By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
At a time when most college football players are holed up in a hotel room preparing for a bowl game, or coming to terms with a lost season, KeiVarae Russell has much different plans for the long weekend.
He’s headed home for the holidays, when he’ll get a five-day reprieve before preparing to play in the BCS National Championship Game.
The Mariner High School graduate is expected to be on his way back to town today, with plans on celebrating Christmas at his grandfather’s house in Everett. Then Russell, a freshman cornerback for the top-ranked Notre Dame football team, will go into preparation mode for the Jan. 7 national championship game against Alabama.
While there is a school of thought that the Fighting Irish (12-0) might want to keep the magic carpet ride going without interruption, Russell is welcoming the five-day hiatus with open arms.
“I think I need a break, for sure,” he said via telephone from South Bend, Ind., on Thursday afternoon. “It’s a long season, especially for me just coming out of high school. I’ve got that stutter body now; my body’s starting to hurt.”
During a remarkable run that is being labeled as Notre Dame’s return to prominence, Russell has been more than just a bit player. The former Mariner running back switched to the defensive side of the football in training camp and has started all 12 games at cornerback for the unbeaten Irish.
Having turned offers from almost every Pacific-12 Conference school, including the University of Washington, Russell is as unlikely a candidate to help rebuild Notre Dame’s golden football reputation as anyone. He was born the year the Irish program made its last national championship run, in 1993, and wasn’t exactly fluent in the many traditions of Notre Dame football when he arrived on campus.
“I didn’t even know about the Four Horsemen until I got here,” Russell said, referring to the legendary quartet that helped coach Knute Rockne’s 1924 team win a national title.
What about 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown?
“I knew about Tim Brown from his (Oakland) Raider years,” Russell said, “but to be honest, I didn’t even know he went to Notre Dame.”
And yet there Russell is, starting for an Irish team that is have one of the most memorable seasons in the rich history of Notre Dame football.
“It feels great,” Russell said. “It also tells me that I made the right decision coming to Notre Dame and being a part of this tradition.”
Russell admits that he’s surprised by how quickly things have turned around for Notre Dame football this season. The Fighting Irish weren’t even ranked in the preseason top 25 poll, and yet Notre Dame has carved out 12 consecutive wins to earn a spot in the Jan. 7 national title game in Miami.
“I’m not surprised now, but at the beginning of the season it would have been very surprising,” Russell said Thursday. “We lost a lot of key seniors from last year’s team. We lost three of four starting players from our secondary. We lost a bunch of defensive linemen; we lost (receiver) Michael Floyd.
“We were arguably more talented last year. But this team just doesn’t want to stop working.”
Russell doesn’t want the ride to end, either. But he’ll gladly take a break — especially if it means getting to see some family and friends in his hometown.
“I haven’t seen my family in five months, so it’s going to be a great time,” said Russell, whose mother, Yolanda Phillips, now lives in Kent. “I get to focus on friends and family for a few days and then get back to football.”