When the phone finally rang on Friday evening, KeiVarae Russell tried to keep his emotions intact. The 20 or so people who gathered around him in a real estate building in his hometown of Everett, Wash., grew quiet as he spoke on the other line ... at least until he couldn’t hold in the emotion anymore.
“I was trying not to show it right away, but I was kind of acting like it was somebody else,” an emotional Russell said during his first news conference after the Chiefs selected him in the third round, 74th overall, of the NFL Draft. “They definitely knew it was a team, but they didn’t know what team exactly, but then when they saw it was Kansas City, they went crazy.”
They had reason to celebrate. Russell, a three-year starter at Notre Dame, hasn’t had the easiest road to get to this point.
“I’ve seen my mom struggle, we never had much, and it was just a way out to help my family, and a way to make my family smile, too,” Russell said. “I was the first one to graduate high school, and the first one to go to college, so I’ll be the first one to get my degree when I get it.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“So this is something big, man, that’s why it feels special man, to just be able to change my circumstances and be able to play the game I’ve loved since I was a kid.”
Russell started the first 26 games of his career at Notre Dame, emerging as an impact starter quickly. But he didn’t have a smooth road there, either. In 2014, Russell and four of his teammates were suspended for academic improprieties. He missed the 2014 season because of an ensuing academic investigation but was cleared by the NCAA and reinstated in 2015, when he re-emerged as a starter and recorded 60 tackles (3 1/2 for loss), two interceptions and four pass breakups in 11 games.
“It’s an isolated instance,” general manager John Dorsey said. “He’s a really sharp ... kid. Everybody in South Bend loves him. He was the class president of his high school. He’s a well-spoken, articulate, sincere guy who likes to play the game of football, plus he wants to get himself a degree.”
Russell said the months he had to spend at home away from Notre Dame, training and going to school while working during his suspension, gave him a tremendous sense of a gratitude for the opportunity that now lies ahead.
“At the time, you’re kind of stuck in a deep darkness, sitting there thinking like, ‘OK, what do I do here?’ You’ve got to think about what you did wrong, will it affect your future, and obviously it went through my mind,” Russell said. “But I kind of knew that at the end of the day, I just had to do what I did to get to where I’m at now.”
Russell made it back and starred, which impressed Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who noted that Russell was the only one of the four players who were suspended to make it back to an active role at Notre Dame.
“Those guys who have been through so much, they appreciate the opportunity, so when you’re kind of looking at the part where don’t know if you’re gonna play, I think that’s special for them,” Reid said of Russell’s reaction to being drafted. “You could tell he was pretty excited.”
Reid noted that Russell knows he was in the wrong for the academic situation and “got himself straightened out.”
“(Notre Dame) coach (Brian Kelly) has a lot of trust in him,” Reid said. “Four (other Notre Dame) kids went through the same thing, and he’s the only one of the bunch that came back. That says a lot about him.”
Russell played through a stress fracture all season long until he broke his right tibia Nov. 19 against Boston College, costing him the rest of the season. But Reid is optimistic Russell be ready for the start of organized team activities in early May, and Russell — who is listed at 5 feet 11 and 196 pounds — shined during his pro day in late March, running a 4.4-second 40-yard dash with a strained hamstring and a tibia that wasn’t fully healed.
He also showed that he has 10-inch hands — very large for a corner — a broad jump of 134 inches and a 38 1/2 -inch vertical, all very good numbers.
“I would put him at a red-level, A-score guy, meaning that he has a lot of (physical) attributes that are really good,” Dorsey said. “You combine that with his toughness, his competitiveness ... any guy that can fight through a stress fracture and play through that and practice through that on a daily basis is pretty mentally tough to me.”
Russell played multiple cornerback positions at Notre Dame, including nickel, and is looking forward to join a secondary that includes Marcus Peters, who starred in Russell’s homestate in college.
“I met Marcus Peters a few times because he went to the University of Washington and I’m from Seattle, so I kind of already know him a little bit,” Russell said. “I think I’m more athletic, as far as the jumping and running, but he has great size and length and is a very aggressive, sound tackler and he’s a great athlete, as well … he’s great when the ball in the air. He has flawless ball skills.
“It’s going to be great to have me and him and the rest of the guys in the secondary, man. I think it’s going to be a special group of guys.”
On Friday, Russell was more concerned with enjoying the moment, one he had been waiting to celebrate with his family and friends for a long time.
“Everybody went crazy, man,” Russell said, referring again to the moment he got the call from the Chiefs. “Everybody went crazy.”