KeiVarae Russell’s purgatory was spent in a real estate office.
Russell, the Chiefs’ third-round pick and former Notre Dame cornerback, sat out the entire 2014 season after allegations of academic misconduct became a university suspension. As he waited to return to organized football, he went back to his hometown of Everett, Wash., where he got a job in real estate, took community college classes and worked out six days a week.
Biding his time, Russell wanted to write a comeback story for himself. Before the academic dishonesty investigation, Russell had been on track to be the first in his family to graduate from college. He came from a poor background, and had also been the first in his clan to earn a high school degree. When he first arrived in South Bend on a football scholarship, the fairy tale seemed prewritten.
That is, until “laziness” struck.
“I didn’t cite the person who helped me correctly, and I just got lazy,” Russell said of his time at Notre Dame. “I got the help and just took credit for somebody else’s work instead of me working like I did before. Got lazy, got overwhelmed.”
Suddenly, everything familiar to Russell was stripped away. And, even worse, it was at his own hands.
Russell packed his bags and went back home to try to find some redemption, all the time hoping for reinstatement at Notre Dame.
“For me, I’ve never been through something so tough,” he said. “Football and school is something I’ve always excelled at. I graduated high school with a 3.7 (GPA). I’ve always been at the top of my game in football, so the fact that those two things are gone, it put me through a tough time, challenging time.”
The NFL was always the end goal for Russell. But getting back to Notre Dame was first in his mind. He guessed he could have put together the combine numbers to earn a spot on an NFL team, even if he hadn’t returned to school for the 2015 season. But the memory of where he came from stuck in his mind, and he wanted to keep on the path toward a college degree.
Reinstated in 2015, Russell played most of the season on a stress fracture in his leg, which eventually gave way to a broken tibia. He finished with 60 tackles and a couple of interceptions that final year, then decided it was time to make the jump to the NFL.
When he got the call from the Chiefs on draft night, Russell started to cry.
“I lived in the projects, that same story everyone talks about, not having a father and all that stuff,” he said. “To come from those circumstances, there wasn’t much around me as far as education. … For me to accomplish the NFL, that’s where the emotion came from.”
Russell could make an immediate impact on a Chiefs team light on cornerbacks. Coach Andy Reid said the 5-foot-11, 192-pound Russell could play either side of the field, and he hasn’t ruled out putting him in nickel packages, either.
Off the field, the Chiefs were comfortable with how Russell had handled his situation.
“Listen, he did wrong there and got himself straightened out,” Reid said after the team drafted Russell. “I think there were four or five kids going through that thing, and I think he’s the only one of the bunch who came back and finished up. I think that speaks for itself there.”
Russell hasn’t completed his marketing degree, yet, but he plans to go back as soon as possible to finish all the requirements. For now, it’s football he’s focused on. With his absence from football still fresh in his mind, Russell isn’t taking his time in a Chiefs jersey for granted.
“People know me as a charismatic, energy guy,” he said. “Now during that time, are you still that person? Is it a mistake or is it a character issue? That was the one thing I wanted to show everybody. Yeah, I made a mistake. But I’m still this charismatic, this hard-working and ambitious kid that’s gonna make it through tough, good, anything — I’m still gonna be this person and I’m not gonna change.”