KeiVarae Russell builds unusual legacy at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- KeiVarae Russell had a story to tell. This came as a surprise to absolutely no one. Notre Dame’s fourth-year junior is an open book, his mouth running as fast as his feet, his circle of friends swelling with seemingly each new person with whom he chooses to engage.

He arrived here in the summer of 2012 as a running back from Everett, Washington. His 37-game collegiate career as a cornerback might very well be over, with the confluence of a leg injury and NCAA uncertainty likely pointing him toward the NFL.

He figured most people viewed him through that prism. And he knew he wasn’t alone.

This came to him at a leadership summit with roughly 30 other Notre Dame student-athletes, as several began to share stories about themselves.

"It was empowering just to hear about them and whether it was tough or whether it was something simple,” Russell said in an August interview. “It was like just: ‘Man, I didn't know that about you.’”

So Russell initiated a campus-wide movement, “Get To Know Me ND,” a project that began with Instagram portraits of individuals that in many ways resembled the popular “Humans of New York” blog.

As one of 100-plus Fighting Irish football players, in an athletic department that houses 20-plus sports, on a campus comprised of more than 8,000 undergraduates, Russell was anxious to discover just how little he knew.

“I think people are ignorant toward other people and make assumptions of a person just because of their background, their color, where they're from, who they are,” Russell said. “People say first impressions are a big thing, but some people's first impressions, you don't know how they were that day. You don't know about their mood or anything. So yeah, that first impression might have been bad, but get to know who they really are, it's very empowering. The more empowering [you are of] others, you learn about yourself as well.”

Russell is, in many ways, a walking contradiction. He is a star football player who starred in a school play. He has an opinion on practically everything, but he doesn’t have a Twitter account. He was suspended from Notre Dame for two semesters as part of an academic-misconduct case whose severity remains unclear 16 months later, but he never flinched about returning to the school despite a disciplinary process that he and many others decried throughout.

He remained optimistic, immediately vowing to athletic director Jack Swarbrick that he would make the most of a second chance if he were to receive one. Yes, that meant sealing consecutive wins over USC and Temple this October with diving, late-game interceptions. But it also meant immersing himself back into campus life and tapping into his stated passion of trying to understand people.

“For me it’s less about things than it is yourself,” reads the second Get To Know Me post, quoting Swarbrick himself. “The things you want to get better at, the things you are always working to try to do better.”

Pictured in an office with a Chipotle cup, Swarbrick is quoted about his reverence for Father Ted Hesburgh, the beloved former university president who died in February.

“That's the guy who loves every day, that's the optimist in him,” Swarbrick said of Russell’s involvement. “He's anxious to learn [about] somebody else. So let's create an environment where we get to know people better and learn from them. Very in keeping with who he is."

There are hidden stories, such as linebacker Joe Schmidt declaring himself less talented than his three sisters. There is cheerleader Ryan Lopez -- pictured on a snowy day wearing shorts -- stating his distaste of pants. There is track-and-field sophomore Kirk Hansen sharing his run to the National Spelling Bee as an eighth-grader, and how the experience opened his eyes to the world’s different cultures.

It is all disarming, and revealing. Russell grew up below the poverty line. He is the son of a single mother. On the surface, Russell’s story sounds among the least likely to inspire a campaign among students who pay nearly $50,000 a year in tuition. But that’s sort of the point.

Notre Dame is an elite private school, and many of its students make lifelong bonds. Russell hopes to tighten those bonds. And by taking those connections public, he hopes to humanize the close-knit campus for the outside world.

“This would be a good place,” Russell said of Notre Dame. “It's so diverse. So many people. And people wanna know me. Some people don't come up to me because I play football.

“Just get to know who I am, the Domer. The person who doesn't play football that's walking down the hall, I wanna know where he came from. His story's probably different than mine.”

In Russell's case, they all are. Even if it turns out his college story is already finished.