For so many people, football is more than just a game.
Madison teaches you that almost instantly. Around 90,000 people pour into Camp Randall Stadium on Saturdays to watch the team they love play a game they love.
Drive anywhere in the state of Wisconsin, and you’ll see motion W’s or Packer green and gold at almost every turn. Do a quick Google search and you’ll see the billions and billions of dollars college and professional football brings in thanks to die-hard fans everywhere.
Still, there are those who don’t care for football — and that’s fine. The sport and its image have their imperfections, from recruiting violations in college to the outrageous CBA dispute in the pros.
But there are times when we are reminded just how positively the game of football can impact people’s lives, how much the game means to some. And there are times when we are introduced to players you can’t help but root for.
Meet Greg Russo — a 25-year-old walk-on linebacker for the University of Wisconsin who just recently finished two tours of duty in Iraq.
Russo graduated from Lake Mills High School in 2003 and went to UW-Whitewater intending to try out for the football team after playing in high school.
But he never did, and a year later, Russo felt he needed a change.
“I wanted to do something,” he said. “I felt like I was kind of just floating.”
So Russo decided to join the Wisconsin National Guard, where he spent one year working before his first deployment came in 2005.
He spent 12 months in Iraq working for the security force before returning home in 2006. Russo spent another year at UWW while he served as an active duty member of the National Guard, until his second deployment came in 2009.
Russo was sent to Iraq again for about 9 months, where he continued to work for the security force, helping to ensure the Iraqi army was receiving proper training.
As you can imagine, life overseas was hard.
Russo said it was tough being away from home and that something was constantly on his mind.
During his second deployment, Russo couldn’t stop thinking about one thing: Football.
“Every day. Every night,” Russo said. “I stayed up nights sometimes thinking about it.”
He was living in a war zone, guarding military bases and convoys, but it was his dream to play college football that ignited him throughout his time in Iraq.
“I thought it about it every day. I trained every day and I was lucky enough to have a good weight room,” Russo said. “I ran sprints whenever I could. I was exercising all the time.
“I started realizing that maybe I could do this.”
In January 2010, Russo was back home with that same desire to play football again, but there was only one team he could see himself playing for — the hometown Badgers.
“This was it, man. This was it,” Russo said of playing for UW. “I grew up around the area. I love the Badgers. I can’t even imagine where else I would want to go.”
He began training at Hitters SportsPlex in Middleton, where he met a trainer who helped him get in contact with UW strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert.
After sorting through some heavy paperwork and checking with the NCAA and Big Ten to resolve any potential compliance issues, Herbert approached UW head coach Bret Bielema with Russo’s desire to walk on.
“I said if he comes out and can compete in winter conditioning and show that he can move and be a valuable asset, we’d let him have a shot,” Bielema said. “And he’s getting it.”
At the moment, Russo is a linebacker who wears No. 41. He participates in drills alongside guys like Mike Taylor and Kevin Claxton — two fellow linebackers who just received their Big Ten Championship rings, two guys who just played in the Rose Bowl.
A man back from war, a man so many of us look up to, who put his life on the line to defend his country, was in awe of the Badger football players he had watched on TV for so long.
“Everyday I’m star struck. I walk into the locker room and I can’t believe who I am standing around,” Russo said. “I’m like, ‘I was just such a huge fan of you guys for the last few years and now here I am on the team’.”
The players are plenty excited to be around Russo, as well. That feeling of respect and admiration goes both ways, and it is the game of football that has brought their drastically different lives together.
“All of the guys on this team like to work,” Russo said. “They ask me questions about the military. They want to know specifics.
“They are a little bit humbled by my story, I guess, which is great… these guys are very humble and respectful of what I did.”
Russo knows he has the team’s respect and he is appreciative of it, but he also knows he needs to prove his worth on the field to the coaching staff every day.
He has only one year of eligibility, and a spot on the Wisconsin roster come fall is by no means guaranteed. Nevertheless, Russo is optimistic.
“I think it’s pretty realistic,” Russo said. “If I can show that I can work and be a contributing member — as a leader, as a guy with a lot of life experience — I’m fine with that. I just love being a part of the organization.”
And that’s really what makes the game special. To some, it means that much. Coaches dedicate their lives to it. Players give up their bodies for it. And at least one soldier overseas couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Some game, isn’t it?
Whether you’re a football fan or not, it’s hard not to be inspired by Russo’s drive to serve his country and suit up for the Badgers. It’s a story of self-sacrifice, determination and hard work — a story the world of sports tells so well.
Now, Russo is back from war and he’s getting a chance to do exactly what he wants: Play football for the team he loves.
“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “Somebody up there likes me, I guess.”
So does everybody else down here.