published Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Wiedmer: Not everyone in town is pulling for Peyton Manning

  • photo
    Denver quarterback Peyton Manning listens to a question during media day for Super Bowl XLVIII. He follows a record-setting regular season with a chance for his second NFL title.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A few days ago a dear friend invited Rayburn and Bonita Traughber to a Super Bowl party. They politely declined.

"We just couldn't go where everybody else was rooting for Peyton [Manning]," Bonita said with a laugh. "Of course, that's probably just about everybody in Tennessee."

It's not that the Traughbers have anything against Manning or his Denver Broncos. They actually like him. But Manning isn't family. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is Bonita's cousin.

"I've actually only met Russell once," said the woman her friends know as Bonnie. "But his [late] father, uncle and I grew up together and his uncle and I still keep in touch."

Bonita Traughber isn't your average football fan, regardless of the reasons for her allegiance to Wilson's Seahawks in Sunday's Super Bowl. She is the daughter of the late Tennessee State football coaching legend John Merritt, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

And that's where the bond with the Wilsons took hold. The wives of Russell Wilson's grandfather, Harrison Wilson Jr., and Merritt were sisters.

"We actually all lived in connecting apartments at Jackson State," Bonita recalled. "Harrison Wilson won 72 percent of the basketball games he coached there. My father was the football coach at Jackson State for 10 years before he got the chance to go to TSU."

She's not the only member of the Traughber family to have a significant connection to a current NFL roster. Rayburn counts Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Justin Blalock as a cousin. And while Wilson may never have visited Chattanooga, Blalock came here often as a child to visit his late grandparents Juanita and Jose Love.

"He'd come from Texas and spend a week or so here each summer," Rayburn said. "To show what kind of person Justin is, when he signed with the Falcons out of the University of Texas, he set up the Blalock Foundation. The foundation has made numerous donations to our church, Second Missionary Baptist on Third Street. Money for youth ministry, for seniors. He's helped a lot of people."

In last year's NFC divisional playoff round, Wilson and the Seahawks visited Blalock's Falcons at the Georgia Dome. Because their oldest son, Merritt, got a skybox for the game, and much of Blalock's family was in the box, Bonita attempted to be neutral. She even wore a black and blue outfit -- black for the Falcons and blue for the Seahawks.

And as long as Atlanta cruised, everything was fine. Then Seattle roared back, eventually taking the lead, which excited one of Wilson's uncles but made for a testy skybox.

"Rayburn's cousin got upset and [Wilson's uncle] had to leave," she said of the game the Falcons won in the final seconds.

Because Santa failed to make good on her Christmas wish for a No. 3 Seahawks jersey like the one Wilson wears, Bonita has decided her only demand for Sunday is "no company. I'll be glued to the TV screen. Just me and my husband."

Nor is Wilson her only rooting interest on the Seahawks. Wide receiver Golden Tate -- the former Notre Dame collegian from Hendersonville, Tenn. -- is the son of Golden Tate Jr., who played for her father at TSU. Beyond that, Tate's grandmother and Bonita's mom coached women's basketball together at the university.

Yet while Ms. Traughber, a retired teacher at Howard High School, is clearly pulling for Seattle, she is equally quick to point out that Denver defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is also a Tennessee State product.

"I still go to Tennessee State games whenever I can," she said.

We all know the Manning clan. The First Family of Southern football. But Rayburn Traughber presents a pretty impressive profile of the Wilson family. Russell's grandfather became president of Norfolk State University after his time at Jackson State.

When Russell's father, Harrison III, wanted to play professionally after an outstanding football and baseball career at Dartmouth, his father pushed him to get a law degree first. Three years later, law degree in hand, Harrison III caught a game-winning touchdown pass in a San Diego Chargers preseason game but was cut the next week.

Said Traughber, "There's great tenacity in the Wilson family."

Most believe the Seahawks' Wilson will need more than tenacity to defeat Manning's Broncos. And Traughber is certain his wife will do her part for her cousin.

"Oh, she'll be screaming and jumping and hollering," he said.

But should it all go the wrong way, Bonnie Traughber insisted, "I'm not going to be mad at Peyton if the Seahawks lose."

Her father would have expected nothing less.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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