Notre Dame's KeiVarae Russell and the road to redemption

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Editor’s Note: The following is a feature story on Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell’s comeback from academic exile, which appears in the 2015 ND Insider Football Preview. For more info on the magazine or to order, visit ndinsider.com/buythemag.

In the moments when doubt hemorrhaged into his dreams for the first time that he could remember and his life turned tabloid, KeiVarae Russell’s mind frantically paged through the worst-case scenarios.

The tears would come later. And so would the resolve.

But on what seemed like an apocalyptic mid-August afternoon in 2014, the logical thing to do seemed to be gathering with the other three Notre Dame football players sharing the day’s jagged headlines and commiserating about what the unknown might look like.

“We all headed over to Ishaq’s house,” Russell said of defensive end Ishaq Williams, the only one, of what later grew to five suspended players, still stalking some sort of finality with the school’s protracted and poignant academic dishonesty investigation as 2015 training camp opens Friday in Culver, Ind.

“When it first happened, I was like, ‘Man, am I done?’ I haven’t even shown what I can do yet.

“It was going to be my junior year. I knew how big that was going to be. I knew I was going to be able to help other guys. I knew how high of a level I was at as far as performance. I was physically stronger than I have been before.

“I knew the game better than I had. I knew it was going to be a special year — and then bam, it was hard to cope with that. It was.”

The feeling was so counter to who Russell had always been, an effervescent soul who was so taken as a child by the drive he saw in his single mom and tough-love grandpa, he was blinded to the fact his family was perpetually treading water below the poverty line.

Instead the Everett, Wash., product mostly saw blessings, and possibilities, and rhythms and patterns — that no matter how twisted, led to fateful, meaningful outcomes.

He talked about it often — with himself, mostly. Talking faster than the breathtaking footspeed the sculpted 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback shows when he opens his hips and outstrides wide receivers with NFL-coveted 40-yard dash times.

This time, he couldn’t stop his mind from racing away from what he always believed about there being no such thing as coincidence. Not until after a few days passed and he took a visit to athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s office, first only to find out there that the allegations against him cost him a chance to be a team captain in 2014.

The endless loop of Russell being parenthetically tethered to Williams, linebacker Kendall Moore, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, and eventually safety Eilar Hardy, had already calcified. So had the campus reaction to it.

“When I spoke with people, it’d be like, ‘Are you going to play, or come back?’ ” Russell said. “Or it would be, ‘Keep your head up,’ or something like that. ‘You have to keep fighting, keep fighting and everything is going to fall into place.’

“Now I sit back here today, I realize a lot of people were on my side. … But back then, it was different. You started thinking, ‘Are they only worried about me playing?’ ”

Eventually, as the concerns with no handy resolution available began recirculating in their meeting, Swarbrick suggested that the two of them, Russell and the A.D., go for a walk around campus to mentally and emotionally reboot.

Russell couldn’t tell you where their literal path led. Only the figurative one.

“I looked up to God and said, ‘Help me. Just help me,’ ” Russell related.

“I said, ‘I’m not asking you to take me out of the situation. I’m just asking you to help me see the light through these dark clouds. Please. I know as long as I’ve got you, I’m good.”

The situation lasted roughly two more months until the five players learned their fate, in Russell’s case immediate withdrawal from his fall semester classes and forfeiting those potential credits, and an additional suspension for the spring semester with a chance to be readmitted in June.

But Russell had already found what he was looking for long before that, not long after the walk with Swarbrick.

“I had to sit back and think to myself, ‘What do you bring to this world? All this stuff you brought to this world in high school and thus far in college, you still have and maintain all those gifts,’ ” Russell said.

“I thought, ‘It’s a tough time, but those gifts aren’t gone. You’re going to be fine. You’re going to be successful — as long as you don’t let this define who you are. Don’t let this one moment define you. Do NOT let it define you.

“‘You learn from it, and get even better. That’s what you do. No matter if you go back to Notre Dame or you don’t. Wherever you have to go, as long as you keep these gifts and understand that this is not going to define you, it’s going to be good.’ So I had to tell myself that.”

Roughly 10 months later, the final seven months of which were spent exiled from the very university Russell picked in the football recruiting process primarily because of its academic integrity, one of the first things Russell did in that seemingly redemptive June afternoon was take another walk around campus.

There were opportunities to return sooner, for a visit, not for repatriation. But he resisted.

