Kellen Russell is a national champion.
But more than that, the redshirt senior wrestler is a teammate and a son. As Russell sat in the Bahna Wrestling Center on Wednesday after practice, he reminisced about his journey since the time he first took the mat.
When Russell was 6 years old, he joined a peewee league. He hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father, Ed Russell.
The elder Russell was a high school wrestling coach while Kellen was growing up in High Bridge, N.J., so it was only natural that Kellen play the sport. It was a destined fit.
“Ever since I was real little, I was going to his practices and rollin’ around with other little kids,” Russell said.
It was only a matter of time before Russell stopped simply rolling around and started dominating opponents. And it was Ed who, figuratively, held his hand every step of the way.
When Russell showed his promise in wrestling, his father started putting in the same amount of hours and dedication. He put his own coaching job on hiatus to spend time with his son, molding him into a champion.
Russell describes his dad as a great learner, but it’s evident that Ed is also a great teacher.
“He taught me how to love the sport,” Russell said. “I’m always trying to pick everybody’s brain out there because I saw him do it.”
When Russell moved to Blair Academy for high school, Ed drove out to practice with him every day. And it was then that Russell first started to understand tradition.
Blair Academy was steeped in wrestling history, and Russell soaked it all in. He contributed to that legacy in becoming a three-time national prep champion and helping his team hold the No. 1 rank for three consecutive years.
Russell tasted the sweetness of winning and from that point on, his appetite for success was insatiable.
But when it came time to leave the nest, Michigan seemed a million miles away from everything he knew. Russell was just about to continue on the beaten path of familiarity and was ready to enroll at Lehigh University — a smaller school, closer to home.
Russell visited Michigan on a whim with no intentions of living, growing and wrestling in the heart of Ann Arbor. But all he needed was one look at the school.
“I instantly fell in love with Michigan,” Russell said. “It’s amazing to think if I wouldn’t have come on that trip, and I almost didn’t, I wouldn’t be here right now and I don’t think I would be a national champ.”
But it wasn’t Michigan that handed him his crown. Russell earned his numerous titles through a combination of physical strength, concentration and adjustment.
Russell experienced the inevitable period of transition when he decided to boast the block ‘M.’ His father stayed behind to hold down the fort, which meant Russell was without his primary coach and support system.
But the Russells make every attempt to remain close even today. Ed frequently comes to watch his son in action.
When Russell first arrived, he felt intimidated by the talent of his teammates — one of of Russell’s first Wolverine teammates was All-American Josh Churella. In his freshman year, Russell just tried his best just to keep up. But he disguised his nerves, and eventually they subsided on their own.
He quickly learned that he had to go into practice with a chip on his shoulder.
But once Russell gained focus and found his way to the top of the Big Ten podium, he was struck with a setback: staph infection.
Then, after two surgeries on his knee during his sophomore and junior year, Russell felt rejuvenated and was ready to take the mat and take on opponents.
“It recharged my batteries and got me refocused and made me a little more hungry,” Russell said.
He was craving another win, another title. He went after it and was rewarded with the NCAA 141-pound national title following a perfect season.
But his victories didn’t stop there. Russell continues to add to the record book as one of Michigan’s winningest wrestlers. And as he completes his last chapter, he will soon move forward, having left behind the tradition greater than when he arrived.
The respect and support for him among his teammates is undoubtedly mutual. Redshirt freshman Max Huntley feels that when Russell is in the room, it’s like having another set of coaches’ eyes.
When asked to give his opinion on Russell, Huntley asked, “As a teammate or as a wrestler?” Though one might assume they mean the same thing. To Huntley and many of the other Wolverines, there are qualities that distinguish the two, exemplified by Russell.
“As a wrestler, he’s very helpful because I do a lot of the same basic things he does …but he does them perfectly,” Huntley said. “It’s great being able to see how he does it.”
In regards to Russell as a teammate, Huntley describes him as a great leader.
“He leads by example. He doesn’t talk unless he has to; he doesn’t just say empty words … and his actions follow when he does speak. … Everyone respects Russell.”
It’s that kind of emotional admiration that Russell has earned. But even as he is esteemed over and over again, Russell remains modest when talking about his accomplishments.
While many outsiders view wrestling as an individual sport, Russell recognizes it as just the opposite. He often credits his teammates, his coaches and his father for their contributions to the success of a single unit.
When talking about his relationship with Michigan coach Joe McFarland, Russell said, “The biggest thing I’ve learned from him is attitude.”
So as the season nears its end, what’s going to happen to Russell Russell, the All-American, the national champion, the teammate and son?
Russell plans on continuing to do what he does best: wrestle.
Russell knows that coaching is where his future lies, after he finishes training with the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club and reaches his maximum potential. Like father, like son.