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April 1, 2011

From Iraq to UW spring camp

Whenever Greg Russo had a chance to wind down after having spent the majority of his day patrolling bases and other military convoys, one thought consistently ran through his tired, homesick and stressed mind.

Football.

As a way to ease the burdens and tolls of serving his country in 100-plus degree temperatures during his second tour of duty in Iraq - a total of eight months spent inside the Middle Eastern country in addition to the 12 months he spent there during his first tour of duty - Russo would sit back and dream of the day he would return home, a day when he would be able to chase down one of his lifelong dreams.

"I had pipe dreams while I was in Iraq the second time to play for the Badgers," Russo said following his fifth spring practice with the team. "I always thought I was big and athletic so I started working hard and working out. I started realizing that I can maybe do this."

The guy head coach Bret Bielema affirmatively tabbed 'Russo' is no longer chasing his dream now that he's back from his second stint overseas with the Wisconsin National Guard.

He's living it.

Following his arrival back to the states in January of 2010, the Lake Mills (WI) native and soon to be 26-year-old Russo fell into the graces of a couple of trainers at Hitters SportsPlex in the Madison suburb of Middleton.

Once there, Keysha Benzing and her husband Skip helped not only nurture Russo's affinity for working out, but also directed him in the path that ultimately led the soon to be 26-year-old war veteran to the McClain Center and the Wisconsin football winter conditioning program.

"They befriended me and took me under their wing," Russo said. "Keysha used to work at UW athletics so she called up Ben Herbert, the strength and conditioning coach, and she talked me up enough.

"Here we are."

Following a long, drawn out, paperwork process that essentially determined Russo has one year left of eligibility, Bielema laid some parameters for what he was looking for from a guy that was nearly seven years old when his newest crop of recruits were infants.

"I know Herbs (Ben Herbert) kind of went through a whole process with him because of the eligibility issue," Bielema said following UW's third practice of spring camp. "Because he was in the military there was a bunch of paperwork to go through. I said if he comes out and if he can compete in winter conditioning and show that he can move and be a valuable asset we'd give him a shot.

"That's what he's getting."

Though he's always considered himself an athletic person and though he served nearly two and a half years of his life inside a war torn nation, Russo entered UW's winter conditioning without really knowing what he was getting himself into.

Physically, he felt as though he would be able to handle the rigors of a strength and conditioning program because he surely had endured enough rigorous situations throughout his time in the military.

But when he joined the rest of the Badger squad midway through the program after his paperwork finally went through the compliance office, Russo was somewhat taken aback.

"Funny story," Russo said. "The first thing I actually had to do after the warm up was heavy sled pulls. My thighs, I thought they were going to explode. We go down to the gym and it turns out that was part of an extended warm up almost. So I get downstairs and I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? What did I get myself into?'

"But I got through it."

NOT YOUR ORDINARY PATH:

The last organized football game Russo actively participated in came when his Lake Mills team matched skills with nearby Cambridge in November of 2002. Russo, a linebacker during his final season of prep football, remembers his team winning that game even though it was just "an okay year."

Though his team "wasn't as good" as they had been earlier in Russo's career, the senior still had an opportunity to play football at the next level, albeit on the smaller division three scale, based on what he was able to accomplish throughout his career.

So, like the path many high school kids take, Russo graduated from Lake Mills High School and decided college was where life was leading him next. Being slightly recruited to play for the Warhawks, Russo eventually enrolled at UW-Whitewater, a football program that was on the brink of becoming the national powerhouse it is today.

When he arrived on campus, however, Russo never tried out for the football team. Knowing he didn't do what he originally planned on accomplishing at Whitewater, Russo felt the need to make a difference in an arena outside of football.

That's where Russo's patriotism took center stage.

"I don't know if I regret it because here I am and I couldn't be happier," Russo said in reference to not trying out for Whitewater's football team. "But I wanted to do something. I felt like I was kind of just floating. Serving your country is a great thing. There are a millions reasons I could give you.

"You could pick one."

Russo, who's family moved to Wisconsin from Rochester, New York when he was seven years old after his dad received a job at Kodak headquarters in Lake Mills, served his first tour of duty from the summer of 2005 until the winter of 2006.

When he arrived back to the States, Russo moved back to Whitewater and attended classes there for a year before moving to Madison. Having worked at state headquarters as a Wisconsin National Guard active duty member over the next couple of years, Russo was called for duty yet again in 2009.

It was during that stretch of his life that he truly started believing football, the game he loves so much, needed to be a part of his future.

"The second deployment (I thought about it) the whole time, every day and every night," Russo said. "I stayed up at night sometimes thinking about it. I tried to contact coaches and stuff, but I was just some guy emailing the coach saying I'm good enough. There are 1,000 guys that want to be on this team. And that was also two seasons ago."

Russo, in the same email, made it clear he wasn't going to be able to return to the states and participate in any football activity until 2011. As one would probably expect, most of the coaches he contacted were up front with him in regards to the delay.

