Southeast on the watershed of the Mississippi River sits the "Stove Capital of the World", better know as Belleville, Illinois. The midwest town was founded by German descendants, who established iron, coal and agriculture manufacturing. It was also a little known hotbed for professional baseball scouts to discover future stars and the home of tennis star Jimmy Connors.
Belleville would also be the American hometown of Matt Russell.
The linebacker became known for his physical play at Belleville High School East, receiving scholarship offers from at least 70 schools in every major conference. Russell was ranked No. 2 in the nation at his position with many options for his football future.
After winning a national championship in 1990, Colorado carried weight with high school players and was the powerhouse where many recruits wanted to play. Coach Bill McCartney was a motivator to many players throughout the decade and his assistants carried the same passion. Gary Barnett and Brian Cabral came to Belleville to visit the Russell’s house, selling the idea of coming to Boulder. Matt made a visit to Iowa and was undecided before making an official visit to CU.
"I wanted to meet Mac before I decided," Russell said.
"When I came on my official visit and went over the hill into Boulder, I knew immediately that was home and after meeting Mac I was sold."
During that weekend Ted Johnson, Greg Biekert and John Knutsen would host Russell before he headed back to Illinois with McCartney to introduce himself to Matt’s parents.
Russell was one of the best linebackers to ever wear black and gold. At 6’2" and 245 pounds, he was a nightmare for opposing offenses to cover, often thrashing through lineman making unpredictable tackles. The All-American left Colorado in 1997 first in unassisted tackles (282) and the second Butkus Award winner in school history (1990, Alfred Williams).
After being drafted in the fourth round in the 1997 draft by the Detroit Lions, Russell’s NFL career would be brief. He retired after three seasons in the league with a knee injury. But Russell returned to his alma mater with NFL experience, instructing the linebackers as a graduate assistant during the 2000 season under coach Gary Barnett.
It wasn’t expected, but Russell found a new calling. His extensive football knowledge impressed Lions’ scout Tom Dimitroff, who had a long history of work in the CFL and NFL. Dimitroff became the New England Patriots’ director of college scouting and hired Russell to his staff in December 2000.
Russell saw the opportunity as the start to a new career with the potential of opening front office doors. He would spend nearly a decade with the Patriots (2001, 2003-05) and Philadelphia Eagles (2006-08) before coming back home to Colorado in 2012 to serve as the director of player personnel for the Denver Broncos.
The Rise for the Buffaloes has been a vision of Coach Mike MacIntyre’s since he was hired in 2012. He sought to bring the traditions of CU football back and incorporate new ones. Russell was invited by Mac to share his experiences with the team and was featured in "The Rise: Episode 2" airing on the Pac-12 Network.
Russell has watched the Buffs fight through adversity over the past decade and sees the excitement returning with MacIntyre’s progress. From a scouting prospective, Russell has noticed change with the mentality of the Buffs, especially on defense.
"I saw a bunch of hungry guys wanting to turn the corner with the program," Russell said. "Thus far, their play has really shown a commitment to that".
As an alum, Russell has supported CU through the rough times and respects the dedication that Mac has put into the program.
"Anyone that is still involved with their university like I am, wants to see success— for the kids and for the staff. Those guys have worked extremely hard. Coach MacIntyre and his staff put in countless hours to prepare for games and to see it all pay off now, after a lot of difficult years is awfully fulfilling."
Colorado’s secondary brings a veteran leadership and is one of the deepest talent wise in the country. With the devalued state of running backs in the game of football, defensive backs are relied on more to be a threat in coverage.
"Anymore teams throw the ball so much and the secondary is critical," Russell said. "I think it has changed over the years and the offense use to be so ground based. In the NFL and college you have to have good secondary players to be successful. When I talked to the team, I acknowledged the secondary at CU. Those guys are as good as anyone in the country. They’ve got good sized athletes who’re playmakers. They’ve got a lot of swagger back there."
And in large part the success on defense is due to one person— Jim Leavitt. Russell and Leavitt go back to the days of the Big 8 conference with Kansas State and Colorado. He remembers what it was like facing the defensive coordinator and sees what the coach brings to Colorado.
"Kansas State has some of the stiffest defenses that you could find. It’s a great asset to Colorado to have a guy with that kind of charisma, personality and knowledge to draw from. He’s been successful everywhere he’s been and I’m excited to have him at CU."
It’s not just the defense that is earning their stripes. CU’s offense continues to play more physical with the trio of Shay Fields, Bryce Bobo and Devin Ross. Each week, there’s one playmaker for the Buffs who shines brighter than the rest and Russell thinks national recognition is coming for Colorado.
"The Buffs have a lot of players that are better than what a lot of people think. You’ll hear more about as they continue to go through the season and win. The roster top to bottom has good players and as they recruit they’ll get better."
Russell believes CU will make the postseason this year and realizes what that means for guys like Sefo Liufau, Chidobe Awuzie, and Kenneth Olugbode. "I fully expect with what they’ve shown thus far, they have a great opportunity at a bowl game and more than anything an opportunity at improvement. That’s what is so exciting for these kids that worked so hard, especially the seniors for four years to go into Ann Arbor and get that close or on the road and get a big win in Eugene."
The Buffaloes will be going for another big win this weekend against Stanford and it's the most interesting week around the Broncos front office. A wager has been set with Russell and his boss, John Elway, who's a diehard Stanford alum. The two have agreed the loser will wear the opposing jersey of the winning team for a week following the game. John would look good sporting some CU black and gold.
Russell has become one of the best at his position in the NFL, winning Super Bowl rings with the Patriots and Broncos. He hopes to further his experience and contribute to the success of the Broncos for many years to come.