From Doug Roberson.
J.J. Russell is excited to play at Georgia Tech on Saturday.
Russell, a safety for Presbyterian, was a two-sport standout in football and baseball at Wesleyan. He grew up watching Tech and Georgia and dreaming of playing Division I football. Because he’s slightly undersized at 5-11, 190 pounds, he ended up at Presbyterian, though that was an adventure.
Three years later, the first time he will play in Georgia, many friends and family will get to watch him.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said.
It will also give him another chance to spend some time with father, Terry, and mom, Beth.
That time is precious.
Beth was diagnosed with stage four cancer two months ago. The source of the cancer is unknown, but it is in her abdomen and was discovered during gall bladder surgery. She receives chemotherapy treatments every three weeks. The treatments have caused her to lose her blond hair and taken some of her energy, but haven’t sapped her spirit.
“She’s a special lady,” J.J. said.
The family relies on its faith, as it always has, to deal with the cancer.
J.J. grew up with his family in the church. But when he arrived at Presbyterian, he lost his way.
Bobby Bentley, the coach that recruited him, left just after the season.
Harold Nichols, the next coach, didn’t know much about him and didn’t seem too interested. Russell said he called Nichols every week to check in.
His persistence paid off … sort of.
Russell was told he could be a preferred walk-on.
NCAA rules that limit camps to 90 players. Russell was the 93rd in line. He couldn’t work out at the facilities. When he showed up the first day the coaches handed him a camera to film practices.
Up the tower he went.
But he wasn’t going to give up. He worked out on his own and studied the playbook by himself. He needed three people to get injured or leave. Three players got injured.
Down the tower he came.
Russell was put on the scout kickoff team during his first scrimmage and made several tackles.
Nichols had promised Russell that he if he showed him something, he would make the team.
Nichols was true to his word.
Russell played in the season-opener against Furman on the kickoff team. He did so well he was put on full scholarship as a sophomore and should start Saturday against the Yellow Jackets.
“I couldn’t be more appreciative of Coach Nichols,” Russell said. “He didn’t shove me under the bus and say ‘Forget about this kid.’ He gave everyone a shot to prove they could play.”
But Russell began to question his faith.
One night during his sophomore year, unable to sleep, he began walking around. Standing on an intramural field on campus, he prayed. He asked God to show him something.
He said he didn’t get a burning bush like Moses. He got something else.
“I got a sense of God’s love that there was no rational explanation for,” he said. “It was the first time I encountered Jesus in a real way.”
He has relied on that faith to give him hope during his mom’s ordeal. He’s not oblivious to what she faces. She said she hasn’t been given a prognosis. She doesn’t seem worried. She is trying to be more appreciative of things like a cup of coffee on the porch in the morning or a walk outside in the sun. She’s written a Bible study for women who have eating disorders, something she struggled with in college. She said she hopes she’s showed J.J. and younger brother Chad how to live a life exemplified by faith.
“Going through my battle with cancer, [my hope] is that God would be glorified through it, regardless of the outcome,” she said.
J.J. is trying. Before his mom’s diagnoses he was already active in several campus organizations, including helping a foster home near campus. He’s trying to give back and share what religion means to him. He bought thousands of light purple wristbands with “For His Glory” etched on them that he gives away.
“This cancer has given me a little bit of a different perspective on what life is,” he said. “We can walk around thinking that day to day momentary pleasures are going to last…this cancer has made me think about my mortality. I’m going to go around doing what I think will make the most impact every day.”
The family will get to spend some time together at the hotel Friday before the game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. J.J. said Nichols has been very understanding of the situation, encouraging him to spend as much time as possible with his family.
“People say my mom is sick, but we are all sick,” he said. “I can tell you that I go out there and lay it on the line because my mom has cancer. But it’s not to please my coaches or the campus; it’s to please the Lord, who loves me and my mom.”
Georgia Tech blog