“I could have come back and watched the spring game, watched Pro Day,” Russell said. “But I had a lot of obligations. I had school. I was working in commercial real estate. I was training.

“I could have made some time, but at the end of the day, I was so ingrained in what I was doing and bettering myself, and my teammates were handling their business back in Indiana.

“This suspension — that’s not what it was for, to be around. It was about to leave and grow. Use it as an opportunity. There was no reason to go back yet. The time was going to come.”

His first destination, once back, was Touchdown Jesus, the famed mural on the south side of the Hesburgh Library and the allegory even the most casual observer connects with when they think about the school’s deep connection and love affair with its football program.

Russell spent 10 minutes just studying its contours, its composition and trying to extract its message before pulling out his phone, snapping a selfie and posting it on Instagram, the social medium through which he dropped little clues along his journey back for ND fans to consume.

“I was like a tourist that day,” Russell said. “It’s amazing to look at. I wasn’t just examining it. I was cherishing it. You kind of take it for granted, even though you walk around campus and see it every day. I haven’t seen it for seven months, and, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s pretty cool.’ “

His teammates, his professors, strangers on campus opened their arms his first few days back on campus, too, just like the mural.

“There was times early I wasn’t sure if I could come back,” Russell said. “But once I knew that it was possible, there was no doubt that I wanted to come back.

“The situation was a situation that was going to test me. So if I left, I would have failed the test — whether that was to the NFL, whether I left to another school, FCS, FBS, wherever I left, it’s like Kei’s running away from my problems.

“I never run away from my problems. That’s not what I do. I start something, I finish it. That’s just me. Whether it’s hard, easy, I never want to be judged by that. And if I ran away — that’s what I call it — it’s like I’m not writing my story.

“People can speculate and write their own story now. ‘Well, he probably did this, or he probably did that. He left because of this. He’s weak-minded.’ They can make their own assumptions of me and write kind of like their own story.

“Let me write my story. I’m the author of this book. I’m going to show you who I really am, but it wasn’t just to show everybody else. It was to show myself who I am.”

***

John Ondriezek had recently pushed himself away from a four-decade career in football coaching, roughly half of which was spent as the head coach of Mariner High in Everett, Wash. But there he was, six months later, back out on the football field.

On this mid-May morning, Ondriezek wasn’t trying to either rekindle or put out the coaching fire. He was just teaching a gym class — and accidentally catching a glimpse of what an answered prayer looks like.

In the distance was a figure running on the hill near the high school, doing drills by himself, sweating by himself, and as it turns out dreaming by himself.

“I looked over and thought, ‘That’s just like something KeiVarae Russell would do,’ ” Ondriezek said of the man he believes will be the fifth player in the school’s history to eventually find his way to the NFL.

“He’s the type of kid who does what he has to when no one else is watching. No coach there. No one with a whistle. Nobody pushing him. And as I walked closer, it was him. I should have known better.”

Russell had already worked out with a personal trainer earlier that morning in Seattle.

As apparent as Russell’s athletic ability was the first time Ondriezek got pulled to “come see” by a giddy freshman football coach, the player’s drive was just as pungent.

“As the season went on and I actually got to know who he was and I had him in health class, and I could tell that he was a top student,” Ondriezek said. “Very motivated. And that he had a bright future ahead of him.

“I didn’t know if it was in athletics or not, but he was someone who was going somewhere.”

As it turns out, Russell went down many avenues at Mariner High, excelling in the classroom, in leadership camp, in eloquently delivering the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have A Dream” speech to a middle school class, in working with special needs kids, and in, ironically, trying to dodge playing defense while excelling as a running back before eventually narrowing his plethora of college choices to Washington, USC, Cal and Notre Dame.

And when he came back to the Pacific Northwest years later to lay the groundwork to return to Notre Dame, Ondriezek said it was more of the same.

All except the running back part, which was replaced by cornerback drills and extreme feats of athleticism, including one captured on Russell’s Instagram account in which, without a running start, he leaps onto a stack of boxes roughly five feet off the ground.

“I personally believe if I have these talents and I don’t use them, it’s a pointless life,” Russell said. “I’m not going to lie. I say that, and people say, ‘Wow you know that’s crazy.’ It’s NOT.

“The talents God gave me — as far as being able to talk to people, being fast, being strong, smarts in the classroom, sports or business or acting — if I don’t utilize any of that, if I don’t do something great, I feel like I had a pointless life.

