Former NFL player gives back to community

Former NFL player gives back to community

Many South Floridians remember Twan Russell as an amazing athlete who got his start at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale. The 6′, 1″ 219-pounder won a state championship in the 300-meter hurdles and played football.

A star linebacker at the University of Miami, Russell then was taken in the fifth round of the 1997 draft by the Washington Redskins. He played seven seasons in the NFL, including three with the Miami Dolphins from 2001 to 2004.

Yet his proudest accomplishments are his contributions to his community.

In 1998, Russell and his mother, Corliss, founded the Russell Education Foundation, an after-school program that emphasizes the importance of literacy.

The foundation serves more than 1,000 elementary school students in 11 locations throughout Broward and Miami-Dade counties. In the past two decades, Russell estimates that nearly 20,000 children have passed through the program’s doors.

The foundation’s website states its aim is to “close the achievement gap for every low-income student in South Florida” through after-school and summertime supplemental learning services.

That lofty goal was shaped by Russell’s own life.

“Going back and forth with an educator through the process of love, understanding, honesty and trust,” he said, “is when kids truly learn.”

Russell was born and raised in Lauderdale Lakes. He recalls his early life revolving around football, school and attending church with his family. His four older brothers played on the gridiron and his father coached.

“That was all we did; we played football and went to school,” said Russell. “We didn’t do much else.”

His mother played a major role in his life.

“You know, she was our rock,” he said. “On Saturdays we played football all day … We had a lot of energy between the five of us.”

He also recalled attending church twice every Sunday as well as Tuesday and Wednesday nights. His mother was very active in the congregation, especially with children and families who were struggling.

“She would always give her last bits of energy, her last dollar, and whatever last piece of time was left available for her kids and her church,” Russell recalled.

He felt as if he had a “front-row seat” watching his parents affect the world positively in different ways, he said, adding: “That was the ethos of our house. I was exposed to my mom and dad serving and loving people.”

After joining the NFL, Russell felt that community involvement was missing from his life.

“When we started the foundation, I felt as if it gave me balance and a sense of normalcy to focus on people,” he said.

He remembered fondly the time his mother proposed the idea of an after-school program while eating dinner at her kitchen table during his second year in the NFL.

“We literally sat there and wrote on the back of an envelope, sketching out the foundation on the kitchen counter,” said Russell.

The program started inside his mother’s church, Holy Redeemer Church of God in Christ in Fort Lauderdale. Eventually, Russell and his educational team understood the problem: “Our children were not reading properly,” he said.

They wanted to encourage a change in the culture, so they invited celebrities, athletes, doctors, and policemen and firemen to read books to children, often in uniform.

“We just took a different approach,” said Russell. ”This just all evolved from our church.”

Twenty years later, he often runs into people at the grocery store who attended those literacy classes or received the homework help his foundation provided.

“That is the greatest compliment, for somebody to come and tell me, ‘You just helped me have a regular family … I didn’t go to jail, I am raising my kids to be great and my life is great,’” said Russell. “‘And you were a part of it.’”

Angelo Gomez is an NBCU fellow at Florida International University.