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Inside the NFL | Sam Farmer ON THE NFL

One That Almost Got Away Is a Fine Catch

October 25, 2003|Sam Farmer

MINNEAPOLIS — It's the most telling statistic in football, and the Minnesota Vikings have it wired.

Through six games last season, they had turned over the ball 14 more times than their opponents. Consequently, they were 1-5. Now, they are 6-0 -- the NFC's only undefeated team -- and are plus 13 in the turnover ledger.

If you're searching for reasons for that astounding 27-turnover swing, you first must look at No. 27, free safety Brian Russell, who has emerged as the major-domo of the Metrodome-o.

Russell has intercepted a pass in each of six consecutive games, tying a club record. If he picks off one Sunday against the New York Giants, he will have the longest such streak in 35 years.

And to think that Russell once was almost a human fumble, a player the Vikings were ready to let slip through their hands before the 2001 season.

Russell, a former La Puente Bishop Amat High quarterback, was a victim of the numbers game. The Vikings had too many safeties and were so ready to cut him that they took away his playbook. Willie Shaw, defensive coordinator at the time, interrupted Russell's workout, shook his hand and sent him upstairs to the office of then-coach Dennis Green.

The implication was obvious: No. 27 had been 86'd.

"I go into Coach Green's office and we're just talking," Russell said. "He goes, 'You know what? Just wait here for a second.' He leaves for about 10 minutes. I'm sitting in the chair just thinking, 'What is this? Just cut me. I've got to go home. This is terrible.'

"He finally comes back and says, 'You know what? Keep working hard. We need you to get better. Go down and finish your lift.' "

In hindsight, getting rid of Russell would have been a huge mistake. But the Vikings wouldn't have been the first team to overlook the kid, who has had to market himself throughout his football career.

Even after leading Bishop Amat to a CIF Division-I championship in 1995, Russell barely registered on the radar screen of many college coaches. He got a few nibbles, then wound up playing Ivy League ball at the University of Pennsylvania, where he became the first freshman quarterback to start in school history.

Although he appreciated the education Penn offered, he was dedicated to chasing his football dream. So he left school after the season and spent his spring semester at Mt. San Antonio College, where his father teaches and is an assistant football coach.

"We weren't surprised he came back," Paul Russell said. "His interest and conviction [in football] was so strong that he wanted to play at the highest level."

That meant starting at the lowest level. Cold calling. Russell sent out a bunch of letters to schools that spring and got a lot of thanks-but-no-thanks responses. Determined to grab hold of his destiny, he and his father hopped in the car and drove to San Diego State for an unofficial visit with then-coach Ted Tollner.

Tollner briefly met with Russell, who's clean-cut and polite, and agreed to watch a video of his football exploits. He arranged a campus tour for the boy and his father, then popped in the tape.

When the Russells returned, Tollner did something he had never done. He offered the kid a scholarship on the spot. Russell tried to accept it right away, but Tollner told him to wait and think it over for 24 hours.

Russell couldn't wait that long.

"We called him on the ride home," he said.

Tollner quickly learned how lucky he was that day. Russell, who sat out the next season because of transfer rules, started at quarterback as a sophomore in 1998 and was named the offensive captain. He led the Aztecs to the Las Vegas Bowl, the school's most recent bowl appearance.

He was more solid than spectacular at quarterback, a dink-and-dunk passer who didn't make a lot of mistakes. So when the Aztecs landed rocket-armed Jack Hawley, a top JC transfer, Russell knew he probably wouldn't hold onto his job too long. He started the next season but was soon replaced by Hawley.

"He was a natural quarterback; I was winging it," said Russell, who was "devastated" when the change was made but agreed to make the switch to defensive back.

Russell quickly adjusted to playing defense, even though he had never lined up on that side of the ball. He was named All-Mountain West Conference honorable mention as a defensive back his senior season, and signed as a rookie free agent with the Vikings in 2001.

He has uncommon speed and a tree-stump thickness to his neck that makes him look built for hitting. He clobbered Denver's Shannon Sharpe over the middle Sunday. Russell was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit and was fined $7,500 by the league, a penalty he plans to appeal.

"I'm not out to hurt anybody," he said. "But if you come across the middle, I'm going to hit you as hard as I can. That's a given."

Russell is quick to point out that the pressure the Vikings are applying up front is largely responsible for his interceptions. Denver's Steve Beuerlein had next to no time to set up Sunday.

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