Pops goes to BCS title game to watch grandson Russell

There’s a house in South Everett, not far from the Mariner High School campus, that will sit empty tonight, the television turned off, while the BCS National Championship game is being shown on ESPN. That will mark quite a rarity in a living room where Sylvester Phillips and his grandson have watched just about every national championship game, and any other college football game they could find, over many autumns past.

Tonight, Phillips won’t be sitting in front of a television. And his grandson will be a little too busy to stretch out and watch football.

When Notre Dame and Alabama take the field in Miami tonight for the BCS national title game, Phillips will be in the stands, watching grandson KeiVarae Russell and the Fighting Irish try to repeat history at Sun Life Stadium.

“This might be a little more nerve-wracking,” Phillips said, comparing tonight’s game to recent BCS title games he’s watched on television alongside Russell. “The BCS championship? Man, that’s unreal.”

KeiVarae Russell is pretty awed himself by the prospect, even if he’s not intimidated heading into tonight’s game. The former Mariner High School running back-turned-Notre Dame cornerback is capping off his first season of college football by playing in the ultimate game.

“It’s a great feeling knowing I’m going to play for a national title,” Russell said last month. “It’s surreal. Man, the national title. I might not get this ever again, and I got it my freshman year.”

It will be quite a different view for Russell, who has spent every other national championship evening sitting in his grandfather’s South Everett living room.

“That’s all we do around here: college football and college basketball,” Phillips said last week via telephone. “That probably started before he was born. I’ve got pictures of him at 2 or 3 years old tossing a football.”

Phillips has had an undeniable influence on his grandson’s love of football, and the man Russell knows as Pops also likes to believe that he’s taught him a lot about the game. The 57-year-old Phillips played just one year of football before dropping out of Garfield High School in the 1970s, but he has developed a keen eye for the game through countless hours of watching on television.

Phillips never really had a rooting interest in the games — although, he admits, he has developed a fondness for Oregon in recent years —_ and never particularly cared for Notre Dame before this season.

“In the past, I wouldn’t say I got excited about them,” Phillips said with a chuckle. “They were on TV every weekend. It would be a losing year, and they’d still be on when you could be watching somebody else. I guess they’re kind of like a Dallas Cowboy team.”

Phillips makes no bones about how he feels about the Irish now. And his grandson doesn’t hide the way he feels about his grandfather.

“That’s my man,” Russell said. “That’s my guy, for sure. … He’s always been there on my side.”

And while that house in South Everett may be quiet this weekend, Russell is glad to know his grandfather will be close by.

“It’s going to be great for him,” Russell said of Phillips attending tonight’s game. “I think it’s going to be a great experience for him.”

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