Nov. 3, 2015
By Curt Rallo
By KeiVarae Russell’s account, it took two weeks for him to smile again.
Exiled to his home in Seattle, Washington by a suspension from the University of Notre Dame, Russell, an All-American candidate at cornerback for the Fighting Irish football team, sank into a pool of despair, engulfed by doubt and anger, pained by the separation from school and his teammates.
“I was distraught at times,” Russell says of a ruling that kept him off the football field for the entire 2014 season. “Sorrow was deep in my heart.”
Two weeks into what would be a year suspension from the University, the Notre Dame cornerback drew on family and faith, forging a steely resolve to shine brightly, rather than corrode with bitterness.
Now, Russell is back in the classroom, and back on the field for the Fighting Irish, heart soaring as he continues crafting his legacy in a shining light.
“I didn’t know the answers, but I knew for a fact that I was going to get through it,” Russell says. “I didn’t know how, but I was confident that I was going to get through it. I prayed to God, just allow me to see the light in the darkness. I didn’t pray to get out of the situation. I asked to see the light in the darkness.”
Russell’s grandfather, Sylvester Phillips, saw his grandson emerge from the darkness stronger and more mature.
“We had a talk about not taking it the wrong way, not getting an attitude about this, that there was a reason for this,” Phillips says of how Russell dealt with his year away from the Irish. “I told him to continue what you have planned. After a couple of weeks, he got back in the swing of things, doing his training, and then he got a little job. After a while, he started standing taller. He realized how good he had it, and he couldn’t wait to get back.
“He learned a lot from this situation. It might have been a blessing in disguise. I won’t say he needed it, but he grew from it. He handled it the right way. A lot of other people may have had a different attitude and done some stupid stuff. He didn’t do that. He stood tall and was determined to go back to Notre Dame and show them the person he really is.”
Russell, who started in all 26 games as a freshman and sophomore, ached to pursue a Notre Dame degree, be immersed in the nurturing Notre Dame culture, and put on the gold Notre Dame football helmet again. He chased away any of the inner demons suggesting an early entry to the National Football League, or a transfer.
“I missed an entire year of school away from this precious school, and the game I’ve been playing for years,” says the senior cornerback from Everett, Washington. “I understand myself a lot more. In a tough situation, I took it one as an exciting challenge for me. I was tested. I found out what I was made of.
“I didn’t transfer. I didn’t declare for the draft. When family and friends, media looked at me, I wanted them to see a kid who has been through something, but got through it the right way. The mark they see on me isn’t that I left after a mistake. The mark I want them to see on me is, yeah, the kid messed up, but the kid also did all this to get back. That's the kid we like. I wanted that image. I knew I was that kind of person.
“The story wouldn’t match if I declared for the NFL. That story doesn’t match KeiVarae Russell at all. I wanted to be the author of my own story. I didn’t want other people to write my story.”
Russell’s position coach at Notre Dame, former Irish national champion Todd Lyght, says that Russell faced his adversity and displayed strong resolve in returning to Notre Dame.
“KeiVarae faced some very tough adversity,” Lyght says. “That’s what you do when you come to the University of Notre Dame, when you grow up and you learn to become a man.
“You’re going to face adversity. There are going to be hard times. There are going to be tough times. You have to be able to push through that.
“I think that he's done a great job. He recognizes what he did wrong. He’s atoned for that. Now, he’s come back, and all he wants to do is help this team win in any way that he can.”
Russell says he refused to shy away from the test of character.
“I embraced the suspension,” says the management consulting major. “I wanted to know if I was charismatic, or if I was humble. Was I resilient, and could I get through this?
“I know I made a mistake, but one mistake doesn’t define me from all of the things I’ve done, all of the lives I’ve impacted, and all the people I’ve built close relationships with. I now understand that I am resilient. I have testimony for that. I’ve experienced it.”
Russell threw himself into workouts while away, and started earning money to pay his way back to Notre Dame, and test a career in real estate.
“I’ve always been future-oriented,” Russell says. During my suspension, I went home and worked in real estate. I thought it might be something I want to do in my future. I always have a plan. I’m always trying to think about the future. That’s why we come to Notre Dame. That’s why I came to Notre Dame, to build connections. When I’m 45 years old, 50 years old, I want connections that can help me in my future. I didn’t come to Notre Dame to satisfy me now. I came to Notre Dame to satisfy me down the road. That’s when I’m going to need the degree and need the people I’ve met here.”
Now, Russell’s focus is on school, and football.
“KeiVarae came back wanting to play cornerback, and we moved him inside to play nickel, because of his athleticism and his physical prowess,” Lyght says. “He’s done a good job at the nickel position. He got his first sack, caused a fumble in the Virginia game. He’s done a good job of covering the receivers on the outside. Taking a year off and coming back and playing college football at a high level is a very tough thing to do, but I think you’re going to see an ascending player from here on out.”
At 5-11 and 196 pounds, Russell is thrilling Irish fans and impressing NFL scouts with his play.
“This season, I’m definitely having a lot more fun than I’ve ever had, but not as much fun as I should be having, because I’m not playing the way I’d like to be playing,” Russell says. “I’m making plays, but I’m missing some opportunities, too. A year off … I’m trying to get back in the swing of things.
“I’m playing well, but I feel like I’m an elite athlete. I need to play better. I’m my biggest critic. But I’m enjoying and cherishing the opportunity to be back at Notre Dame.”
Russell’s fire for football has always burned brightly.
“Even at the age of two, I loved football,” Russell says. “My Mom and Grandmother had to record football games to show me, because after the season ended, I still wanted to see football. I wanted to see it in March, April and May. I’d be bummed out.
“They would record games and play them throughout the spring and summer. I’d be fine watching the same games over and over until the next season started. I have pictures of me being a newborn holding a football. I think I was always destined to play football. I’ve always loved the game.”
This season, Russell has been a lock-down artist, putting the brakes on opposing offenses with blanket coverage on intended receivers.
“For me, I love to see when a receiver is frustrated,” Russell says. “I’m a big press guy. A lot of teams tend to bunch up on my side. If you send out one receiver against me, I’m just going to press him up all day and disrupt him, so a lot of teams bunch up on my side. That’s exciting for me. That shows a little respect.
“I’ve been working a lot of playing off and switch routes, because teams don’t want me pressing up. For me, it’s exciting to see the frustration on a receiver’s face, when the ball isn’t thrown his way, or if it is thrown his way, I’m just mugging him. It’s hilarious. It’s exciting for me.”
Russell says that he is grateful that Notre Dame has allowed him the opportunity to enhance his character.
“Notre Dame’s mission statement is basically to help you grow and become a better individual,” Russell says. “With Notre Dame giving me a second opportunity, that holds strong weight to what they’re trying to do. They didn’t have to give me a second opportunity. They could have dismissed me for good. They told me straight up, you can come back in June. We’ll welcome you with open arms. You can re-apply.
“With that opportunity to come back to go to school, to play with my teammates again, after I violated a policy … I have the utmost respect for a university that accepts someone back who violated something that they hold strong. They’re helping me become a better person. With this second chance, they’re allowing me to grow. That’s what I respect the most about this university. They take pride in helping a person grow. I’m proud to be here.
“It’s exciting to be able to go through a tough time in your life, and be able to push through it, and know that the ending is even better. Playing Notre Dame football with these guys, on this team … that’s why I came back, for this feeling, to play for Notre Dame, to try to win a national championship.”