"They were like 'We don't think that far ahead necessarily," Russo said. "Especially for some guy that's emailing. I don't blame them. But I did, I thought about it every day. I trained every day and I was lucky enough to have a good weight room. I went outside and I ran sprints whenever I could.

"I was exercising all the time."

For Russo, a guy that spent most of his formative years just outside the greater Madison area, has been a lifelong Badger fan. When he started looking into the possibilities of playing at the collegiate level there was only one choice.

Wisconsin.

"This was it, man," Russo said. "I grew up around the area and I love the Badgers. I can't even imagine where else I would want to go."

LIVING THE DREAM:

There are only a certain number of people that can truly relate to Russo's path.

As a 20-year-old young adult and newer member of the United States military, Russo was called up for his first tour of duty to a country that was in the midst of one of the more violent stretches of its ongoing war. His task was to protect bases and other convoys from an insurgency that proved to be downright lethal.

Having already spent 16 months overseas once before, he was then called up for a second tour just a few short years after coming back and readjusting to civilian life. Just like that, Russo was going back to the very place he had previously spent more than a year of his life to spend another year-plus of his life in much of the same situation.

"It's tough being away from home," Russo said. "There were moments. The second deployment we were so drawn down that we were more just watching over the Iraqi Army and making sure they were training and making sure they were getting good, quality training and making sure they were taking over the role of being an active military."

With that much life experience already at his behest, Russo found himself rolling into a college campus featuring a football team that just won a Big Ten championship and one that finished ranked seventh in the nation. And low and behold, he had a chance to make the team. Those pipe dreams he enjoyed during those hot nights in the desert were actually coming true.

As a 25-year-old man, Russo (who'll turn 26 by the start of the fall camp) is by far the oldest player in the team. In fact, most of the guys at the linebacker position he hangs out with weren't even born in the same decade as him. But that doesn't even come close to mattering.

"They're good guys," Russo said. "I love the team. They're all hard workers and they're all really fun and energetic. I hang out with a lot of guys that were born in the 90's, which is an odd thing because I'm not old, but on this team I'm really old. But they've been really good.

"Everybody has been really cool. They get along with me well and they like my story."

Having not played organized football for nearly a decade it goes without saying that Russo is rusty. He's not exactly a threat to crack the two deep anytime soon, but he is a guy that is cherishing every single opportunity that he gets.

And his teammates, the same ones who are more than willing to help him with whatever he needs, pick up on that.

"They're really encouraging," Russo said. "So they help me with the drills. I don't know a lot of the drills that we do. I still have to learn just what practice is like, let alone what the defense is. I like to think I've done pretty well. The physical stuff, for me, isn't the hard part. It's the playbook and knowing my responsibilities on the field in a game situation.

"That's where I'm going to be way behind everybody."

When asked about his newest player, Bielema was quick to point out that the one thing that glaringly stands out about Russo is his energy.

"Physically he looks the part," Bielema said. "The first day he went 100 miles per hour and you don't want to be in the way of him. It's fun to see him go through that."

That's just Russo's demeanor.

"I have no choice," Russo said. "I'm not on the fall roster yet. Really, that's how everybody should take it in the spring. You're here to work, you're here to prove that if you were a number one player you're still a number one player. If you were a number four player, and you're good enough, maybe you're a number one player. I have to (work hard) because this is it.

"According to NCAA eligibility rules I only have one year of eligibility so it's do or die every day, every practice and every down."

DOWN THE ROAD:

Spend 10 minutes with Greg Russo and you'll understand he's a guy that is enjoying this experience. At one point he said the past "five or six weeks have been amazing" and that he has been star-struck by some of the former Badgers that still spend time around the facilities as they prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft.

Russo is currently not on the spring camp roster, though, and he knows nothing is guaranteed. He knows the end of this dream could happen with one bad fall here or an awkward twist there. He knows that if he wants to be a full time member of the team he grew up cherishing that he has to prove his worth on the field.

"Maybe I'm just being positive, but I think it's pretty realistic," Russo said. "I think if I could show that I can work and be a contributing member, whether it's on the field or as a leader as a guy with a lot of life experience, I'm fine with that. I just love being part of the organization.

"Whatever I can do to stay part of that is fine with me."

Wisconsin, though it loses a couple of seniors from last year's squad, is still stacked at the linebacker position. Chris Borland, Mike Taylor and Ethan Armstrong are all widely considered starting material and none of them are older than junior status.

Conor O'Neill, Kevin Claxton, Josh Harrison, Marcus Trotter, A.J. Fenton, Nick Hill, Cameron Ontko and Cody Byers are all probably ahead of Russo, too.

But that doesn't matter to him, nor should it.

For a guy that served his country, took a bit of an elongated path to his dream school, fell in line with a couple of trainers at a Madison suburb gym, worked his way through the rigors of winter conditioning and is trying to find his way as a reserve to the reserves at the linebacker position on a top 15 football program, Russo is already living a dream that has been brewing his entire life.

It's hard not to root for a guy like that.

"Somebody up there likes me, I guess," Russo said. "It's a blessing."







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