Former Mariner High standout KeiVarae Russell is embracing his chance this week at the NFL combine after a rockier-than-expected career at Notre Dame.
INDIANAPOLIS — The road to the NFL took a few unexpected detours for KeiVarae Russell.
But with the draft now just two months away, the former Mariner High standout feels like the path is again clear.
And, he says, maybe handling the unforseen curves without going totally off the road will better prepare him for what lies ahead.
Regarded as one of the top players in the state of Washington in the fall of 2011, Russell committed with much fanfare to Notre Dame after also seriously weighing Washington, Cal and USC.
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Initially considered a running back, the 6-1, 186-pound Russell was almost immediately moved to cornerback.
And he could hardly have asked for a better begging to his college career, finding himself as a starter as a true freshman in 2012 as the Irish advanced to the national title game against Alabama.
After another strong season in 2013, the only question seemed to be how soon the NFL would beckon.
While the case was investigated, Russell returned home, attending classes at Everett Community College and working in real estate.
“It was definitely a learning experience, but it was something I really cherished because I took advantage of the time away,’’ Russell said Saturday when he met the media at the NFL combine. “I also was still going to school full time and training six days a week, so for me, I turned it into a positive.’’
He did so with a goal in mind — to return to South Bend and write a happier ending to his Notre Dame story.
“It shows his resilience just as a person, not just a football player because he could have just chose to sit out or go to the NFL or go somewhere else,’’ said Notre Dame teammate and safety Elijah Shumate, also a combine invitee.
“To me it was important to come back to make a statement that I’m someone who holds himself accountable for his actions, whether they’re good or bad, and he’s going to make it right no matter what it is,’’ Russell said.
Russell was reinstated prior to the 2015 season, the only one of a group that came to be known as the “Frozen Five’’ to come back and play at Notre Dame last fall.
Russell quickly resumed his role as a starter before a more common football speed bump reared, a broken right tibia that caused him to miss the final two games of the season.
He’s still not 100 percent and won’t participate fully at the combine, though he hopes to at Notre Dame’s pro day next month.
In fact, Russell says he played with a stress fracture that eventually turned into the broken leg all year long, something he hopes scouts will take into account as they assess his play.
“I played all year long hurt,’’ he said. “I started feeling symptoms during camp and it kept getting worse and worse all season.’’
Russell could potentially have gained an additional year of eligibility but decided shortly after the season to turn pro, instead.
“It was (a) real tough (decision),’’ he said. “I would have go through a lot to get that fifth year, and it just seemed like too much. It was easier for me to just declare for the NFL draft. I would have had to jump through a lot of hoops to get that fifth year. I feel like I’m ready to play in the NFL, but I also didn’t feel like going through all of those hoops.”
That he was eventually cleared to return to Notre Dame (he says he will ultimately earn his degree) will likely make his suspension a relative non-issue in the eyes of the NFL.
More pertinent is his health and his play.
NFL.com quoted an AFC regional scout saying: “He has second day talent (meaning being taken in the second or third rounds) as a cover corner, but he’s not as big as you want and now the broken legs might complicate things.”
Russell says he hopes to show his football acumen at the combine and then prove at his pro day that his leg is fine.
“The biggest thing is to constantly be more consistent, but that comes with getting healthy again,’’ he said. “I played all year with a stress fracture, I just never told anyone, I just kept playing. I was in a walking boot for three to four weeks before I broke it. I’d be in a boot all week, take it off for the game, play, put it back on after the game. No one knew because I don’t make excuses, I just kept playing. I wanted to play for my team. But try playing corner with a stress fracture. It’s kind of tough, man. It hurts. ‘’