The football season at North Carolina State could not have ended worse, as the Wolfpack lost their final eight games to finish the season winless in ACC play and 3-9 overall under first-year head coach Dave Doeren.
Doeren ended up signing a top-25 recruiting class a few months later but, like most rebuilding projects, it’s going to take time.
So it doesn’t hurt to have influential alums like a Super Bowl-winning quarterback (Russell Wilson) or the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NFL Draft (Mario Williams) supporting that program reconstruction.
N.C. State football alums participated in the festivities surrounding the 2014 Kay Yow Spring Game, and some — including Wilson and Williams — spoke to the media after the alumni flag football game.
Williams can’t always watch N.C. State play football — living in Buffalo, he doesn’t always get the correct channel, and sometimes he’s in meetings or practice or traveling — but he likes how things are progressing in the Doreen era, struggles and all.
"I think he’s a great coach. I like the way he communicates. I think that’s the biggest thing is the way he talks to people, not just as football but as a people’s person, just out and about or walking around campus. I think that’s very important.
"I’m really ecstatic, I’m really excited about seeing the changes that he’s going to bring here and get this program back in the right direction."
Irving was asked if he had "forgiven" Wilson, his former teammate, for the Super Bowl defeat.
"No," Irving said, straight-faced, shaking his head. "No. I said ‘Hey’ to him. That’s it. I’m still not over that one. I’m a sore loser."
Both said it was, in a sense, surreal to be playing on opposite sides of the field in such a big moment, but during the game itself, it was Wilson who broke the tension early on.
As they broke their respective huddles, Wilson and Irving walked over to each other and laughed. Wilson informed Irving he was going to throw it at him, who scoffed at the notion.
"And sure enough, I did," Wilson said, shaking his head and laughing. "(Jermaine Kearse) caught it and (Irving) knocked it out — barely. So he got me on that one. Sometimes I joke around with guys like that, but I actually did throw it to him. He was in my read, so it kind of ironically worked perfectly."
Wilson was in town to have his N.C. State jersey honored, as well (haftime ceremony), just the latest in a whirlwind offseason for the 25-year-old polished quarterback.
But he valued that part most of all.
Wilson made a lot of promises and set a lot of goals, both for himself and his father (who passed away when Wilson was a student-athlete in Raleight); and he has tried his best to fulfill them all.
But as a two-star quarterback coming out of Virginia who had been told ‘no’ far too many times to count, it was a bolder prediction than anyone would have known at the time.
"I remember coming down to N.C. State and seeing all the jerseys in the stadium. I’ll never forget, I was there with my brother and my dad and just telling them that my goal was to be the next quarterback to be up on that board, up on the wall," Wilson said.
"I’ll never forget that. So to be where I am today is truly special. I love N.C. State. It’s been a great opportunity for me to go here and graduate from here."
Wilson ultimately left Raleigh when he was unable to decide entering his final season of eligibility whether he wanted to commit full-time to football and give up his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player.
Former N.C. State head coach Tom O’Brien wanted Wilson to commit full-time to football, and if he had stayed with Wilson as the Wolfpack starter (under those conditions), he might have lost Wilson’s backup, Mike Glennon (currently the starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
So O’Briend had to make a decision, and ultimately he went with Glennon. Wilson went on to become a Heisman candidate at Wisconsin, leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl … and the rest is history.
Wilson is still remembered very fondly by Wolfpack fans, most of whom wish he had stayed but understood why he left. And he returns the favor by at times introducing himself on primetime NFL games as being from "A Whole Pack of Badgers" — reflecting both his NC State (Wolfpack) roots and his Wisconsin roots.
He remembers how much the Wolfpack fans loved him then, and appreciates how much they love him now.
But what Wilson really valued was how much he had to grow up as he took 18 credit hours a semester while playing football and basketball, and while his father was fighting a battle with diabetes that he would ultimately lose in June 2010.
"I would have to drive all the way back home to see my dad late at night sometimes and be up all night with 18 credits, plus playing football and baseball. I just was mentally tough, and I had those people to continue to push me and be there for me," Wilson said.
"Leaving N.C. State was tough for me. It was one of those things where I wanted to play all four years here, finish my career and win an ACC championship. The plans kind of changed a little bit so I had to move on, but at the same time, this school will never leave me.
"It’s one of those things that I grew up here. I was like a little puppy and just kind of continued to grow throughout the years. This school has meant a lot to me and has really inspired my life, and I want to keep going."
Wilson has been anywhere and everywhere in the offseason, making an appearance at a Texas Rangers spring-training workout in March and filming a cameo in the upcoming ‘Entourage’ movie.
But he hasn’t lost focus on the things that truly matter to him — faith and football. After the spring game, Wilson planned on flying to California to train with the Seahawks’ wide receivers, tight ends and running backs.
And no matter where he is, Wilson makes a point to wake up no later than 6 a.m. to get a workout to start the day.
"It’s been a great whirlwind. It’s been one of those things where I’ve been able to stay focused on training every day. I’m in great shape right now physically and mentally. I’m just really looking forward to having another great year," Wilson said.
"I’m an early-morning type person … So, no matter where I go — if I’m in L.A. or Seattle or when I was in Texas, I make sure that I went up and got up early and worked out for a good three hours or so. That’s just kind of my thing. It gets my day started right."
Obviously, that works for both Doeren and the former players.
"He’s getting his players in to run the system that he wants to run, and I think it’s going to be a pretty good system for this school. He’s a great coach," Irving said.
"Off the field, I talk to him a lot, text him and see him at basketball games whenever I come back. He does a good job of making us feel welcome enough to come back here, us former players. He always has that door open, and I appreciate that. I think he’s going to do a good job here."