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September 9, 2013

Tackling adversity

EMCC’s Russell working his way to a Division I offer

SCOOBA —     With offers from BCS powerhouses such as Alabama, Georgia, UCLA and UNC, Scooba was not high on East Mississippi linebacker Christian Russell's list of possible destinations coming out of high school — in fact, he didn't even know about junior college football.

    The Carolina native committed to UNC, his dream school, in July of 2010. Less than a year later those dreams were turned upside down.

     The hits started coming for the 6-1, 235-pound athlete during the end of his senior year at Westover High School as it became apparent he would not be able to qualify to play for the Tar Heels in the fall.

    Russell was soon guided toward Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, a prep school, where he would have the opportunity grow his game on the field while also boosting his grades in the classroom to become eligible. Despite adversity, Russell's plan was simple — one season, one semester, then back to Division-I football.

    A couple of weeks before he was due to report to Hargrave  that plan and everything else ceased to matter.

    Russell woke up to coaches and relatives outside his door the morning of Feb. 12, 2011. They later informed him his mother, Bridgette Russell, had been involved in an car accident while making a trip to Virginia. Hours later, his world came crashing down as he was notified of her passing.

    “After that I didn't feel like doing anything,” Russell said. “I didn't feel like playing football — I didn't feel like anything.”

    On the verge of giving up altogether, Russell came to a realization. He couldn't stop now — he owed that much to the women who taught him otherwise.

     “I was just like, I can put my head down and just quit right now, or I can get up and keep fighting until I get what I need to get done,” Russell said. “I knew I had to keep going. I knew if she was still here, that's what she would want me to do.”

    Picking himself back up, Russell enrolled at Hargrove. Playing running back and linebacker for the Cadets his stats stood out. His grades, however, did not. Once again Russell found himself short of the academic requirements of UNC.

    Not knowing what to do next, Russell turned to Hargrave head coach Troy Davis who introduced him, as well as fellow teammate Jarran Reed, to then EMCC defensive coordinator William Jones. Right away, Jones made it his mission to get the duo on board.

    “Originally, I was going to go to Gulf Coast Community College and play running back,” Russell said. “I was going to fly down to Gulf Coast on that Thursday, but Coach Jones really wanted me, so he came back down to see me on Tuesday.”

    The two talked at length about EMCC and how the school would be a perfect fit for Russell. The pitch worked and the defensive coordinator not only convinced Russell to flip to the Lions, but also to the outside linebacker position, something he had never played before. Jones would also receive a commitment from Reed as well.

    “If it wasn’t for Coach Jones, I’d be at Gulf Coast,” Russell said. “But, Coach Jones never let up the gas on me and kept talking with me. Thank God I did come here. It worked out well for me.”

    After tallying 75 tackles last year to lead the Lions, Russell is currently tied for the team lead this season with 15 in his first two games. This year, newly acquired defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley moved Russell back to middle linebacker due not only to his athletic ability but also his leadership skills.

    “When I first got here, I knew that’s the guy I wanted to be in there at that position,” Lesley said. “Not only the way he is physically, but also how the kids react to him as a leader. That’s the thing he has improved the most on, just being the guy for our defense.”

    During his two years at EMCC, Russell has also improved in the classroom, finally brining his grades to a qualifying level. The growth both on and off the field has reintroduced him to the possibility of playing Division-I football, as  Arkansas, Clemson, Duke, Georgia, Kansas State, Kentucky, Louisiana Lafayette and South Florida have all expressed interest recently.

    Russell plans to graduate from EMCC in December, and while he isn't sure where he will end up, he said he will always remember the road that brought him to where he is. It's that journey that has defined him.

    “When I’m out there on the field just playing football it’s not hard, because I have so much to play for,” Russell said. “When I’m out on the field, I put everything that I’m going through, my stress, my struggles, and I put it out on the field. It helps me out  knowing what all I have to play for.”

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