THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo
University of Toledo freshman receiver Alonzo Russell to this day has never shared with his mother the contents of an introspective letter he wrote two years ago.
Required by Avis Warley of her three children, the purpose of this "game plan," as she calls it, is to devise a road map for success.
Given myriad interruptions her son endured after his senior year of high school, from his repeated failure to become academically eligible, to three tough months he was sequestered at a postgraduate school, to laboring in odd jobs at a UT dormitory to afford tuition, it stands to reason Russell has modified his plan.
"They can change it at any time, but there has to be a plan," Warley said.
The turbulence has ceased, at last, and Russell's approach is working. Known as a "freak" by his teammates and coaches, a salute to his chiseled 6-foot-4 frame and blazing speed that once spurred the appetite of premier college programs, Russell has fast become one of the top playmakers on a team that is 3-1 entering today's game at Western Michigan. He is also celebrating his 20th birthday, an atypical age for an atypical freshman.
"I give that young man great credit," Toledo coach Matt Campbell said. "He had a dream, a goal, and a vision of who he wanted to be."
Russell, who ranks second nationally among freshmen receivers with a shade over 91 yards per game, was unavailable to speak for this story under a decree imposed by Campbell shielding all freshmen and first-year players from media interviews.
A three-sport standout at Washington D.C.'s HD Woodson High -- a school that spawned veteran NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich, twice the Mid-American Conference offensive player of the year at Marshall -- Russell was one of the top players in the metro area his senior year when he totaled 1,153 receiving yards, scored 20 touchdowns, and picked off seven passes. Interest from colleges waned when he did not score high enough on the SAT to be accepted by the NCAA Clearinghouse, a disruption that years earlier stonewalled his sister, a successful basketball player. Avery Warley, who played last season with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury upon graduating with a degree from Liberty University, inspired her brother.
"I just believe my children are not good test takers," Warley said. "It's a tremendous amount of pressure to put on someone who knows their future relies on one test."
Russell's best recourse, son and mother determined, was attending Milford Academy, a postgraduate school in New Berlin, N.Y. where mediocre prospects need not apply. At last count its offspring included 27 players who went on to play in the NFL, such as current running backs LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles and Shonn Greene of the New York Jets. The academy long ago lost track of the number of alumni to play big-time college football. Toledo safety Jermaine Robinson, Milford's defensive MVP in 2008, credits his experience at the all-boys academy for readying him for the rigors of playing college football.
"There's nothing around," Robinson said of New Berlin, located in the central part of the state and home to about 2,600 residents. "No cities. No colleges. It makes you make a decision if you want to play college football or not."
Warley enrolled her son believing Milford's resources and regimented structure would help boost his SAT score. She was wrong and withdrew him after the season.
Discouraged by yet another setback, Russell returned home concerned he would never play college football, convinced that in order to achieve his game plan he'd need to lessen its degree of difficulty.
"That's when mom stepped in," Warley said. "I know how to talk to my son better than anybody."
She pulled out photographs illustrating her son's athletic prowess, hoping such memories would inspire him to forge ahead. Russell soon began "working out religiously" at his old high school, according to HD Woodson coach Greg Fuller, and fielded offers from the likes of Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, and Arkansas.
"I asked him did he want to go to Toledo or did he want to go to Virginia Tech," Warley said. "He said he wanted to go to Toledo."
Unable to practice with the team, Russell enrolled at UT for the 2011 fall semester. To offset the cost of tuition, he sought employment at his dormitory, fulfilling medial tasks such as taking out trash and assisting resident advisers in promoting upcoming events.
"I sensed that he had a lot of hunger to play," said cornerback Cheatham Norrils, who lived in the same dorm building as Russell. "He loves doing what he does."
Coaches instructed players to keep an eye on their prized recruit and promote habits conducive to academic success. Russell never achieved the SAT score he desired, but he did well enough in the classroom to finally be accepted by the Clearinghouse. He officially joined the team in the summer.
Warley meanwhile was working on her game plan and last May she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of the District of Columbia. She was in attendance at the Glass Bowl the past two weekends to see her son dissect opposing secondaries, catching six balls for 152 yards against Bowling Green and following with a seven-catch, 97-yard showing against Coastal Carolina.
The joy she felt watching her son score a touchdown in a rivalry win over Bowling Green doesn't compare to her reaction the week prior when she logged onto Facebook. Alonzo's status update indicated he planned to visit the library after practice because "Gotta bring a degree home to Avis Warley."
Sounds like a plan.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.