As soon as he tried on the North jersey #35, linebacker Tyler Russell knew it was a perfect fit, just like the uniform he wore for Worcester State University this past season.
Russell recently had the opportunity to play in the Division III North-South Football Senior Classic as one of 10 representatives from the New England Football Conference on the 41 man Northern roster. Russell, the Co-NEFC Bogan Division Player of the Year, finished the 2010 campaign second in Division III with 167 tackles while he led the nation in with 92 solo stops.
The game was shown in primetime on cable television on Friday, December 3 on Fox College Sports Net and anyone can still watch the game online at this link. When Russell was interviewed on the Tuesday after he had made the trip down to Salem Football Stadium in Virginia, things were still sinking in.
"It was a once in a lifetime experience," said Russell. "It was great to see all the talent that Division III football has to offer."
Russell said that the day after he arrived, they started to practice right away on Thursday. The North squad was guided on the field throughout the weekend by the coaching staff from Springfield College.
"There were two practices before the game," said Russell. "After we met with our positional coaches, most of practice was dedicated practicing as a team and what we were going to be doing as a team during the game. In total it was about three hours worth of practice; two hour and a half sessions."
It was quite evident that there was a lot of talent around him as he began to practice with his teammates.
"It was an interesting environment," said Russell. "There were kids from all over the nation, from California, Florida and Texas all getting together. Just by watching practice you could tell that everyone was an all-star from their own conference. There were kids who were bigger and faster and it helped raise the level of competition up."
As an inside linebacker, Russell got the chance to split time with a couple of other linebackers from New England. There was certainly the presence of the North-South rivalry, but the competitors were amiable towards each other during the course of the contest.
"It wasn't as chippy as a normal football game, it was a little more relaxing," said Russell. "For most of the people playing, this was their last football game. After a play, there were kids who were helping each other up after a tackle was made."
Russell said that it was different playing along side or on the same team with players who he had played against during the season.
"It was great that everyone was able to get along," said Russell. "We set our rivalries aside and played as a team."
During the season at Worcester State, Russell played on special teams on punt and punt return, but for this game, he had the unique opportunity to be on kickoff, kick return, field goal and PAT attempts. While he did not play a snap on offense during the game, he got to take some reps at fullback as well during practice.
"We just didn't have a lot of depth, so they had a lot of the cornerbacks and linebackers playing on special teams," said Russell.
The game itself had a wild and dramatic finish as Russell's play on special teams helped win the game for the North in the final period of play.
The North team was ahead early and for a majority of the game until the South team took their first lead with 3:32 remaining in the fourth quarter.
With the score 17-18, South opted to go for the two-point conversion, in the off chance of a last second field goal. Quarterback Justin Feaster of of Mary-Hardin Simmons (TX) took the snap, but it was too high and as Feaster hit the ground to cover up the ball, it was Russell who came off the neutral zone to cover him up.
The failed two-point attempt would prove to be a big play as North quarterback Jacob Caron of Pomona-Pitzer (CA) led the offense down the field and got them within field goal range for Dan Winsley of Concordia (WI) to kick the go-ahead boot.
With the South team trailing 20-18 with two seconds remaining in the game, the squad decided to try to lateral their way into the opposite end-zone.
On the ensuing kickoff, Russell tracked down the first person to receive the opening lateral. Once he had him within his sights, Russell intuitively tried to tackle his opponent. In doing so he forced an awkward backward pass that went right to South's Terryl Monroe of Frostburg (MD) who passed it into the hands of North's Leer Biddle of William Patterson (NJ). Biddle then tipped the bad pass to himself for the extra score to seal the victory for the Northern team.
"I was the first person to congratulate my teammate (Biddle) after he scored the touchdown," said Russell. "I instinctively did what you are supposed to do in that kind of situation and it forced a turnover."
This weekend, Russell will have the opportunity to showcase his talents to NFL and other semi-pro football scouts at the All-American Bowl at the University of Minnesota indoor sports complex. On Saturday, there will be two games at 12 and 3 PM featuring a mix of rosters from both Division II and III football.
"They are going to have practice sessions where they are going to test our speed and agility," said Russell. "I am not sure how much playing time I will get, but it's going to be a very intense atmosphere."
The contest will be televised on the Internet and Russell will be playing in the noontime game on the Blue "Stars" team. He is one of three student-athletes playing in either contest from a Division III New England school. The other two are Kyle Callahan, a punter from Fitchburg State and Paul Shaughnessy a wide receiver/running back from Mount Ida.
After the game in Minnesota this weekend, Russell will try to stay in shape for another competition in May which will pit a group of All Stars from the US and the UK against the Amsterdam Panthers. He said that he was also going to try to showcase himself at every local combine he could during the summer.
"(American) Football in Europe is becoming more popular and maybe there will be more opportunities for Americans to play," said Russell. "There is just a lot of untapped potential out there with pro football teams looking for players to sign to their practice squad."
Russell will walk across the stage in May with his degree in Criminal Justice. He said that he was happy to help lead this year's football team to a successful season.
"It was great to help bring the program back onto a winning track," said Russell. "I hope that next year the team will be able to get back to its winning ways with all of the people from this years team coming back."
Russell himself had a record-breaking season as he shattered the school mark for tackles in a season while he also finished his career second on the all-time tackles list with 398 stops – 380 of which came in his last three seasons.
"This year we had high expectations and I put a little more pressure on myself to perform, but all I did was just did what I always have done and that was play football," said Russell.
"I couldn't have done what I did without the teammates around me. Because teams were able to game plan around someone like me, it added more of a challenge to (opposing) offenses. Our defense was stronger because we were able to play into each others abilities. Anytime you can make (another offense) feel uncomfortable, that plays into an advantage for the defense."
Russell said that playing Division III football helped him reach his potential as a student-athlete in several ways. He felt that by going to a state school, it helped him to do well in both aspects both in the field and in the classroom.
"Through the years I was playing with kids who were working themselves night and day in order to play the game they love, all while balancing jobs, school and football," said Russell. "At the DIII level, many kids are playing simply because they love the game, they love strapping on the pads and going out there and leaving it on the field."
"The DIII player is definitely a different breed of athlete. It's the kids that love the game so much that they will do just about anything to play given all the obstacles they must overcome."