Getting To Know: SS Brian Russell

Safety Brian Russell spent last season on the practice squad learning from former teammate and San Diego workout partner Robert Griffith. Now Russell is seeking improvement as a defender ... and a surfer.

Brian Russell plays safety, but seeks danger.

At work, the greatest compliment he could someday receive would be if Vikings fans said he reminded them of Robert Griffith. At play, the greatest comment beachcombers could offer would be that on a surfboard, he emulates the moves of Corky Carroll, one of the best surfers to ever navigate Pacific Ocean waves.

It is difficult to differentiate which Russell likes more — making interceptions and tackles or making waves and hanging 10.

"You can't explain the draw to surfing," Russell said. "It's a soulful sport. You're out there enjoying the ocean and the water. I love the water and being in it."

He loves the football field and being on it. To Russell, surfing and football are intertwined. "In football and surfing, you challenge yourself," he said. "To a lot of people it seems real easy. But you challenge yourself on bigger days and you put yourself in situations where you try to make it."

Never getting trapped by complacency and allowing himself to settle, Russell has always put himself in challenging situations and pushed himself to that maximum line known as the limit.

Academically, Russell never backed down from the books. After graduating from Bishop Amat High School in West Covina, Calif., Russell, a star quarterback on the football field and a star student in the classroom, went east to the Ivy League. Russell spent his freshman year of college at the University of Pennsylvania. He went there to make a name for himself in college football, but to get accepted into a prestigious Ivy League school he also had to make the grades.

"Classes are tough," Russell said. "But the hardest part about an Ivy League school is getting into an Ivy League school."

He got out of it almost as quick as he got in.

Russell became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Penn when he started against Harvard, then Cornell. In all, he played in 10 games that season, but Russell wanted more out of the experience than Division I-AA football could offer.

He sought a release from Penn, shopped himself around, narrowed down his choices to Oregon State, Utah and San Diego State, then chose the SDSU Aztecs.

"It was a tough decision because I liked the University of Pennsylvania, but I just had this burning desire deep down to keep moving up and keep moving up to see how much success I could have in college football," Russell said. "You never expect to be in the NFL, but the bottom line was I was playing Division I-AA, which is good football, but I wanted to play I-A — that's the best football."

Naturally, transferring from Penn to San Diego State, Russell didn't face high expectations, just self-imposed pressure. "I was an unknown when I got there," he said. "I wasn't heavily recruited, so guys hadn't even heard of me. Wherever you go, you just have to earn your stripes."

After redshirting his second year (his first at San Diego State), Russell was thrust into starting duty at quarterback when the Aztecs' starter suffered an injury. Russell finished the season leading the Aztecs to the Las Vegas Bowl.

Russell started his junior season against South Carolina, hitting 11 of 18 passes, including two touchdowns. He finished his junior season with 20 tackles as the team's strong safety. After playing quarterback his entire life, Russell permanently crossed over the line of scrimmage and became a defensive back.

"They brought in a Juco All-American quarterback to compete with me and we split playing time," Russell said. "Realistically, he had a stronger arm than me and I had better speed."

The writing on the wall, though, wasn't crystal clear.

"Without a doubt they had to sell the move to me," Russell said. "I had been the quarterback when we went to a bowl game and won a (All-Mountain West) conference championship. When they told me they wanted to switch me, it took me a while to accept it.

"It was a big adjustment. I was a high-profile quarterback in high school. They didn't want me to get hurt so I never played defense."

By the time his senior year had ended, Russell was an All-Mountain West honorable mention defensive back. But even though his college career ended, his football career had barely begun.

Thanks to a relentless work ethic and embers of desire that haven't shown any signs of dwindling, Russell built himself into an NFL starter that two years ago didn't have his name announced during the draft.

Former Vikings receiver Cris Carter runs an offseason speed and conditioning camp in Boca Raton, Fla. There is a less-publicized offseason camp with similar intentions in San Diego. With running drills led by an Aztecs track coach and a weight room regimen designed by an Aztecs strength coach, players like former Vikings safety Griffith, Freddie Jones, Ronnie Harmon, Russell and others go through daily grueling workouts that turn their bodies into machines.

They "put up" their first weight at 9 a.m. They lift weights until 10:30. A protein shake usually follows weight lifting, then by 11 the athletes are running on the track for a 2-hour workout.

Naturally, in between drills, there was down time. In between sips of water and gasps of air, Russell constantly interviewed Griffith.

"I spent last year on the practice squad so I knew the (Vikings) system," Russell said. "I had spent a year watching Griff in the locker room and on the field. I was always asking him questions, knowing he wasn't coming back (as a free agent, Griffith signed with Cleveland) and I was trying to follow in his footsteps. Griff helped me."

The evolution of Russell on the Vikings' roster has been a quick one. Last season, he spent the year on the practice squad. During practice, he was on the scout team. During home games, he wasn't in uniform. During road games, he stayed home in Minnesota and watched the games on TV.

"To be really frank, I wouldn't be in the NFL if it wasn't for the practice squad," he said. "I'd be fooling everyone else if I would've said I was ready to contribute on defense last year. Learning was my job on the practice squad."

The Vikings have struggled in Russell's first season on the active roster. They were 0-3 when he made his first NFL start in Seattle. By halftime, Russell had watched Shaun Alexander cruise by him and the rest of the defense five times for touchdowns. But since?

"In the second half things actually went well," Russell said. "You have to stay positive. In that second half, we put it together, and we tried to keep the ball rolling against New York and we played our best game of the season against Chicago."

Russell hopes he keeps getting opportunities to remain a starter and make plays for the Vikings. "For me, it's just a process of getting better and trying to get the coaches to have confidence in me," he said. "As a team, we've had our ups and downs, but now I think we're just starting to put it all together."

He didn't learn how to surf overnight. He still hasn't forgotten the endless hours spent with his boyhood friends catching waves on Newport Beach, then getting humbled every time a wave would come crashing down.

"When you're young and you're surfing, it's just you and your buddies," Russell said. "You take your lumps."

Sound applicable to another situation?

Favorite movie: Shawshank Redemption
Favorite actor: Robert DeNiro
Favorite actress: Cameron Diaz
Favorite TV show: The Simpsons
Favorite music: Reggae
Current vehicle: 1998 Ford Ranger
Favorite vehicle: Ford F-250
Toughest player I ever faced: Az-Zahir Hakim
If I wasn't playing football: I'd be trying to get a masters degree and surfing as much as I could.

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