Sunday, May 19, 2002
[ NFL HAWAII ]
The Real DealClifford Russell played against future Hall of Famers Darrell Green and Bruce Smith when he was in high school.
Life in the NFL is no
video game for Russell
By Dave Reardon
Six years ago, Russell's coach at Campbell, Darren Hernandez, rigged a video game so that his Sabers were in the action, playing against the best of the NFL. Campbell never lost, as Cyber Cliff outran Digital Darrell and the rest of the league to the end zone.
Last month, Russell went up against the real-life version.
"That was wild, running routes against Darrell Green," said Russell, the third-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins. "But Bruce Smith, he's the guy that most surprised me. He's still in great shape. Man, I was a little kid growing up watching those guys."
Now he is one of those guys. Russell -- the Oahu Interscholastic Association Player of the Year in 1996 as a running back who converted to wide receiver at Utah -- is part of new coach Steve Spurrier's plans at Washington.
"He easily could be the fastest player here on the Redskins (where Green, 42, was the fastest player in the league for many years)," Spurrier said. "Not only is he fast, he can cut and run excellent pass routes and catch the ball. It is just a matter of teaching him our offense and adding a few little things. He has got an excellent chance to help us this year. We are excited to have Cliff Russell on the team."
Of course, Russell is just as thrilled to play with the pros. But he said being drafted wasn't the highlight of the past few weeks for him.
"I just graduated," Russell said from Utah last week. "That was the biggest thing. After everything I went through to get here, graduating was the most important thing."
Russell is a case study in perseverance. Hernandez said he took the SAT six times to try to get a passing score so he could go to Utah.
"Actually I took it so many times I lost count," Russell said. "At any rate, it took me some time to get in."
But Russell's doggedness paid off, as he made it into school as a full academic qualifier.
Getting into college was tough, but staying healthy proved impossible. Russell missed 10 games over the course of his college career with a broken collarbone, broken arm and knee sprain. He also sat out most of spring practice last year with a hamstring pull.
But when he played, he was spectacular. Considered the fastest Ute football player ever, Russell caught 53 passes for 744 yards and four touchdowns last season. His 4.2 speed caught the Redskins' attention, but he impressed his new position coach with other attributes at minicamp last month.
Washington wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said it appears the 6-foot, 185-pound Russell's conversion from back to receiver is complete.
"Cliff is an extremely good player. He is better than I thought he would be," Spurrier Jr. said. "He's very intelligent. We knew he could run and catch the ball, but he is an intelligent guy, too. Cliff is learning the offense well, he knows how to get open and I see him being a valuable player in the offense this year."
Once he got over the initial shock, Russell felt comfortable among his new teammates and coaches. With Hernandez and Utah's Ron McBride in his past, Russell is used to flamboyant coaches.
"He's a good guy," Russell said of the elder Spurrier. "He's strict about his offense, though. He wants it done right."
Russell said he's picking up the playbook quickly, and a slew of Spurrier's former Florida players in camp were like player-coaches.
"They helped a lot," Russell said. "It's a little different than college. There was a lot to learn on the first day, but by the last day it was just pitching and catching."
Russell returns to Washington on June 3 for position workouts and then a camp that begins June 10.
Russell said he was slightly disappointed that his draft selection got lost in the shadow of the University of Hawaii's Ashley Lelie being picked in the first round by the Broncos.
"I understand it. He went to UH, and he was a first-round pick. But I still consider Hawaii one of my homes," said Russell, whose father was in the Army and stationed at Red Hill during his years at Campbell. "And I'll always appreciate Coach Hernandez. He's a funny guy, and he helped me out a lot. He gave me the shot to play. Another coach wanted to play another kid. But he said we need to get Russell in there and run the ball."
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