ORONO, Maine — Troy Russell admits that in high school he didn’t give his schoolwork the attention it deserved.
As a result, his dream of playing Division I football had to be put on hold.
Russell had ample time to reevaluate his priorities during the nine months he attended Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. Ever since, the soft-spoken young man from South Plainfield, N.J., has been determined to maximize his potential.
Russell, now a senior at the University of Maine, is on track to graduate in four years. He also plays a pivotal role on the defensive unit for the football team.
He and the Black Bears are gearing up for an important Colonial Athletic Association game at 7 p.m. Saturday at Towson (Md.) University, which is ranked 17th in The Sports Network Football Championship Subdivision poll.
Russell is beginning to realize that his college football career is winding to a close.
“It definitely will encourage you to leave everything out there and not hold anything back, but we’re still taking one game at a time,” Russell said. “I’m playing every game like it’s my last.”
Russell is a three-year regular and a two-year starter. Last fall, he started all 13 games at outside linebacker and racked up 80 tackles with a fumble return for a touchdown.
This season, Russell is UMaine’s third leading tackler with 29.
“He plays a little bit undersized for the position he plays, the rover, but he’s athletic,” UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove said of the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder. “He runs the field well and he fits that position, plays hard.”
Russell has the distinction of wearing the No. 4 jersey. The number was “willed” to him by former teammate Vinson Givans.
“I felt honored to keep the number alive,” Russell said. “You’ve got to live up to it.”
Russell appears to be taking advantage of his opportunity at UMaine.
Coming out of high school, he did not meet the NCAA’s initial-eligibility requirements academically. That meant he would have to hit the books, in addition to opposing ball carriers.
Russell enrolled at Fork Union, a tightly run military school where following the rules and striving for excellence in the classroom and on the football field were expected.
“We had to wear a uniform every day, had real strict rules; no cellphones, nothing,” Russell said. “It was a rough year, but it made me a better person.”
His mother, Toby Russell, had to come up with some money out of pocket to send her son to the school. Troy was determined not to let her down.
“She’s really my motivation for everything,” Russell said. “She’ll do whatever she can for me to make it, so I have to make sure I do whatever I can to take advantage of the opportunities that I have.”
UMaine, which had been aware of Russell through its extensive New York-New Jersey recruiting network, eventually offered him a scholarship. He jumped at the chance.
Fork Union also opened the door for what Russell hopes will be his career path.
One of his classes required him to visit a local middle school and work with some of the students there.
“I helped them with their schoolwork and once we were done with that we played games, read books together, talked. They always had so many questions about everything,” Russell said.
He enjoyed the experience so much that he continued to visit the boys even after the class ended. It eventually led him to pursue a degree in child development and family relations at UMaine.
The enthusiasm of his former students made him realize how much he enjoyed dealing with young people.
“They were having so much fun with me and said I made a difference in their life and that really touched me,” he said.
Russell continues to make a difference on the field for UMaine. He said playing rover is fun because he sometimes handles run support, but also has to cover wide receivers.
“It challenges your responsibility and athleticism a little bit,” he said.
Cosgrove knows the senior is dependable in completing his on-field assignments.
“He runs well to the football. He likes the game. He plays with a purpose,” Cosgrove said.
Russell hopes he and the Bears can take some of the momentum from a strong effort at Delaware (a 26-3 victory) as they take on a Towson squad that prevailed in their 2011 meeting.
“Last year was a key game when we played them and they kind of got the best of us, so we’re looking to return the favor this year,” he said.