Mag Excerpt: KeiVarae Russell is ready to rewrite history for himself and ND

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a story on Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell’s comeback from academic exile that appears in the 2015 ND Insider Football Preview.

KeiVarae Russell pieces together his vision of the future, in part, by gathering up fragments of the past.

Like Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s decision 27 days before Russell’s freshman season kicked off to move him out of an overflowing offensive backfield into a desperate need at cornerback, that after projected starter Lo Wood suffered a season-ending injury.

“When we recruited him, the model we were looking at was Theo Riddick,” Kelly said of ND’s former standout hybrid running back/slot receiver. “We thought he had outstanding ball skills. He had toughness. He wasn’t a blazer, but he’s developed his speed to the point where he has elite speed.

“All we did was turn him around and had him backpedal.”

And plop him into a defense that put up historic numbers for 12 games in 2012 before getting sawed off by Alabama in the national title showdown at the end of the season.

“That’s a vital experience in my life, because I saw what it takes to win,” Russell said of the 42-14 Alabama verdict. “Those guys had a will to win about them that exceeded ours from the get-go. Right from the beginning of the game, they had a fire in their eyes that we didn’t have.

“We had it throughout the week (leading up). But once the game occurred, we had it for the first couple of plays and then it started to dwindle down. They didn’t let up. And they had a relentlessness about them that they wanted to dominate us in every aspect.

“In talking, they wanted to dominate us. Mentally dominate us. Physically impose on us. Blocking. Catching. They wanted to dominate us in everything they did. We were kind of passive to it, I think, myself included.

“We didn’t come to hit. We weren’t trying to lay our name on them. Those guys wanted us to remember. Trust me, we do.”

Another memorable teaching moment came on the stage of the school play “Intimate Apparel” in which Russell landed the lead during the spring of his freshman year.

The audience was a fraction of what he regularly experiences in Notre Dame Stadium, 250-300 people by Russell’s estimate. But it was way out of his comfort zone. And his nerves continually reminded him of that.

“It’s different, because they (the audience members) are literally watching every flaw you make,” he said. “And you have to improv’ out of that. In football, they’re not seeing that. The only flaw they’ll see is if I get scored on.

“They don’t see the bad technique at the line of scrimmage. They don’t see if it’s a group tackle and I missed the first tackle. On stage, you slip, they see that. You stumble over a word, they see that. If your chemistry’s not right, they see that.

“I can’t say, ‘I said the wrong line,’ in front of everybody. I’ve got to pick up and keep going. I guess that’s like the football field. You’ve got to get up and go on like it didn’t happen.”

On the football stage, there’s no question in Russell’s mind that he’s vastly superior to the player who got pulled off the practice field in mid-August of 2014, when he was playing the best football of anybody on the Irish roster on either side of the ball, just as he did the previous spring.

Faster, thicker, smarter, better prepared than the 2014 version, he insists.

“What people don’t realize is I studied my craft every day when I was gone,” Russell said. “I had my iPad, and I was watching practice film in the spring, and install, just what the coaches see. I watched myself (on video) from freshman and sophomore years, broke myself down, how can I get better as a player, did all that.”

College football analyst Phil Steele, in his 2015 annual magazine, acknowledged Russell’s promise by deeming him a preseason fourth-team All-American, just as he did in 2014, before the suspension.

But it may or may not be all about football prowess as the season unravels.

Before quarterback Everett Golson’s re-entry from a 2013 season suspension for academic misconduct, unrelated to the probe in which Russell was involved, Kelly heavily prepped him for the possible distractions and perceptual missiles that might bleed into his reception on the road and even on his own campus.

“I wasn’t certain with Everett how he was going to be seen, perceived,” the coach said of the QB who has since transferred to Florida State, “but it seems as though many people looked at it as he’d paid his price for a poor decision and he was back in school.

“And I’m just going to advise KeiVarae to be prepared for anything, but he shouldn’t be surprised if it’s just about playing football and going to school.”

And if it isn’t, being around grandpa Sylvester Phillips and mom Yolanda Phillips again reminded him what unrelenting inner strength looks like as well as the notion that sometimes the best heroes are the ones sitting across the dinner table from you.

“She’s my rock, she is,” Russell said of his mom. “Whenever I’m down, I go to her. Whenever I’m up, I go to her. There’s times we talk two hours a day. About anything. Life. And she knows pretty much everything about me. I’m not scared to talk to her about anything.

“She’s an amazing woman. She reads a lot — the Bible, investment books. She constantly wants to learn now. She wants to get better too. Every day. That’s an inspiration to me to see her wanting to get better, wanting to learn.”

And Russell, in turn, wants to inspire, yearns to do so, even frames the wretched, crooked path that coaxed him to watch ND’s games on TV from his dorm room early last fall instead of starring in them, as a chance to redefine himself on a big stage.

“I’m still learning and growing,” he said. “I’m still experimenting in my life. That’s why I do so much.

“That’s why I tried real estate. That’s why I was in a play my freshman year in college. I write poetry, I love all kinds of arts. I did swimming in high school. I worked with special needs kids. I worked in the community. I was president of the high school. I do all these different things, because I don’t really know how this is all going to end up.

“I know I’ve got gifts, but I try different avenues to see where my gifts fit the best. I know I’m a good, genuine person. I do understand that, but I don’t know what my calling is. I really don’t know.

“Whatever it is, I hope it empowers people. ‘Cause I don’t want to make it if it doesn’t empower people. If it doesn’t empower people, what’s the point of doing it? If you’re not influencing anyone’s life, it should. That’s my hope. That’s what I want all of this to end up doing.”

To read the entire story and for more info on the ND Insider 2015 Notre Dame Football Preview, visit

The entire KeiVarae Russell story is available in the ND Insider 2015 Notre Dame Football Preview. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN, SBT Photo Illustration/CJ MAJOR)

The 2015 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview sets up head coach Brian Kelly’s highly anticipated sixth season with the Irish football team.

The season preview and keepsake from the staff of the South Bend Tribune provides the context, analysis and behind-the-scenes dynamics of a team with high expectations in 100 high-quality, all-color pages.

Get to know quarterback Malik Zaire, who will lead the Irish into a season as the starting quarterback for the first time with plenty of talent around him and sky-high confidence.

Prepare for cornerback KeiVarae Russell’s return to Notre Dame following a season of academic exile. The fast-talking senior is back stronger and hungrier than ever.

Take a closer look at how Notre Dame’s defense can find an answer to its biggest question: How can it rush the passer with greater success?

Follow closely Will Fuller’s description of his climb into the Notre Dame record books. The soft-spoken wide receiver is looking to make more noise in 2015.

Look back at the maligned and lauded careers of former five-star recruits to put on the gold helmets and hear from the experts on hot topics in the current recruiting landscape.

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