best I can to prove them wrong -- more for myself than anyone else," he said. "I'm a self-motivator. I believe that God has given me a sense of leadership to be able to motivate other people, but also myself. I want to be the best one day, and I'm not going to shy away from that. I've got a long ways to go, but I think, to be honest with you, God has put me here for a particular reason."
The way the Hortons see it, Wilson's legacy is already set.