It’s the moment most football players dream about.
Last weekend was the first of the NFL’s preseason, and therefore for the rookies it was their first opportunity to step onto the field as an NFL player. A quick glance around social media revealed just how big a moment that was for rookies, many of them posting about dreams coming true.
However, KeiVarae Russell had a slightly different reaction. The Everett native and Mariner High School graduate’s first NFL action came last Saturday when his Kansas City Chiefs hosted the Seattle Seahawks, so Russell had to deal with the conflicting emotions of playing against his hometown team.
“I hated it,” Russell quipped Tuesday from Chiefs training camp at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri.
“Man, it was unreal, seeing the guys I watched for a lot of years, looking at Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman and Bobby Wagner. I’m from Seattle, and even though I went to Notre Dame I watch the Seahawks, so to play against them in my first preseason game was tough.”
But not so tough that it’s taken the joy out of his first NFL training camp.
Russell is in the midst of his first NFL preseason after the cornerback was selected by Kansas City in the third round of this year’s draft, and he’s adjusting well to his first taste of football at its highest level.
“I think it’s going well,” Russell said. “It’s difficult for a young guy, I’m used to being at the top in college. But here you come to a level where everyone is great, so I’ve got to go back to the bottom of the totem poll. I’ve had my ups and downs, which can be tough to deal with. But overall it’s been great, I’m learning a lot. But it’s tough to be patient. I want to be the best already and I want to expedite the process of being great. But you have to go through the process of learning how to be great.”
Russell, a 2012 graduate of Mariner — where he was known mostly as a star running back — was the 74th-overall selection in April’s draft out of Notre Dame. The 22-year-old, who measures in at 5-foot-11 and 196 pounds, was the second player taken by the Chiefs, and the 12th cornerback taken in the draft.
Russell is coming off a roller coaster collegiate career which saw him show all kinds of promise in his first two seasons, get suspended from his third season for academic impropriety, then return for a standout junior season in which he registered 60 tackles and two interceptions in 11 games before suffering a fractured tibia that forced him to miss the Fighting Irish’s final two contests. After the season he declared for the draft, a decision that proved justified.
Russell is now fully recovered from the fractured tibia, and he’s getting a long look from the Chiefs as a nickel cornerback, a position he has experience playing while at Notre Dame. He’s also seeing time on special teams, something he wasn’t asked to do with the Fighting Irish, so he’s starting from scratch in that regard.
“I’m still figuring out my role on defense,” Russell said. “In our defense we play a lot of Cover 1 and man-to-man, so you need a lot of guys.”
Russell received a good run-out in the game against the Seahawks, being on the field for 32 of Kansas City’s 76 defensive plays, which tied him for eighth in the most on the team. He also made four tackles, which tied for Kansas City’s second-highest total.
So how did Russell think he did in his first NFL game?
“I think I did OK,” was Russell’s evaluation. “I think I should have made more plays, I was in position to make a few more plays, but you just have to go back to the drawing board and get better.”
“Getting better” is at the center of everything Russell is trying to accomplish in his rookie season.
In order to learn about how to be an NFL player Russell has been leaning on the veterans on Kansas City’s defense. He said veteran linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali have been good sources of information, as have fellow defensive backs Ron Parker, Marcus Peters and Phillip Gaines.
Although Russell has been a member of the Chiefs organization for less than four months, he feels like he’s already soaked up a wealth of information.
“I’ve learned a lot about the game of football,” Russell said. “It takes a lot of detail to be a pro. You kind of need two personalities. You’re playing the same game you played as a kid, but on the other hand it’s not the same game you played as a kid because it’s your job and you have to be professional.
“In college I was so gifted I could make the play,” Russell continued. “In the NFL everyone is gifted, so you can’t be a step late. Guys are at the highest level and know how to do it, so you have to know the details. If a coach says you have to be at four yards, be at four yards, not four-and-a-half.”
And continuing to learn is Russell’s primary goal for the upcoming season.
“To me it’s continuing to work on how to be a pro,” Russell said. “I want to be a great player and have a long career. I have to figure out how to do that now. I have to find a routine that works for me and works for the team.”
For now it’s just the beginning of Russell’s NFL career, and he’s hoping it’s a long time before the end.
For more on the Seattle sports scene, check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at www.heraldnet.com/tag/seattle-sidelines, or follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.