Mariner High School running back KeiVarae Russell takes to the sky after practice. (Photo by Mark Mulligan / The Herald)
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Going into his final year of high school football, KeiVarae Russell has a lot to be proud of. Russell has eye-popping career stats: 3,264 yards rushing and 36 rushing touchdowns, including 1,850 yards and 20 TDs on the ground last season. He has 17 athletic scholarship offers, including his current top five: Notre Dame, USC, University of Washington, Cal and Boise State. And on top of all that, the charismatic Mariner High School senior has been nominated to play in the 2012 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. But when you ask Russell, a running back/safety, about his many accomplishments, he quickly brushes them aside. "I haven't proven anything," Russell said in mid-August a few days before the start of fall practice. "I haven't won anything or done anything." After a brief pause, Russell got more specific: "I haven't taken my team to the playoffs." Russell did play on Mariner's 2008 team that advanced to the Class 4A playoffs. But back then he was a talented freshman, not the take-charge, inspiring leader that he is now. Russell cherishes his leadership role. To him, individual accolades mean nothing without team success, so his top priority in 2011 is to carry Mariner to the postseason. "You can get your own (individual) treasure that you can walk away with," Russell said, "but it doesn't mean anything if you don't have the team thing." Russell is more focused and more prepared than ever, according to Mariner head coach John Ondriezek. "We're excited," Ondriezek said. "He came in in condition and he was active all summer. He's been working hard. He's older now, more mature." Unforgettable summer Looking back on the past three months, Russell cracked a huge grin. "This was the biggest summer I've ever had in my whole life," Russell said, seemingly amazed by all that happened. In late June, Russell was named running back MVP at the Nike Football Training Camp at the UW. It helped him earn an invitation to The Opening, a showcase of the top 150 recruits in the country. Heading into The Opening, a five-day annual event held in early July at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., Russell wondered, "Am I good enough for this?" Ultimately, he wanted to see how he competed against the best. The answer: Extremely well. Russell ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, had a 38-inch vertical leap, and zoomed through the shuttle run in 3.77 seconds, the fastest time among all participants. He also excelled in position drills and 7-on-7 games. "I performed extremely well," he said, "and I opened a lot of eyes." Russell also got a chance to chat with former NFL stars, including Jerry Rice and Marshall Faulk, as well as current pros like Minnesota Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, who coordinated the shuttle run testing. After The Opening, Russell was invited to an even more prestigious event on the other end of the country: the Champion Gridiron Kings at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida. A member of the West team, Russell was one of just 64 highly touted prospects at the four-day competition. The talent level was even better than at The Opening, Russell said. Once again, he held his own. "I know I can play with the best of the best now," he said. A full plate As good as Russell is at football, sports are just a slice of his busy life. In addition to being an excellent student, he is heavily involved in student government and other leadership activities. This school year he is Mariner's ASB President. Football is only one of many things on his mind, one of numerous ways he contributes to his community. "My plate's big now," Russell said, referring to how his days are more hectic than ever. "Last year it was a little saucer." Russell's action-packed lifestyle might leave little time for sleep, but Russell's mom makes sure her son slows down every once in awhile. "I'm always checking on him," said Yolanda Phillips, who is a single parent. "I always make sure he gets his rest." Although his schedule is constantly hectic, Russell wouldn't have it any other way. "I love it," he said, "because it opens up a different part of my brain. It keeps me unaware of what's going to happen. It keeps my mind racing." "It's hard," he added, "but in the long run when I graduate I'm going to be glad I did it." On and off the field, Russell's quest for excellence is equally intense. Said coach Ondriezek: "It's important to him to have success, regardless of whatever he does." Where will he go? Russell has emerged as one of the country's top recruits. Rivals.com says the Mariner star is the eighth-best Class of '12 running back in America. Scholarship offers have flooded in, and so have comments on online message