It's mid-June, the sun is glinting off the aluminum bleachers in
deserted Folsom Field, and Matt Russell, Colorado's All-America
linebacker, is half-a-year removed from his last football game.
But he looks as if he just played eight quarters against
Nebraska. Angry red scratches stand out on his thick right arm
as he absentmindedly dabs a few fingers beneath one nostril and
explains, "Just checking for blood." Two nights earlier he had
been teasing his 26-year-old brother, Randy, about being an old
man when--"BOOM!" Matt says with a laugh--Randy, a former
linebacker at Arkansas, caught him with a forearm shiver to the
Now Matt is rubbing his swollen nose, which is red and bent a
little to the right. "He broke it," Russell says, laughing again.
Not even a freshly broken nose can squelch the inspiration
Russell gets the next day when he parks his black Jeep in front
of his Boulder apartment and Nate Chine, his best friend from
high school, climbs out the other side of the vehicle. Chine,
who played linebacker at Air Force after starting beside Russell
at Belleville East (Ill.) High, makes the mistake of turning his
back. Russell takes a two-step running start and--"BANG!"--his
blindside hit sends Chine flying into the screen door. The
screen explodes out and clatters on the ground like a pot lid.
Chine and Russell exchange startled looks. They look back at the
door, which is hanging crooked on its hinges. Then they both
break up laughing.
For Russell, there's little difference between life on the field
and off. He lives to have fun and loves to play aggressive
football, and often the twain meet. Usually with a BOOM! and a
August 25, 1996
He's a 6'2", 245-pound wrecker with a body by Caterpillar. He
plays with a fury that has made him the leading candidate to win
the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. Says one NFL
scout, "Colorado has had some pretty good linebackers the past
few years--Greg Biekert, who's with the Raiders, the Patriots'
Ted Johnson. But they're not nearly as good as Russell. This kid
just takes people on."
Russell is so competitive that he fumed when the bass in his
favorite fishing hole near Boulder suddenly quit biting for a
few weeks this summer. Soon he and Colorado tight end Matt
Lepsis were hustling back to the pond with two diving masks, two
snorkels and, alas, just one set of fins--they each wore just
one flipper as they "sleuthed around," as Russell says, in
search of the shy fish. No slime-slicked bass was going to get
the best of Matt Russell.
He's just as driven between the sidelines. If someone beats him
on a play, Russell turns into a vigilante in shoulder pads. A
critical look from linebackers coach Brian Cabral is enough to
whip him into an arm-flailing, teeth-gnashing frenzy. Soon
Russell's nostrils are flaring like a racehorse's and his
outrage is visible; teammates can see his chest rising and
falling as he awaits the next snap, his body coiled like a spring.
"When he gets like that he's just going to run out and hit
somebody as hard as he can," says Cabral. What's wrong with
that? Says Cabral, "They don't always have the football when he
goes after them."
Even teammates who grab a fistful of Russell's jersey in
practice know they risk being broadsided or goaded into a fight
on the next play. Russell lasted all of three snaps before
getting thrown out of Colorado's first spring scrimmage this
year. "I was coming on a blitz and, well, I don't agree with the
rule that quarterbacks shouldn't be hit," he says. "When I got
close to [quarterback John] Hessler, I thought about pulling up.
Then I thought, Nah...I'm not gonna stop. So I sacked him." And
Hessler was Russell's roommate.
Russell reserves a special antipathy for impudent running backs.
He says, "I had one guy in the pile tell me once, 'Hey, hey, you
can't get the ball from me.' So I said, 'Oh? All right.' Then I
started bending back the guy's fingers, pulling and twisting and
grabbing at them."
And if Russell gets really mad? "I pinch 'em," he says. "They
hate that. You know, you're really vulnerable on the insides of
your thighs. So I pinch their skin as hard as I can. I grab it
and roll it and twist it and pull on it. And you can hear them
going 'Ooh, ooh, ouch!'"
Matt's father, Phil, who recently retired from the Air Force
with the rank of colonel, says it has always been thus. "Are you
familiar with something called the Myers-Briggs Personality
Indicator Test?" he asks. "When Matt was tested as a child, he
graded out 'very emotional.'" No kidding.
Matt was born in Tokyo and led a military brat's life, moving 11
times before he got out of high school. His start in organized
football came in seventh grade, when he played for a base team
in Ramstein, Germany, but he dreamed of being a football star
long before then.
Matt's father was a defensive end at Baylor, and his maternal
grandfather, Nelson Rainey, was a center at Henderson State in
Arkansas. "I remember being nine or 10 and visiting him," Matt
says. "I'd drag him out on the street and I'd say, 'Granddad, I
want you to watch me run.' He'd say, 'Boy, you look like a
fullback!' And I'd get so excited, I just couldn't do enough
after that. For as long as I can remember, this is all I've
wanted to be."
And yet Russell nearly quit in his first year at Colorado. He
was being redshirted and says he "felt like a nobody." He was
homesick for his family, and he often felt that everything he
missed or held dear was under attack. "I'd sit in class with
students who griped about the military and said that we didn't
need one, that military people were just a bunch of warmongers,"
Russell says. "In my heart, I'm thinking my dad and my
brother--he's a Marine helicopter pilot--they're protecting the
freedoms that these people love."
Near the end of the Vietnam War, Russell's father was gone for
an entire year on a mission to Thailand. In '92 he spent four
months in Somalia. From 1984 to '86 the family lived on a base
in England that was under 24-hour armed guard for weeks because
of the threat of terrorist attacks. It had been the launch point
for the U.S. planes that carried out the '86 bombing of Libya.
"I stayed home from school the day the planes came back," Matt
says. "I watched out the window as the cars came down our street
and the pilots' wives came running out their front doors,
Russell stuck it out in Boulder--he will graduate in December
with a degree in communications--and when asked what made him
stay, he says talking to his parents and Cabral was part of the
reason. "Mostly," he says, "you go home and your friends are all
gone. You realize your life has changed. Nothing is the same
anymore. Looking back, I think I was just growing up."
Russell? Growing up? That may draw good-natured dissent from
Cabral. Russell has an imagination straight out of Marvel
Comics, and he excels at putting people on. "Wherever he is
during practice, I'll notice a bunch of guys laughing," Cabral
says, "So I say, 'C'mere.' Matt comes jogging over, and I send
him to 'Time Out,' just like I used to do with my kids. I point
to a spot and he has to go stand by himself for 10 minutes. It
drives him crazy."
Russell's football skill always wins him Cabral's forgiveness.
Last season he led the Buffaloes in tackles (119) and tackles
for loss (16). He has a knack for turning in his best
performances in big games: a team-high 13 tackles against
Nebraska last season; 12 tackles and two sacks in a 21-point
romp over then No. 10 Oklahoma; 12 tackles in a 29-21 comeback
win against then No. 3 Texas A&M.
Russell loves football and everything that goes with it. He
often finds himself crying during games. "Tears just streaming
down my face," he says. "I know it sounds weird. It's not tears
from being upset. It's from being so excited. Knowing we are
playing so hard for each other. I want to win so bad. It's that
love and pride you have for your teammates, what I feel when
we're down, or when it's real physical, or when it's a tight
game. I guess it's like being a dad. You're just so proud."
Russell says he would be honored to win an individual award like
the Butkus, but he's most concerned with his team's pursuit of
the national title. And he knows that will require ending
Colorado's 0-4 streak against Big 12-rival Nebraska. "They beat
us here last season," Russell says, gazing out over Folsom
Field. "But this is a new year."
The bad news for the Cornhuskers, though, is he's the same old