Return Game: Inside KeiVarae’s comeback

SEATTLE – How a network of mentors have helped KeiVarae Russell toward his Notre Dame return and how those advisors made sure the cornerback wouldn’t finish his college career anywhere else.

Seattle – Keivarae Russell arrived at NS Performance on Thursday around noon and walked into the same austere facility that’s occupied more days of his exile than it hasn’t.

Tucked in the shadow of CenturyLink Field, this industrial weight room sits between flooring distributors and auto detailers. The furniture is either broken or taped back together. It’s where Russell has worked himself into something better than the cornerback suspended during the school’s academic misconduct investigation last August.

On the same day Everett Golson announced his departure from Notre Dame, Russell made the 30-mile drive here from Everett, Wash., dressed in gear pointing him back to South Bend and pointing out how long he’s been gone.

He arrived in a dark blue Notre Dame shirt, script Irish tank top beneath.

Both were adidas gear.

Russell declined an interview for this story, although he confirmed his impending return to Notre Dame next month. He said he’d yet to receive official notice from the University about reinstatement after taking classes at Everett Community College this spring.

That paperwork seems to be the only uncertainty about Russell’s comeback.

“He’s like a caged animal,” said Ted Manson, a local trainer who’s worked with Russell this spring and includes Kevin Durant among past clients. “You know when you go to the zoo and see that panther walking back and forth behind the cage? Looks real calm, pacing, but you don’t really want to be in the cage with him.”

According to a half-dozen people close to Russell, what gets him back to Notre Dame will be the same thing that got him there in the first place as a top recruit out of Mariner High School.

Colleges called Mariner head coach John Ondriezek last fall about Russell’s transfer availability. Ondriezek knew Russell well enough to know he wouldn’t look around, even before asking. The two remain close, Russell attending Ondriezek’s surprise retirement party this spring and the coach asking his former player to mentor a couple junior high athletes last week.

“He never once wavered,” Ondriezek said. “I told him life doesn’t always go in straight lines and yours is a little curved with an obstacle to get over.”

Notre Dame suspended Russell in August alongside DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore. Two months later the school handed down two-semester bans. Russell returned to the Pacific Northwest around mid-season. He dove into training last winter, working out six days a week spread among NS Performance with former Oregon State safety Anthony Watkins and with Manson’s outfit in Bellevue.

The workouts included sand runs at Alki Beach and trail sprints in Woodinville on a forest hill. He’s tested at the Seattle Sounders training facility, where Watkins said Russell posted a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash. Manson said Russell has hit 11-5 on the broad jump and consistently gets beyond 40 inches in the vertical.

“Kei might be on another level because he has the whole package,” Watkins said. “He’s very football savvy. A lot of great athletes don’t understand football and that hinders them. With Kei, he’s able to use all his athleticism because he understands the game so well.”

“He’s also a freak athlete, fast, can run, jump and he’s so strong. He should be the top corner in the draft next year.”

Russell also took a part-time job at a local realty firm, logging a few afternoon hours.

Despite being a year from financial independence, Russell spent the past seven months following directions. At Manson’s request, he tailored his eating and sleeping habits. Watkins wanted Russell to target balance in workouts, so he started doing Vipr training, essentially a weighted log that requires full body lifts. Notre Dame’s staff also wanted set conditioning drills done, so Russell did those too.

This is the same athlete who collected advisors at Mariner, augmenting a home life that revolved around his grandfather and mother. When Russell believes a mentor will defend his interests, that advice becomes gospel.  

As a high school freshman, basketball coach Dexter Griffen told Russell “not to let money fall out of your pocket” and pointed to the weight room. Griffen wanted Russell to connect off-season strength training with eventual scholarships. So Russell started lifting. Now he ties training to NFL contracts too. 

“There are two different types of athletes, ones that you have to keep pushing and ones that just need that one shove to get going,” Griffen said. “Crates and wheelbarrows. He was a wheelbarrow. Just one shove and he started rolling down the hill.”

That same year, Ondriezek told Russell to try track to help his speed. Russell didn’t want to go out. He grabbed cleats anyway.

Then there’s the dual case of Nick Angelos, Mariner’s student government advisor and its assistant swim coach.

After Russell served as sophomore class president, Angelos took him to a leadership camp about three hours south of Seattle. The retreat was designed for a couple hundred students going into their senior years. Yet they voted Russell as the event’s standout and honored him with an award. Russell would eventually be voted student body president at Mariner.

That next school year Angelos put in a pitch for the swim team, in part because his wife was the head coach. Russell trusted Angelos. So despite the fact his swim skills weren’t much better than treading water, Russell dove into the pool.

“It was very funny to watch this strapping athlete in the pool with guys who were kind of scrawny,” Angelos said. “He would look around and see guys half his size beat him up and down the pool. That was hard for him to deal with. He wasn’t the best at something.”

Russell stuck out that swim season because he started it.

He’ll do the same with his Notre Dame career.

The mentors who helped Russell through this marathon off-season set the cornerback’s direction back toward South Bend from the start. They also know the fuel Russell burned to guarantee he gets there.

“He’s always accepted a challenge,” Ondriezek said. “This was just another challenge.

“Why did I know things were going to work out? Because of KeiVarae Russell.”


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