boards. Enthusiastic college football fans who have never met Russell believe they know where he should go to college. They try to persuade Russell, writing things like: • "Come to boise. It's gonna be a good year" • "USC and CAL are going to take great care of you." • "Keivarae you got to go to u-dub. … DONT LET YOUR HOME DOWN!" Russell said he is bombarded with recruiting-related friend requests on Facebook. At first he had trouble saying no to the apparent football junkies, and his friend list swelled to around 1,500. Despite all the hoopla, Russell is focused on what he wants: A top-notch education, a great football experience and a supportive community. Russell knows college coaches will try to wow him, but he said he will stay true to his priorities. Russell plans to take five official recruiting trips and will likely wait until after the high school season to verbally commit. So far, he has scheduled only one visit: Notre Dame on Oct. 22, when the Irish play USC. Russell said he will probably also visit USC and Cal, and possibly UW and Boise State. The most recent offer Russell received was from USC. Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin offered Russell in early August. "That was a big one. That was always my dream school," said Russell, who wears No. 5 on his Mariner uniform in honor of former USC star Reggie Bush. As Russell navigates the recruiting process, he gets lots of support from his grandpa and his mom. "She just wants what's best for me. She's not trying to push me to a school or anything," Russell said of his mom. "She's letting me grow up." Meanwhile, Russell's grandpa, Sylvester Phillips, makes sure Russell doesn't get swept away by hype. He and Russell spend lots of time talking and watching TV -- mostly sports and the Food Channel. "He makes sure I stay level and grounded," Russell said of the man he calls Pops, who helps keep Russell's belly full with homemade beans and rice, steak and hot wings. Senior year, and beyond With seven returning starters on offense and seven more on defense, this could be a special season for the Mariner Marauders football team. "We have a lot more confidence this year, so we have a lot more opportunities for our team. Now we know we can play," Russell said. Russell and his teammates hope to win the Western Conference 4A South Division title and advance to the state playoffs. The South "is a very competitive league and obviously we have to take it one step at a time," said coach Ondriezek, "but I think that we have an excellent opportunity." That's the near future, but what does the distant future hold for Russell? He aspires to play in the NFL, and Ondriezek -- who has previously coached a few players who made it that far -- thinks Russell's goal is realistic. "You never know what will happen, but he has the ingredients to be a successful athlete on every level," said Ondriezek. "He has that athleticism, but he also has that inner drive and competiveness." "KeiVarae is the total package," Ondriezek added. "He is a great athlete, an outstanding student and he's just an outstanding young man." Magnificent Marauder So far in his high school career at Mariner High School, running back KeiVarae Russell has rushed for 3,264 yards (7.7 yards per attempt) and 36 touchdowns. Here are Russell's season-by-season rushing and receiving stats from the past three seasons. 2008 (freshman year) Rushing: 36 carries, 182 yards, 5.1 average, 2 TDs Receiving: 3 receptions, 77 yards, 25.7 average, 0 TDs 2009 (sophomore year) Rushing: 159 carries, 1,232 yards, 7.7 average, 14 TDs Receiving: 5 receptions, 120 yards, 24 average, 2 TDs 2010 (junior year) Rushing: 228 carries, 1,850 yards, 8.1 average, 20 TDs Receiving: 16 receptions, 303 yards, 18.9 average, 3 TDs Where KeiVarae ranks Several national college football recruiting services rank Mariner High School senior KeiVarae Russell among the nation's best Class of 2012 running backs. Here is a sampling: • Rivals.com says: Russell is the No. 8 RB in the country, the 106th-best recruit regardless of position and has a four-star rating on a five-star scale. • Scout.com says: Russell is the No. 22 RB in the country and has a four-star rating on a five-star scale. • ESPN.com says: Russell is the No. 25 RB in the country, the No. 62 recruit in the West region regardless of position, has a scout grade of 79 on a 100-point scale and has a three-star rating on a five-star scale. Where will he go? Mariner High School football player KeiVarae Russell has received 17 athletic scholarship offers but has not verbally committed. Russell, a 6-foot, 170-pound running back/safety, recently said his top five schools were Notre Dame, USC, Washington, Cal and Boise State. He also has received offers from Arizona State, Arizona, Stanford, UCLA, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon State, Vanderbilt, Utah, Washington State, Purdue and Wyoming.