A Thankful Experience

Greg Russo just wanted to be able to practice and prepare the Wisconsin football team that he grew up cheering for and the one that kept him motivated during his tours in Iraq. On Saturday, the hard work and paper work he went through will culminate with him being honored on Senior Day and, possibly, getting a chance to play.

MADISON - As one of the leaders on the defense, sophomore linebacker Chris Borland hinted that a talk with the seniors might have to happen in order to get Greg Russo on the field for senior day.

"He deserves a shot," Borland said.

It won't be a ‘Rudy' moment where the seniors come in to Coach Bret Bielema's office, lay their jerseys on his desk and demand Russo dress in their place, but there's no denying what the 26-year-old Iraqi War veteran has meant to his team despite having yet to play one down for No.15 Wisconsin.

But on a day designed to give thanks, there are few players more thankful on the Badgers' roster than Russo.

"This has been such a great experience that there are no regrets possible," said Russo, who will be one of 21 seniors honored Saturday when the Badgers host No.21 Penn State. "I would love to get an opportunity on special teams, maybe a field goal block or something, and get out there, but the focus for me is to get the team ready. I love that role."

Russo's journey as a football player and person is long and full of adversity, but a voyage that doesn't include any regrets.

A 2003 graduate of Lake Mills, Russo attended UW-Whitewater for one year (2003-04) and joined the Wisconsin National Guard, a decision that led to tours of duty in Iraq as a member of a security force that totaled over 20 months.

He attended UW-Whitewater for two semesters (2006-07) between his tours of duty and eventually moved to Madison, where he attended Madison Area Technical College. His second deployment came in January 2009 and he returned to Madison after one year in Iraq.

During his second deployment, Russo said all he thought about was football, sometimes staying up late thinking about the opportunity, and was given a chance to walk on after enrolling at UW by virtue of knowing a mutual friend of strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert.

Going through workouts, Russo thought he would be eligible to play in his final season, even though his five-year eligibility "clock" started once he enrolled at Whitewater as a full-time student. However, time spent serving in the military is not counted toward the five years, meaning Russo could play one full season.

That changed in August when Wisconsin was informed that that because Russo attended MATC, he was deemed a transfer student and would have to sit out the season, resulting in his eligibility being exhausted.

Whether Russo was eligible to play or not made little difference to Wisconsin's game plan, but UW officials appealed to the NCAA hoping to show that Russo was not a typical transfer student and was not attempting to skirt the rule.

The NCAA agreed and Russo was given clearance to play for the rest of the season before the Indiana game.

"It was a culmination of what I had worked for," said Russo. "To not be able to play was something I had accepted. In the back of my head I thought it could be reversed and the paperwork could go through by the end of the season, but I wasn't really counting on it. It was a really nice surprise and gave me a lot of energy for the second half of the season.

"For (UW) to appeal shows the character of the coaching staff. They accepted me as part of the team and so they did everything they could to keep me a part of the team. For them to say that they want to keep me around, even though I wasn't going to be eligible, was enough for me to say, ‘Wow, they really care about me.'"

Originally going through spring practices with the linebackers, Russo moved to defensive tackle and gained 20 pounds in order to give UW's offensive line a better, stronger look.

That's come in handy this week with Russo being one of the people impersonating Penn State's 310-pound senior defensive tackle Devon Still, who has recorded 16.5 tackles for loss in 11 games and is 10.5 more than any UW lineman.

"Greg is just a great guy that comes to work every day," defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "He's such a great story and the fact that he fought for his country and how important it was for him to be a part of the Badgers, we're lucky to have him."

Added Borland: "He's just so mature and fits in well here. He's a Wisconsin guy and he is already a leader because of his life experience. You have 17, 18-year-old kids looking up to him and listening to what he has to say."

Not only has it been an adjustment to college football, it's been an adjustment into academics. In school for the longest stint since high school, Russo plans on staying in school following his season, graduate next December with a bachelor degree and start work on his masters in kinesiology.

"I've talked to Herbert and I would love to stay around the strength and conditioning program here," Russo said. "I've always been interested in training athletes."

Russo, a native of Rochester, N.Y., had most of his extended family from New York in town for the Indiana game and will have a modest gathering of immediate family and friends waiting for him at midfield Saturday. Hopefully, they will get to see him in his biggest role yet for the Badgers.

He certainly has earned it.

"It's going to be emotional, but I think I'll be more emotional for the other guys because I've become a part of the organization and see how much work those other guys have put in over four, five years," Russo said. "I'm just happy to be here. I don't want any attention to be on me. I want it to be on them, because they are the ones that have worked so hard for so long for this program."

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