His new potential teammates on the University of Wisconsin football team have been filled with questions about Greg Russo’s experiences during two tours of duty in Iraq for the Wisconsin Army National Guard.
What was it like? What did he do? Did he see combat?
Sometimes, the talk will turn to the automatic weapons Russo carried while guarding a military base and military convoys. That might spark a bit of recognition from the youthful football players, whose experience with weapons probably comes from a video game such as “Call of Duty.”
“When I talk about the military and I say a weapon I used to carry, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, we know what that is,’ ’’ Russo said with a grin. “That’s about the only connection.”
It’s not the only gulf that exists between the 25-year-old Russo, who graduated from Lake Mills High School in 2003, and the players he hopes to join after an extended tryout during spring practices.
“They’re good guys, I love the team,” Russo said. “They’re all hard workers, they’re all really fun and energetic. I hang out with a lot of guys that were born in the ’90s, which is an odd thing. I’m not old, but on this team, I’m really old.”
Russo always wanted to play college football and he loves the Badgers. But it took his experiences in the military to convince himself to give it a try.
A few months ago, Russo stopped by to visit his former coach, Jim Clift, who is still a biology teacher at Lake Mills after coaching football from 1999 to 2006. Russo needed to get some film from his playing career to show UW coach Bret Bielema.
At first, Clift didn’t recognize the 6-foot-3, 245-pound behemoth walking down the hallway toward him. Clift remembers Russo as a hard-working player and avid weightlifter who grew up playing soccer and didn’t join an organized football team until high school.
But the biggest changes Clift noticed were a maturity and laser focus that Russo had developed since high school.
“He has a way different perspective on life now than what a high schooler could ever have,” Clift said. “He’s seen a lot that people don’t ever see. I think it really re-invigorated for Greg his dream.
“He’s kind of got this go-for-broke attitude, like, ‘Look, I’ve got one life and I’m going to go for it.’ ... It was just so good to see him come back, so focused, (with) a maturity that I think only life can teach you.”
Just a pipe dream
Russo’s dream started prior to his second deployment to Iraq, which was involuntary and began in January 2009. He said he thought about football constantly, lifting weights, running sprints and sometimes staying up at night, thinking of how to make it happen.
“It was a pipe dream before my second deployment,” he said. “It just kind of got in my head ... I want to do something that I dreamed about and just take a chance on it. So, I started working toward it.”
That’s when he contacted the Badgers and director of football operations Mark Taurisani for the first time. But Russo wasn’t going to be available for two more seasons and the Badgers couldn’t commit to anything that far down the road.
“I was just some guy emailing a coach, saying I’m good enough,” said Russo, who is practicing at linebacker. “There’s a thousand guys that want to be on this team.”
Russo was a defensive end and offensive tackle and key figure as a junior on a Lake Mills team that went 6-3, the best record at the school since 1988. He moved to linebacker and tight end as a senior and had contact from UW-Whitewater and agreed to try out for its team.
But Russo never went out for football during his freshman year at Whitewater and found himself “floating.” That’s when he decided to join the Guard, even though the unit was on alert and he knew it would mean going to Iraq.
“I wouldn’t be who I am without the deployment, without the military,” he said. “If I could go back, I would have done it earlier, right away (after high school). It changed me for the better. ... The military was the best thing I ever did.”
Overall, Russo served six years in the Guard and was active for four of them. He was deployed a little less than three years and his actual time spent in Iraq was about 21 months. His first deployment came in 2005.
“It’s tough to put into words, in three sentences,” he said of his experiences. “It was a lot to take in. I learned a lot, I grew up, became a man, an adult. I’m grateful for the experience.”
He played down the danger he faced, compared to some other soldiers. He said the two areas he was in did not involve constant fighting. Yet, the threat of buried explosive devices was constant on all of the convoys.
“I’m so blessed I’ve came back and had a smooth transition, because I still know guys — good friends of mine — who stay up at night because they have trouble,” Russo said. “I wish I could take some of that away from them. That bond — you don’t want to see your buddies struggle.”
He returned home in January 2010 and started working out at Hitters SportsPlex in Middleton, where he got to know trainer Keysha Benzing. She used to work at UW and put in a good word for Russo with Ben Herbert, the Badgers’ strength and conditioning coordinator.
It took considerable NCAA paperwork before Russo was able to join the Badgers during winter workouts. It was determined he has one year of eligibility remaining. Athletes are given a five-year window to use their four years of eligibility, which started for Russo when he enrolled at Whitewater. But time spent in the military does not count toward the five years.
The mental part has been more challenging to Russo than the physical part so far. He last played in a football game in 2002 and had to start by learning the drills before he could start grasping the defense.
“I think this is where maturity is really going to play into it,” Clift said. “I’m certain he’s going to put the hours in he needs. I know he’ll learn the position.”
Russo has not yet earned a spot on the team. He is trying to show enough during spring practices to be added to the fall roster as a walk-on.
“It’s do or die, every day, every practice, every down,” he said of his approach.
Clift likened it to the movie, “Rudy,” about the undersized football player who got a chance to play at Notre Dame — but with a notable exception: Russo has “a ton of physical potential.”
“I think this is going to be the story of the power of a dream,” Clift said. “He used his time serving our country to really focus himself on his dream. He had laser eyes when I talked to him. He was sold on it, he said, ‘I know I can do this.’ ”
Russo was a sergeant and team leader, who led college-age men in a combat zone. He’s trying to prove he can be a valuable asset to a football team, no matter what his role.
“Maybe I’m just being positive, but I think it’s pretty realistic,” he said of his chances. “If I can show I can work and be a contributing member, whether or not it’s on the field but as a leader, as a guy who has had a lot of life experience, I’m fine with that.
“The last five or six weeks have been amazing. I just love being part of the organization. Whatever I can do to stay a part of that is fine with me.”