A New Kind of Challenge

25-year-old Greg Russo knows that nothing is guaranteed, but that doesn't stop the former Lake Mills linebacker from slowing down. It didn't during two tours of duty in Iraq and it certainly isn't slowing him down as he tries to earn a roster spot as a linebacker at the University of Wisconsin.

MADISON – A little over a year ago, Greg Russo was right in the middle of the Iraqi War. Now, he's on the front lines of the Wisconsin defense, trying to figure out whether the play is a run or a pass.

Turning 26 in June, Russo is one of the great storylines through the first two weeks of UW's spring football schedule. Attending UW-Whitewater when he was 18 for one year before joining the National Guard, Russo spent a year working before being deployed in 2005, returned November 2005, moved back to UW-Whitewater to go to school for a year, moved to Madison to work at state headquarters as a Wisconsin national guard active duty member and got his second deployment from January 2009 to January '10.

Russo played football at Lake Mills High School and grew up loving the Badgers after moving to Wisconsin around age seven. During his second deployment to Iraq, all Russo could think was football, the thing that helped him connect to home. Working out to stay in shape and emailing the UW coaching staff, Russo, with a little bit of fortunate luck, is getting the chance to earn a walk-on spot with the Badgers on the fall roster.

After Thursday's practice, Badger Nation was there to here Russo's inspiring story.

How did you get here today?

Russo: Somebody up there likes me I guess. I had pipedreams while I was in Iraq the second time to play for the Badgers. I always thought I was big and athletic, so I started working hard and working out and started realizing that I could maybe do this. When I got home, I started working out at this gym Hitters SportsPlex at Middleton, one of the trainers named Keisha and her husband Skip are great, befriended me, took me under their wing and Keisha used to work at UW athletics actually. She called up Ben Herbert, strength and conditioning coach, and talked me enough and here we are.

Did you have to jump through some hoops and get some paperwork to get eligible?

Russo: It was a compliance thing because of NCAA rules, your clock starts as soon as you are a full-time student, but you are exempt because of active-duty military. So they had to add up all my military time, made sure the Big Ten Ok'ed it, made sure the NCAA then (OK'ed it). It was just a long process.

How much time do you spend overseas ballpark?

Russo: First deployment was about 16 months, 12 months in Iraq. The second deployment was about 13 months total and about 8 or 9 in Iraq.

What did you do over there?

Russo: I was (on) a security force both times. We guarded a base, convoy security and that was pretty much it.

How difficult was it over there?

Russo: It's tough being away from home for sure. There were moments. The second deployment, we were so drawn down that we were more watching over the Iraqi army, making sure they were getting good quality training and they were taking over the role of being the active military.

Do you remember the last football game you played in?

Russo: 2002 against Cambridge in November, I think.


Russo: No. We had an OK year my senior year. He weren't as good. I remember it specifically. I remember well. We won that game. We didn't have a great season though.

What's it been like working with the guys and how have they related to you?

Russo: They are good guys. I love the team. They are all hard workers. They are really fun and energetic. I hang out with a lot of guys that were born in the 90s (laughs), which is an odd thing because I am not old, but on this team I am really old. They've been really good, everybody is pretty cool, they get along with me well, they like my story and they are real encouraging, too. They know I am behind and they help me with the drills because I don't know a lot of the drills that we do. I still have to learn just what practice is like, let alone learn what the defense is and all that kind of stuff.

How fast have you picked everything up?

Russo: I like to think I have done pretty well. The physical stuff for me isn't the hard part, it's the playbook, knowing my responsibilities on the field in a game situation. That's where I think I am going to be behind everybody. I have even been encouraged by some of the coaches saying I have adapted really well.

Coach Bielema said he's like your energy and intensity. Is that you attitude, approaching it going 100 percent?

Russo: Exactly. I am not on the roster in the fall yet. Really, that's how everybody should take it in the spring. You are here to work. You are here to prove that if you were a number one player, you still are a number one player or if you are a number four player and you are a good enough, maybe you are a number one player. This is it. According to NCAA eligibility rules, I only have one year of eligibility so it's do or die, every day, every practice, every down.

