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Florida Gator Randy Russell clings to slim hope of reviving his football career

Randy Russell. [Photo from video/The Players Tribune]
Randy Russell. [Photo from video/The Players Tribune]
Published Oct. 24, 2018

From the time he was 4 years old, Randy Russell wanted nothing more than to play football.

But these days, he lives that dream vicariously through his teammates.

One of the state's top recruits out of Miami Carol City High School, Russell's college career all but ended a month after he arrived on Florida's campus when he was diagnosed with a heart abnormality.

Russell's experience is documented in a video posted today on The Players' Tribune.

Russell, a safety, was part of Florida's early-signing class and expected to do big things for the Gators secondary.

But before he even started classes, Russell was given a physical and an electrocardiogram to check for signs of heart disease. Team physicians noticed an abnormality on the wave form, which led them to another level of testing.

"I just prayed really hard, just asking God, 'Let this go away,' and I hope it's nothing," Russell says in the video. "I hope it's just a scare."

An echocardiogram showed he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle. The condition shuts the valve through which blood needs to flow.

"That's the problem," Florida athletic trainer Paul Silvestri said. "Blood cannot go through the heart, and then it's immediate cardiac arrest. We're not dealing with a knee injury. This is sudden death. There's no procedure that can correct this issue."

Russell was medically disqualified from playing but remains on scholarship while working toward his degree.

Silvestri broke the news to Russell's mother, Keisha Carnegie-Russell, who understood but wanted to be there when her son was told.

"I got on the bus that same night, and Paul met me at the bus station," she said. "But the whole time in my mind I'm playing how, why. This came from left field. This was not expected at all."

Silvestri called Russell and asked him to meet him in head coach Dan Mullen's office. After the news was delivered, everyone left the room, allowing Russell to grieve privately.

"I've been playing football since I was 4 years old and never experienced anything," Russell said. "You can't sit here and tell me I can't play football again."

Russell tried to go to practice, but it was too hard to watch and he would leave. People tried to tell them they knew how he felt, but it rang hollow.

"That first two months, those were probably the worst months of my life," he said.

Russell's teammates rallied around him, and now he lives through them, offering encouragement or advice wherever he can.

Doctors recommended that Russell have a defibrillator implanted to prevent a sudden cardiac episode. The operation meant he would never be able to play football again.

His mother pushed for the procedure, but Russell declined.

"He said, 'Mommy, I don't want it,'" Carnegie-Russell said. "He said, 'Do you believe in God?'  I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Then, whatever's meant for me is what is meant for me,' so he didn't get that defibrillator."

After further testing, Russell was cleared for supervised, restricted training. But it remains unlikely he will ever return to the field.

Still, he's not giving up hope.

"This is what makes him happy," his mother said. "This is Randy. Randy is football."