Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
Brock Russell’s journey to NDSU stands out compared to his teammates, who were recruited heavily and given scholarships right out of high school. What’s even more unique has been his loyalty to a program that’s never given him a start because he knows the experience of being a college football player is greater than playing on Saturdays.
Imagine a hot summer day in Fargo. The sun reflects off cars in the parking lot and the Dacotah Field bleachers, while the boiling heat from the artificial turf creates sweltering heat. The humidity makes you wonder where you put your snorkel, and the sweat from your pores open from just the thought of going outside. It’s around dinner time, and the sun is still producing enough heat to make you wish you were in the middle of a lake. But oh, you’re nowhere near relaxation.
For NDSU football players, this scene is the foundation of four national championships. The pain of conditioning matters, and with the help of Jim Kramer and, his grueling summer regimen, every football player is preparing for a long playoff run. It all begins in June, on Dacotah Field, running until your legs weigh a thousand pounds.
“Get those knees up!” walk-on Brock Russell remembers hearing during the summer of 2012, in the midst of his first conditioning session with Kramer and his new teammates.
The Bison were coming off their first FCS National Championship and five months later, they were back at it, putting in the extra sprints to make sure they’d be back in Frisco, Texas, the following January.
Russell had just transferred to NDSU from Bemidji State. He’s a North Dakota native, former Shrine Bowl participant in 2010 and was a 2011 graduate of Mandan High School. He was the first football player in four years from his high school to try his hand at college football.
Russell saw most of his football offers flood in from Division II and Division III schools in the area, including Minnesota State University Moorhead and the University of Mary in Bismarck. During his senior year, he decided he would follow his outdoorsman blood to Bemidji State to continue his football career.
“I didn’t know what college football was like at the time,” said the senior offensive lineman. “I had no idea what to expect.”
What Russell said he wanted was a greater experience. He wanted an opportunity to grow and become the best player he could be while receiving the best coaching possible.
And who knows? Maybe contend for a Division II title with the Beavers.
What he found was disappointment. The coaching staff was bouncing around his roommate from Mandan from position to position. The final straw was when Russell tore his labrum while he was on scout team kickoff coverage, blocking with a padded shield he’d never used before.
After spending the 2011 season on the sidelines, he knew that if he didn’t leave now, he would never find the college football experience he yearned for during his all-state days at Mandan.
“I contacted Coach (Tyler) Roehl because I knew he was an assistant coach and I contacted Coach (Craig) Bohl and I sent him an email,” Russell said. NDSU was one of the many schools he was interested in transferring to after that first fall in Bemidji. “(I) didn’t hear back from him for a while so I thought maybe it wasn’t going to happen.”
Just days before Russell was going to sign his transfer paperwork to a school closer to his hometown — in Bismarck at the University of Mary — Coach Bohl called him.
“Finally, one day I got a call from Coach Bohl, saying, ‘We have an open spot for you to walk-on,’” Russell said. He continued to reiterate what Bohl said, “It’s not going to be a bed of roses. It’s not going to be easy at all, but we have a spot for you to come in and try out and see what happens.”
Russell had no idea what he was getting himself into. But it was the experience he was looking for, and during those summer conditioning drills with Coach Kramer pushing him, he knew it was the motivation he needed to become the best he could be.
It would have been easy for his new teammates, fresh off an FCS title, to not welcome their new comrade. After all, Russell could have been perceived as a guy who wasn’t good enough to cut it at Division II, let alone Division I football. But Russell said his teammates were the complete opposite of what he walked into at Bemidji.
“The guys thought they were bigger than everybody else. They thought they were better than everybody,” Russell remembers. “They had this macho mentality, and NDSU, for how good they were, they were all welcoming here and trying to make me better. I instantly felt at home here.”
Russell had multiple hurdles to overcome. He was transitioning from the defensive to the offensive line. At 6’2”, he was also undersized, arriving at NDSU weighing 250 pounds.
Four years later, Russell is up to 275 pounds and has found his role on the team as a serviceman. You won’t see him playing on the offensive line during the first quarter, but Russell is okay with that. He’s grinded it out and has created a bond with his brothers on the line.
“I might not take the amount of reps that they do on the offensive line or whatever, but we all do the same thing when it comes down to it,” Russell said. “So to see somebody you’ve been grinding with getting bigger, faster, stronger all summer, seeing them be successful for the school, is a big thing for me.
“I come from a family of hard work ethic and wake up every day and contribute to society and do something good. Getting an education, too, is what it comes down to.”
Russell’s father, TJ, is the president and CEO of Cloverdale Food Company in Mandan. He’s seen the benefit of hard work and grinding through the adversity that faces a senior football player who has never started a game in his career.
“I’ve had plenty of days where I’ve wanted to quit, but I’m sure everybody else has, too,” Russell said. “When I’m having a bad day, I’ll give them (parents) a call and they’ll say, ‘Hey, you don’t want to do that.’ Or my coaches will tell me to give them a call, and I go up to the office and they’ll ask me, ‘Is that how you want your story to end?’ They’re right. If I walk out now, what will I do later in life?”
The hard-working mentality has carried over to the classroom, and Russell plans to graduate at the end of the fall semester with a degree in university studies.
His program has prepared him for life after football, just as the tireless summer conditioning and endless practices have strengthened his attitude while facing challenges.
Russell plans to go back to Mandan and work at Cloverdale for his father, but he doesn’t want the keys to the company. Russell said he’s more than ready to start at the bottom, like any other employee, bringing his lunch pail every day and working nine-to-five in the factory.
Russell’s impact on Bison football will never be reflected in the box score or record book, but his serviceman role is the lifeblood of a football program that’s on a historic stretch of success. Russell believes this experience has prepared him for the next challenge life throws his way. Whether that’s in the factory or running a business, he’ll always have the lessons learned during those long days of grinding on the football field to fall back on.