Throughout his two decades in Major League Baseball, Russell Nua has worked closely with some of the sport’s biggest stars, treating figures like the long and lanky Randy Johnson to the aptly nicknamed David Ortiz. It doesn't take a certain body type to succeed in baseball, a fact Nua knows first-hand. A life of healing has made him comfortable with all of them.
The six-foot, 215-pound Hawaiian of Samoan descent says he was one of the first, if not the very first, full-time massage therapists in MLB, joining the Arizona Diamondbacks in the early 2000s. Now with the Red Sox, he is undoubtedly the winningest in the industry, claiming five World Series in the last 20 years between his stints in Arizona and Boston. As Nua speaks one early April afternoon, it’s hard not to feel his calm demeanor. His voice is soothing and his manner is serene. “It’s about helping a player understand what he can do for his body and for his mind,” he says.
At 70-years-old, his experience is invaluable. Still, he is learning. “It’s unlimited in what you can do to help people,” he says of the holistic method. Nua heals, enlightens and wins. His five championship rings only reaffirm his impact—one ring for every other finger on his all-important hands.
Movement was central to Nua’s childhood. Born in Hawaii, his family relocated to California when he was just five-years-old. Throughout his youth, he learned martial arts, played football and developed an interest in dance. At College of the Desert, he also participated in team synchronized swimming.
He had always been interested in baseball—“it was a dream to work in it,” he says—but it wasn’t until the mid 1980s, when his son, Jed, was born, that he looked more closely at a job in sports. It was then that his wife, Georgia, recommended he go to massage school. And it was there, at a school in both Riverside and the Desert Resorts School of Somatherapy, that he realized he could apply holistic medicine to athletics.
In the early 1990s, Nua sent out his resume to MLB teams, but received no takers. A friend, however, knew of an MLB player in need of treatment, giving Nua an inroad to the sport. It was veteran outfielder Willie Wilson who enlisted Nua’s private services after signing with the Athletics in December of 1990.
Wilson soon recommended Nua to pitcher Mike Morgan, and the massage therapist went on to work with Morgan for eleven years. When Morgan joined the Diamondbacks in 2000, Nua was given the chance he had trained for. He says initially, “nobody knew what a massage could do,” but that over time—first privately and then in a full-time capacity—he demonstrated how the therapy could help make players stronger and more mentally focused.
Pitcher Curt Schilling had never had massage therapy before working with Nua, the Hawaiian says. He recalls going to Schilling’s house during their first spring training together, where Schilling’s four kids were making so much noise you “couldn’t even hear the doorbell ring.” Nua worked on each of Schilling’s kids before treating the pitcher. “You could hear a pin drop in that house” after the kids’ time had finished, Nua recalls. His immediate calming presence was the start of what was a prosperous relationship. And each day between starts during the 2001 postseason, the silver-haired, ponytailed Nua gave Schilling a full-body massage. “Mo Man has been pitching for 23 years and never ices his arm,” Schilling told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci in 2001. “That’s good enough for me. After a couple of days with Russell, I felt great.”
While Johnson’s nearly seven-foot stature could scare opposing hitchers, Nua had a similarly calming impact on the Big Unit and his family. Often Nua would visit Johnson’s house and first work on the pitcher’s children. Working on Johnson’s daughter, Willow, the five-time Cy Young award winner would frequently march towards the table only to wake up his daughter. Willow would open her eyes. “This is my time,” she would say to her father.
After working privately with many of the Diamondbacks throughout the 2000 season, Nua joined Arizona’s full-time staff in 2001, when the franchise won it's first and only championship. He was with Arizona until the end of the 2004 regular season, when Schilling, then on the Red Sox, reached out to the therapist. “I think you can help our team,” the six-time All-Star said ahead of Boston’s postseason run. Nua spent the postseason with the club, treating players as the Red Sox broke their 86-year title drought.
Longtime Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek was “like a rock,” Nua recalls. Reliever Keith Foulke had the “biggest calves,” the therapist has ever seen. The fiery Pedro Martinez often needed therapy on his jaw, as Nua taught the Red Sox’s ace that loosening up his jaw muscles sparked a beneficial chain reaction throughout the rest of his body. Ortiz would enter the clubhouse and give everybody hugs. “Just let me know when you need me to give you your therapy,” Nua would say to him. Big Papi would go seemingly every day.
Boston’s massage therapist often beats players to the ballpark, showing up at 10:30 a.m. for 7 p.m. night games. He treats coaches in the morning before spending the rest of his day—and night—helping players. There are no formal lists, just frequent requests. He watches most games in the training room or clubhouse, treating around 10 players a day. He is unaffected by the long hours and constant travel.
“That’s what we signed up for,” Nua says. “That’s how you become a winner.”
He has won so much that after Boston’s fourth championship this century, a group of private body workers in the Atlanta-area started calling Nua, “Lord of the Rings.” Still, Nua deflects credit away from himself. “We all have a position, and it takes all of those people to be successful,” he says. It’s being part of a team that he finds most rewarding.
While he says his career in MLB will end in the next few years, Nua says he feels “really blessed and fortunate to do what I’ve done.” Many of his patients would seemingly echo that sentiment.