This story appears in the May 18, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
At lunchtime KeiVarae Russell bursts into a fish restaurant in Seattle and greets a stranger with a hug. Wearing a baggy gray hoodie and an easy smile, Russell sits at an oversized table and begins to speak. And speak. And speak. The syllables blur together as he leans in closer. “Every game you learn and grow,” he says, recalling a 41–30 loss to Michigan in September 2013, when he got burned for two touchdowns. “Even that game, the situation I went through, I wouldn’t take that back because I learned in life, you have to be what you aren’t to get to where you are. I thought I was better than I was, but Michigan exposed [me]. As that season went on, you saw me progress. Earlier in the year I had three touchdowns scored on me; the rest of the year I didn’t have a touchdown scored on me—[NBC analyst] Mike Mayock preaching I’m one of the best in the country. I thought I was one of the best, I was 19, 20 years old. False confidence. Michigan exposed that, and I really went to work and started training like a pro.”
Bouncing from first person to third and topic to topic, Russell’s thoughts rush out in 2,000-word sermons. Among the subjects he covers are his first carry in peewee football—a nearly 60-yard touchdown—and his career at Mariner High in Everett, Wash., where he was the first freshman to make varsity, was voted student body president and earned a 3.75 GPA. “Parents get proud moments,” says his mother, Yolanda Phillips. “I stayed in a proud moment with this guy.”
Russell then goes long on Notre Dame, where he arrived in 2012 as a tailback before switching positions in summer camp and becoming the first true freshman to open the season as a starting cornerback. That spring, he auditioned for and won a lead role in the campus production of Intimate Apparel. Russell says he held a 3.0 in marketing heading into his junior season, after which he was projected as an early-round NFL draft pick.
But last August school officials told Russell that he and three teammates couldn’t practice while the school looked into potential honor code violations for academic dishonesty. (A fifth player came under scrutiny two weeks later.) Two months of investigations and appeals ended with a two-semester suspension for Russell. He could have transferred or dropped down to FCS for a season, then declared for the draft, in which he was still likely to have been a middle-round pick. “When you go through something as important as almost getting football and a college degree stripped away from you,” he says, “you take a deep breath.”
If so, it might have been his first. When Russell finishes talking, it’s nearly 4:30 and his lobster macaroni-and-cheese has long since congealed.
vs. Boston College (in Boston)
It’s a bitter February day in snow-covered South Bend. Irish coach Brian Kelly forces a smile when the conversation drifts to academic issues. “I knew,” he says, “we were going to get here.”
Notre Dame has long prided itself on executing a tricky balancing act: running a successful athletic department within an elite academic institution. In 2014 the university’s graduation success rate ranked fourth among FBS programs, while the entire athletic department ranked No. 1. But Notre Dame has endured three major academic scandals in a two-year span. In the spring of 2013 quarterback Everett Golson, who led the Irish to an undefeated 2012 regular season, was dismissed for the upcoming season for something he termed “poor judgment” on a test. That winter point guard Jerian Grant left the men’s basketball team for a semester for what he called an “academic mistake.”
The school charged Russell and his four teammates with receiving illicit academic help from a former student trainer. Russell admits to getting “lazy” and “taking the easy way out,” but beyond that only says, “I didn’t cheat on a test. I didn’t pay people to do my homework.”
Russell’s involvement means that three prominent athletes on Notre Dame’s campus have been suspended over academics in the past two years. “When we recruit student-athletes, we have an obligation to provide them with the resources necessary,” Kelly says. “And if we don’t, then we have fallen short. And I think that in these instances, there’s culpability for everyone.”
Kelly wants the school to consider rethinking its approach. He says that, on average, his incoming freshman football class has a 2.8 GPA and a 24 on the ACT, while the median score for the rest of Notre Dame’s freshman class is 33. (The school does not track average GPA.) None of his newest recruits could have been admitted to the school on academic merit alone. Why then, he wonders, are most players on a path to graduate in 3 1⁄2 years—thanks to summer school requirements—when most Notre Dame students do so in four?
There’s a “church and state” separation between athletics and academics, but Kelly has reached out to athletic director Jack Swarbrick and president the Rev. John I. Jenkins about potential changes. He says “transformative conversations” are occurring on the academic side. “Are there other ways to do it?” Kelly asks. “Can we cut back on credit hours? Instead of taking 15 [the current practice to start a semester], can we take 12 and make it up in the summer? Are there other course offerings that could come about and be offered in lieu of a specific class? Those are conversations that had never taken place.”
Swarbrick is on board—to an extent. He acknowledges that the “gap issue” is more significant than when he attended Notre Dame in the mid-1970s, but he says it’s the “wrong narrative” to suggest that the recent high-profile suspensions are due to this gap. “These aren’t the only kids that had honor code violations at Notre Dame,” he says. “You’ll never know about the other ones. They tell their roommate they got mono, and they go home.”
