They could break Seth Russell’s leg, they could break his neck, but they couldn’t break his spirit.
From the moment he rode off the field last November in Norman, Oklahoma, the Baylor quarterback believed he would make it back to play football. He didn’t want that painful ride to be the end.
Still, he’s human. There had to be some doubt, some fear, right?
“None at all,” Russell said. “I always had a lot of confidence in myself, a lot of confidence in the people around me – my physical trainer, my strength trainer, my quarterback coach – they all had a lot of confidence in me. And my doctors, too. They said you’re going to have ups and downs, good weeks and bad weeks, you’re going to have setbacks, that’s just part of recovery.
“I know that today was not a setback, it was definitely a step forward. I just have to keep improving on it.”
Russell’s performance in the most sparsely-dressed job interview setting in America couldn’t gone much better. OK, so it’s always different throwing on Pro Day when the defensive backs are invisible, but remember, this is a guy whose left leg was twisted into a pretzel in his last organized action.
So, yeah, he looked pretty darn good. But don’t take my word from it. Ask Jon Kitna, who spent 14 years playing quarterback in the NFL. He ought to know.
“He looked great out there, virtually flawless,” Kitna said.
Russell has been training with Kitna in Waxahachie for the past couple of months. The study sessions have resembled Jon Gruden’s famed “Quarterback Camp” segments on ESPN. In addition to on-field work, Russell has logged countless hours with Kitna in the film room just learning the nuances of different NFL defensive looks and how to play quarterback on the highest level.
“He was telling me some things when I first started meeting with him that I’d never thought of before,” Russell admitted.
That kind of preparation is invaluable for a guy like Russell, who has more to overcome than just a spotty injury history. He’s also a Baylor quarterback – a label that some pro scouts view as an ankle weight. Baylor turned out an assembly line of fantastic, record-setting quarterbacks under Art Briles and his go-go-Gadget spread offense, but NFL schemes are vastly different and demand a distinct type of knowledge.
Russell has heard it in every interview he’s endured. Can he work under center? Can he operate a pro-style attack? Hence the reason those sessions with Kitna are so important. Kitna is like Russell’s Rosetta Stone, immersing the Baylor star in the language of the NFL.
“You’ve got to start with a baseline,” Russell said. “He did that with just watching film.”
Russell is an astute guy – in time, he should be able to read NFL defenses without the Cliff’s Notes. Kitna said that Russell reminds him of veteran NFL QB Carson Palmer – “Very relaxed, not indifferent, just relaxed,” Kitna said.
The injuries are a concern to teams, though Russell gets it. He understands that NFL general managers are loathe to spend a precious draft pick on a player who might be broken down before he ever leaves the garage.
“They want to know what they’re buying,” Russell said. “They want to go through every little sprain, every little hangnail, you ever had. They want to know. They want to make sure they’re not buying a broken product.”
At last month’s NFL combine, Russell spent 11 hours at the hospital. Essentially, the scouts wanted to put him up on the rack and make sure the engine was working correctly. In addition to answering a battery of questions from team doctors, he endured 30 X-rays, three MRIs and one CT scan.
One body part that never has seen the slightest crack is Russell’s funny bone. His 13-minute media session following Tuesday’s Pro Day workouts was part press conference, part Tonight Show monologue. Observe:
On all that time he spent with NFL doctors: “It was a pretty fun deal – if you like the hospital.”
On joining a team like the Dallas Cowboys, which has just two quarterbacks on the roster at the moment: “I’d love it if they didn’t have any quarterbacks.”
And asked how much he really uses that left ankle as a quarterback, Russell quipped, “Not a whole lot. You could probably cut it off and you’d be pretty good.”
There are still numerous, perfectly fair questions that must be answered before an NFL front office green-lights a decision to draft Russell. Sure, he’s athletic enough, but is he accurate enough? Can he call his own plays, can he succeed at the complex pre-snap decisions a pro must make? Can he hold up to the pounding?
Russell would answer every question in the affirmative. And he wouldn’t be joking this time. But it’s not really up to him.
All he wants is a chance.
“Getting drafted would be cool,” he said. “To get an opportunity, looking at the statistics I think players who get drafted in the first three rounds make up 20 percent of NFL teams. So if I get drafted somewhere later than that, I’ll have a pretty good chance of making it somewhere.”
“I’m a grinder,” Russell added. “I’m a fighter.”
The scars are still there. They’re plainly visible on his neck, and on his leg. Multiple surgeries will do that to a person. They’ll leave a mark.
As for Seth Russell’s heart, it seems to be working fine.