“Because God provided all this talent that I have. And people can see it — and I see it too — so I’ve got to utilize it for good. Whether that’s empowering others, inspiring others, I have to. I have so many internal drives, but it comes down to, I want to do something big.

“If God gave me all of this, there’s a reason for it.”

This, including the deluge of perspective, is a typical day for Russell during his time away from Notre Dame, in part because it’s atypical. No two days unfold the same.

The verve behind it never wavers, but how it manifests constantly evolves.

There are staples, though, in a comeback blueprint Russell concocted with the help of several strong influences, with one of the more profound, per the cornerback, being Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

It was Kelly, he said, who suggested Russell not just dip his toe into the real world, but cannonball into it by getting a job and paying for his groceries, his personal trainer, his gas to and from the 60-mile round trip to Seattle to train, for his classes at Everett Community College.

“I think the first thing I tried to do for him is to let him know that, as a person, we believed in him,” Kelly said. “Certainly mistakes were made. If he had to do things over again, he certainly would, but we were going to support him and we were going to get through this and we were going to get to the other side of it.

“Look, it had gone on so long that we were already into the season and past the halfway part of the season before any finality had come about. So it was a little bit easier to talk about putting together a plan as to what was best for him.

“I think what finally came out of it was the realization that it was going to be some time, but it wasn’t going to be that long that we couldn’t overcome this.”

Kelly’s initial suggestion was to try a law firm, but Russell settled on an internship in commercial real estate management, which was completely foreign to him.

“There were times I was confused as heck,” Russell said. “Didn’t know what was going on, but I was constantly hearing these words or terms each and every day. And I started understanding more about business, marketing and how markets operate, how people function within certain markets.

“I didn’t want to just get a job flipping burgers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But me personally, I felt like I had to challenge myself more. And take advantage of this opportunity.”

He also took advantage of putting a lot less of his 2015 fate in the hands of the NCAA by taking classes with transferable credits at Everett Community College.

The boiled-down version of the NCAA’s 18-hour rule is that student-athletes must pass 18 credit hours during the fall and spring semesters combined. Summer credits wouldn’t help Russell over that hurdle.

Since he had zero from the fall semester, he needed to knock down all 18 in the spring, he said. His first inquiry was to the University of Washington, but its distance from Everett, its tuition expense and its complex requirements for Russell to transfer in made ECC more palatable on all three fronts.

But the nearby junior college was on the quarter system. Russell said he had to take the equivalent of 30 quarter hours to satisfy the 18-hour semester requirement from the NCAA for football eligibility in the fall of 2015.

That was completely independent of readmission to Notre Dame.

“I didn’t want to have to get into an appeal process of the 18-hour rule,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to get a waiver. It would be easier just to take classes instead of sitting on my butt anyway.

“I got a 4.0 (GPA) both quarters. And I didn’t take just simple classes. I took history classes, English classes, arts classes, all sorts of classes. I just kind of explored my mind.”

And some people back home tried to get inside that mind, particularly when it came to the circumstances that landed him back in Everett.

“The people who knew me, they were like, ‘We know you. You’re going to be fine. It’s a little bump in the road.’ ” Russell said. “People who didn’t know me that well had a lot of questions. ‘What did you do?’ It’s all these whos, whats, whens, whys.

“I just told them, ‘Violation of the honor code.’ That’s it. Just keep it simple. People can form their own conclusions from that. People either accept it or try to go in deeper. If they try to go deeper, I don’t.

“No need to. They have an honor code. I violated it, got suspended. Now I’m back, trying to get better. That’s how you do it.”

Russell has yet to figure out whether he’s considered a junior or senior, where the ECC credits put him on the graduation timeline and whether 2015 will be his final season at Notre Dame, or whether he’ll explore a fifth year in 2016.

“I’ve got to sit down with my adviser, lay out all the options as far as whenever I declare for the league, whether it’s this year or next year,” he said. “But I’m so ingrained in playing here with these guys, I’m not worried about the league, about when I’m going to graduate, because I know I am going to graduate.

“That’s why it’s not a worry for me. I know football’s going to end. I know that. But I also know this degree is going to mean much more to me than the NFL will.”

***

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

Like 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.”

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Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell (6), here batting down a pass against Oklahoma in 2013, returns to the practice field Friday for the first time since being suspended last Aug. 14. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

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.

The magazine is available in print, for iPads and iPhones, and for Google/Android tablets and phones. For information on where to purchase, go to NDInsider.com/buythemag.