In the spring of 2014, Swarbrick co-chaired a 17-member task force created to examine effective ways to support “at-risk student-athletes.” The takeaways proved more evolutionary than revolutionary, focusing on intensive individualized attention, a stronger summer bridge program, expansion of a writing and rhetoric tutorial, and faculty mentors. Faculty athletic representative Patricia Bellia, a law professor who was the task force’s other chair, says the process made the school realize it needs to take a “case management” approach to each student, with information pooled from trainers, assistant coaches, nutritionists and anyone close to them. “We’ve determined they can succeed [by admitting them],” she said. “How can we make that happen on an individual level? What kind of support and resources does that individual need?”
As the five players suspended last fall waited for the investigation and appeal to end, there was speculation that Kelly was so frustrated, he would leave for the NFL. Kelly claims the opposite, saying he and Swarbrick grew closer sorting through the suspensions. “We’ve done so many things here to put Notre Dame back in a position to compete nationally, and I kind of look at this as that last piece in making sure we’re taking care of our student-athletes,” he says. “It strengthened my resolve in, We’re going to get this right.”
On an unseasonably warm February afternoon in Kent, Wash., KeiVarae (pronounced key-VAR-ay) is sitting in his mother’s apartment. An open Bible rests on a living room shelf with Psalms highlighted in orange. A muted talk show plays on the TV, and KeiVarae’s one-month old niece, Kassidy, cries in another room as he once again holds forth. “The big motivation, deep down, is that I never wanted to be anything like my father,” he says of Keith Russell, who according to KeiVarae has had almost no role in his sons’ lives. “My ambition comes from something bigger than me. The reason why I work so hard, it’s to be something I want to be that’s better than just an athlete. I want to be a better father, son and brother.” That is why even though his mother and 25-year-old brother, also Keith, each dropped out of high school and later earned GEDs, KeiVarae instead became an exemplary student, winning awards for leadership and community service. “It just blew me away how he never even skipped a class in high school,” says Phillips. “That’s so unreal to me.”
All of which made last summer’s reality harder to accept. In August, a few days after the university informed Russell of the academic investigation, he visited Swarbrick, who attempted to persuade Russell to stick it out at South Bend regardless of where the investigation led. Swarbrick told Russell that the coaches would have named him a captain for 2014, the only player in the program assured of that honor. “I busted out crying, just bawling,” Russell says. “It was uncontrollable.”
As he tried to pull himself together, Russell flashed to the day, years earlier, that he had filled out his financial aid forms. When it came time to enter Phillips’s salary as an in-home nurse she gave him a number: $16,499. That led to revelations about his childhood: how his mother used food stamps to make ends meet but never let KeiVarae or Keith know; how they paid $49 a month for their apartment in the projects of Kent. “That’s poverty,” he says. “I’m living in poverty my whole life but never saw it, and at that moment I’m crying, I start thinking about all that like, I came through so much in my life and had a shot to be a captain at the University of Notre Dame as a true junior.”
The missed opportunity ate at Russell but made him more determined. He’d originally decided “to go to Notre Dame to grow,” he says, and this was his chance. So he took his punishment and went back to business.
He has moved in with his grandfather, Sylvester Phillips, a retired carpenter with a small, one-story house in Everett. Most days KeiVarae is out the door by 7:30 a.m. and returns after 8 p.m., filling his time with 15 credits at Everett Community College (he says he’s getting straight A’s); interning at Coast Real Estate, which manages 15,000 apartment units (“The best intern we’ve ever had,” says CEO Tom Hoban); and training six days a week at N-S Performance with former Oregon State defensive back Anthony Watkins.
Russell expects to return to Notre Dame in June, and although he’s been humbled, he still has the confidence that allowed him to slip seamlessly in and out of the locker room, the president’s office and the drama department. “There’s very few guys that I’ve coached here at Notre Dame,” Kelly says, “who can cut across all those lines very easily.” He also has the swagger to speculate that he’d have a 4.0 at Notre Dame if he didn’t play football and that he’ll “crush the combine.”
During his time away from South Bend he’s worked on toning his 195-pound, 6-foot frame. And he’s been working on his bench press, an exercise that’s featured at the NFL combine, where prospects show how many times they can lift 225 pounds. Russell is up to 16 but says, “Mark my words, KeiVarae Russell is getting 20 at the combine next year.” Only three corners reached 20 reps at this year’s combine, and only two ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds, which Russell did twice in February. (Watkins posted the video on Instagram.) Says Watkins, “He knows he’s a top guy, but he knows he has a lot of work to do.”
That knowledge is what will make Russell a top corner prospect in next year’s draft. It is why he plans to return to Notre Dame. “I still remember that day,” he says toward the end of his Michigan soliloquy. “Put me on an island. Let’s go. I get beat a couple of times, let’s go back again. I understand what it takes.”