No Longer the B-Team Guy

By JJ Russell

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This series is brought to you by United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

We all have moments that stick with us in life, you know? Those life-changing events that put us on the path to becoming the person we’re supposed to be.

No coach liked me, man. I was a nobody to them.

I can remember lining up at fullback as a kid and one of the coaches for my team at the time basically cracking jokes about me.

“Where’s that guy I’ve been hearing so much about? Where did he go? You’re not it.”

Those comments still burn me to this very day. I just remember being down in the fullback position with the B-Team, looking up and hearing him say that to me. That was more than a life-changing moment for me. It was my turning point.

I was never going to give someone that much power to be able to say something like that to me ever again. I’ll never allow that to happen for as long as I live.

No more B-Team!

Words I needed to hear

Back then, I actually hated playing defense. Can you believe that?

It’s crazy to even think about it now because I’m a linebacker, but all I wanted to do was run the football in my early days. Man, the younger version of myself thought he was going to be the next Reggie Bush or something.

I just outran people on the field. There was nothing technical about what I was doing out there, honestly. It just looked like an athlete back there running in circles.

But as time went on and I started gaining weight, a point came when I wasn’t running the ball as well. My coaches tried moving me on defense, but it wasn’t the right fit for me at the time. By middle school, they were trying me out at fullback on the B-Team.

And that’s where things really fell apart for me.

I don’t know, man. I guess I wasn’t “the guy.” Nobody looked at me as a guy that was even good at football. By the time I was in high school, things escalated to the point where I walked out of practice and was thinking about quitting football.

That’s when my coach at the time stopped me at the door. I’ll never forget what he said to me that day.

“You’re going to do something special. You just have to keep working. I just need you to come back. Don’t quit on me now. I know you can’t see it right now but don’t quit,” he said.

Those were the words I needed to hear at that time in my life. It felt good to be wanted and appreciated. But more than anything, it felt good to have someone actually believe in me.

On the A-Team now

That’s when my mindset shifted. I was now determined to outwork everybody else on and off the field.

I’d work out every single day—just me and my brother, CJ Avery, who currently plays football at the University of Louisville. Even if it was in my backyard, we’d do whatever we could to find ways to get better.

Late nights should be school nights, right?

Not for us, man. It would be 9:00 or 10:00 PM at night, and we’d be on the field working out. When I was old enough to drive, I would go work out before school.

It was all about that mindset of getting better. I had to put in the work to make my high school coach right about me. The bigger and stronger I got, the more I started warming up to the idea of playing defense. That’s when things started to click for me, and I found my love for the linebacker position.

I went from being the kid that didn’t want to hit anyone—the kid that was basically told he wasn’t good enough by a coach—to playing one of the most physical positions on the field for the A-Team.

All it took was someone to believe in me.

It was all about that mindset of getting better. I had to put in the work to make my high school coach right about me. The bigger and stronger I got, the more I started warming up to the idea of playing defense. That's when things started to click for me, and I found my love for the linebacker position.

No regrets

Fortunately, he wasn’t the last coach to instill that sort of faith in me.

When I was being recruited for college, I crossed paths with Coach Dan Lanning. It isn’t often that coaches take a genuine interest in you as a person, but man, Coach Lanning was different. He really sought out a relationship with me.

It wasn’t just about what I could potentially do for the football program at the University of Memphis. No, it was always like, “Hey! How are you doing? What’s your mindset? How can I help you through this process? How’s your mom doing?” You know, those sorts of things.

That’s ultimately why I made the decision to join Memphis, you know?

My hope throughout the entire recruiting process was to find a place that feels like home—somewhere that felt close enough to family.

And Memphis was that place for me.

I truly felt at ease that it could be my home away from home. I’m so glad I made the decision to sign here, and there hasn’t been one day where I’ve regretted it. 

Between the white lines

I decided to come back another year for the memories.

You know when you’ve completed something, and you get that feeling that everything is done? Like, things are complete to the point where you can walk away from the task.

I didn’t feel that after last season’s Bowl game.

I just felt like things were incomplete for me. I believe more can be done here at Memphis—whatever that is for me. When I leave here for good, I want to leave a culture behind that reigns forever. That’s more important to me than people even remembering my name.

I don’t care about that because there will be another great linebacker here next year. Great players come and go, but the impression you leave on your teammates and coaches lasts forever.

My expectations are to bring back the Memphis defense that once struck fear in opponents. Those were the days when you knew stepping into the Liberty Bowl was going to lead to a dog fight. That’s the mindset I’m trying to get back to for this season.

I can show up between the white lines every day, but football is just a game in the grand scheme of things. Life is so much bigger than any of this. As a senior leader, I’m also trying to get guys ready for what comes next.

Yes, football is hard, but life is so much harder, man.

I got married two months ago, and so much has changed since my wife came into my life. She brought Jesus into my life, and I can finally see my purpose—to create change and impact others in a positive way. 

The sky is the limit for this team.

A little belief and hard work can go a long way in life.

But the ball is in our court to make it happen.