How realistic is it (making the team) do you think?

Russo: I don't know. Maybe I am just being positive, but I think it's pretty realistic. If I can show that I can work and be a contributing member, whether or not it's on the field but as a leader, as a guy that has had a lot of life experience, I am fine with that. The last six weeks has been amazing. I just love being a part of the organization. Whether I can do to just stay a part of that is fine with me.

Who are some of the guys that were born in the 90s that you hang out with?

Russo: Well the linebacker group is pretty young and that's who I've been practicing with so far. Cameron Ontko was born in like 1992. I was seven, gearing up for a move to Wisconsin (from Rochester, N.Y.).

Is there a military background in your family that brought you here?

Russo: No it wasn't military. It skipped a generation, My grandfather was in the military. He served in World War II. My dad was working at headquarters at Kodak, which is based in Rochester, New York, and he got a better job offer in Lake Mills. So, we moved.

How crazy has this journey been for you?

Russo: Unbelievable. Hard to explain. Hard to really put into words I guess. Every day I am star struck and can't believe who I am standing next to. You see some of the guys that have gone through the combine and stuff and I'm like, "Man, I was such a huge fan of you guys for the last three years and now I have the potential to be on the team that you are on." It's unbelievable. It's a blessing.

I can imagine that some of the guys (that feeling) comes back to you doesn't it?

Russo: I think so. The guys are pretty humble. All the guys on this team are great. They like to work. They ask me questions and a lot of questions are about the military. What was it like? What did you do? And they want to know specifics as we've gone along and they've gotten to know me. I think they are a little bit humbled by my story, which is great. That's good to see to me, being once a team leader, being a sergeant, seeing young 18-year-old … seeing these guys is what I am trying to say is that they are very humble and very respectful for what I did, which is cool. It's great.

Why did you chose going into the guard?

Russo: I was supposed to play at UW-Whitewater. I was somewhat recruited and I said I was going to come tryout, and I didn't. I don't know if I regret it because here I am. I couldn't be happier, but I wanted to do something. I felt like I was just floating and serving your country is a great thing. There are a million reasons I could give you.

You have kids playing video games and you lived something like that. Do they try to make the comparison?

Russo: When I talk about the military and I say like a weapon I used to carry, they know what that is (laughs). That's about the only connection.

Did you think about football a lot in Iraq?

Russo: The second deployment the whole time, every day, every night. I stayed up some nights thinking about it. I tried to contact coaches and stuff, but I was just some guy emailing the coach saying I am good enough. There are a thousand guys that want to be on this team, and that was two seasons ago. I told them too that I wouldn't even be back in 2010-11. They said they don't think that far ahead necessarily for some guy that's emailing. I don't blame them, but I thought about it every day. I trained every day. I was lucky enough to have a good weight room. When outside, I ran sprints whenever I could, exercising all the time.

Did you contact other schools besides here?

Russo: Nope. This was it man. This was it. I grew up in the area, I love the Badgers and I can't even imagine where else I would want to go.

So without the trainers at Middleton and the connection to Herbert, you probably wouldn't be here?

Russo: Right, and I thank them almost weekly. I feel like I shared … they are such great people that they literally did that out of the kindness of their heart because they believed in me. It's a blessing. I can't describe that.

When you first walked in during winter conditioning, what were your first impressions of the team and what you were getting yourself into?

Russo: Funny story. The first thing we had to do after warm-ups was sled pulls with weight, heavy sled pulls, and I thought my thighs were going to explode. We go down to the gym and that was like part of an extended warm-up almost. I get downstairs and I am like, ‘Are you kidding me? What did I get myself into? I got through it and the next week I was like everybody else. It was the shock value more than anything. The first week, everything was new. I hadn't been training with equipment and going through their drills and stuff. So, I didn't know anything yet, but I adapted pretty fast. The physical stuff was easy for me.

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