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Being drafted by Chiefs wasn't only reason for KeiVarae Russell's tears

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Cornerback KeiVarae Russell was so overcome with emotion after being drafted recently by the Kansas City Chiefs, he was moved to tears.

But make no mistake. They were tears of joy and, even more, fulfillment.

"Just the accomplishment of being drafted and the fact that I haven't graduated just yet -- I have a semester left at the University of Notre Dame," said Russell, a third-round pick. "But the fact that I will be the first one to graduate from my family, I think that's where the emotion came from. I've accomplished something this big and the fact that no one in my family has graduated even from high school ... everybody dropped out of high school.

"To come from the circumstances I came from ... I lived in the projects, that same story everybody always talks about, not having a father, all this other stuff. So to come from those circumstances, there wasn't much around me as far as education I can go to, to look for: 'How do I be successful?'

"For me to accomplish the NFL, that's where that emotion came from. We really made it. This is crazy."

Russell is one semester shy of his degree in marketing and nothing is guaranteed with the Chiefs, though they are in need of help at his position and he will be given ample opportunity for playing time as a rookie.

Just to get to this point, with his degree in sight and his name on an NFL roster, represents a huge win for Russell. Both things were put in peril in the summer of 2014 when Russell, two seasons into his collegiate career, was one of five players suspended from school for academic dishonesty. Russell said in his case it was for plagiarism.

In the initial, dark days after the suspension, Russell, who has acknowledged breaking academic rules, wondered whether at least his dream of a Notre Dame degree was over.

"Initially it ran through my mind, like 'Man, what could happen? Am I going to play football again?'" he said over the weekend while participating in a Chiefs rookie camp in Kansas City. "It wasn't like, I can't make the NFL. It was really about would I be able to play at Notre Dame again? That was the football thing. I figured I was talented enough, even if I left after I was suspended, I feel like I would have done well enough at the combine or put up the numbers, I feel like I would have been drafted or even made some type of team.

"That's where I was kind of skeptical, [saying] 'I don't know if I'll be able to go back to [Notre Dame] and play football, I might have to go to an FCS if I can't go back to [Notre Dame], I might have to wait until the end of the year and go to another Division I school.' That was the worry for football."

During the suspension, Russell returned home to the Seattle area. He took classes at a local community college and worked at a real estate office. He also worked out six days a week, keeping the football dream alive.

"I've never been through something so tough," he said. "Football and school [were] something I've always excelled at. I graduated high school with a 3.7 [grade point average]. I've always been at the top of my game in football, so the fact that those two things [were] gone, it put me through a tough time and a challenging time."

Russell was reinstated at Notre Dame in time for the next season, and he played last fall for the Fighting Irish.

"The sense I got when he came back from the suspension was that it was a very humbling experience for him," said former NFL defensive back Todd Lyght, who took over as Russell's position coach at Notre Dame last year. "KeiVarae had always has success in his life, both on and off the field. That was really his first true test of adversity. But he handled it great. He went back to Washington, continued to go to school, continued to work out.

"When he first came back, that's when we first met. We talked about his future. We talked about goals and aspirations. Everything that young man did from that point on was aimed toward accomplishing those goals."

The suspension may, in the long run, turn out to be a good thing for Russell. He said it taught him he can't take shortcuts, a lesson he believes will benefit him with the Chiefs.

"I got overwhelmed and I let my laziness get to me at that point," he said of the plagiarism. "I went back to Notre Dame and did it the right way my senior year.

"It brought me back to reality. The reason why I'm in the NFL right now, I worked to get here. I have got to keep doing that. The last time I didn't work, the last time I took it easy, I got suspended. That kind of reassured me that if you want to be great, if you want all the aspirations that I've got, obviously pro football and all those, you've got to work for that. You can't just take the easy way out. You've got to put that extra work in that somebody may not. You can't just sit there like, 'OK, it's just going to come to me.' It won't come if you don't work. That's really what I learned throughout that process."