KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Gary Russell grew up a Tennessee fan and says he will always be a Vol.
That allegiance has been tested like never before in recent days.
Russell, 20, says he was attacked and beaten by a group of Tennessee football players, including sophomore defensive tackle Montori Hughes and senior receiver Denarius Moore, early last Friday morning at Bar Knoxville, a nightspot near campus. A bar-clearing brawl ensued, leading to one Tennessee player being dismissed, two others being suspended and an off-duty Knoxville Police Department officer being knocked unconscious and sent to the hospital.
"If not for my friends jumping in, I would be dead or brain-dead," Russell told ESPN.com. "It was obvious that they weren't going to stop."
Russell, both of his eyes blackened and his left one swollen shut, was taken to the hospital by one of his friends and treated. He said he had a baseball-sized knot on the back of his head "where six or seven football players were punching and kicking me."
He broke his nose, suffered bruises on his chest and required nine stitches above his left eye. His forearms were bruised from "trying to fend off kicks and punches" while he lay on the ground.
"One of them was holding my head up, and they were punching me in my face while I was on the ground and stomping on my chest," Russell said. "Finally, my friends were able to help get them off me, and the bouncers started dragging them outside."
Russell said Hughes and Moore were the only two players he could identify for sure and that Hughes started the whole thing by pushing him and then punching him in the chest after Russell inadvertently bumped into Hughes on his way back from the bathroom.
The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Hughes, who has not been questioned by police or charged with any crimes in connection with the brawl, has adamantly disputed Russell's version of the story. He told Tennessee coach Derek Dooley that the 5-8, 215-pound Russell hit him from behind after they bumped into each other earlier in the night and had words.
The day after the brawl, Hughes retained prominent Knoxville attorney Gregory Isaacs to represent him, and Isaacs told ESPN.com that his client was the one who was attacked and suffered a bloody eye.
"Montori Hughes was the victim of an unprovoked assault while at the establishment," Isaacs said. "Our witnesses and investigation have confirmed that Mr. Russell threw the first punch, and this has been corroborated by not only the individuals at the establishment but also by photographs showing the damage to Montori Hughes' face."
Isaacs also suggested that Hughes' status as a Tennessee football player was being used against him.
"Unfortunately, athletes can be targets at times in public establishments," Isaacs said. "Montori Hughes has absolutely nothing to hide and will cooperate completely with authorities."
Dooley has already dismissed sophomore safety Darren Myles Jr. from the team and indefinitely suspended sophomore linebacker Greg King and sophomore defensive tackle Marlon Walls for their role in the incident.
"I took the action I did based on my conversations with the football team and their acknowledgment of what happened," Dooley told ESPN.com. "Based on the poor judgment they used, I handed out the punishment I did. Now, I'm sorting through any more information that might come my way that's credible and will take the appropriate action."
Myles was arrested and charged with assaulting a UT police officer and resisting/evading arrest. Freshman receiver Da'Rick Rogers was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Darrell DeBusk, spokesman for the Knoxville Police Department, said other charges could be forthcoming once the investigation is complete. That investigation could stretch into next week.
Robert Capouellez was the off-duty police officer knocked unconscious outside the bar while trying to help break up the brawl, according to police. Capouellez, who was a customer at the bar that night and wearing civilian clothes, suffered a head wound and had been in the hospital since early Friday. He was released Monday night.
Allen Morton, the owner of Bar Knoxville, said he wasn't outside in time to see Capouellez get hit. But he said he did see one of the football players kick at him after he was already lying on the ground unconscious.
"I couldn't tell which player it was, and there were a lot of people standing around," Morton said. "But I saw the kicking motion. It was like he was kicking a football. I didn't realize it was [Capouellez] he was kicking until I got down there closer."
Morton said after Capouellez was kicked that several players started to run, but others came back toward the bar with their shirts off and wanting to fight some more. He said there were at least 17 football players in attendance that night and that while they received VIP status and were able to get in without cover, several other regular students were also on the VIP list.
Since the melee, Morton said he and his wife have received several threatening e-mails and phone messages.
"We love UT. Some people are trying to make it like we did something wrong and that we're ruining UT football," Morton said. "We didn't ruin it. These players ruined it by coming in and acting the way they did."
DeBusk said no suspects have been ruled out in either the incident involving Russell or the one involving Capouellez. Police have already questioned several players and may still question others. Moore, according to a UT police report, is one of the players who was detained for questioning this past weekend.
A source has confirmed to ESPN.com that the reason Dooley suspended King indefinitely is that King claimed he's the one who threw the first punch in the bar while trying to defend Hughes after he was punched. The Tennessee players who were there corroborated King's story to Dooley in individual meetings.
Russell and several others who were at the bar, including Morton, tell a different story.
Morton said he didn't necessarily see what initiated the fight but emphasized that he saw six or seven football players beating and kicking Russell while he was on the ground.
Russell was there that night with three or four other friends, and Morton said Russell's friends along with bouncers were finally able to get the players off Russell and headed toward the front door outside, which is when Capouellez got involved.
"I told the police the same thing, that there were six or seven big guys hitting and punching [Russell] while he was defenseless on the ground," Morton said. "It's sad that something like that would happen. Some of the players were grabbing bar stools and going after him, but I was able to grab a few out of their hands."
Paige Whaley, a student at a nearby community college, was also at the bar when the fight occurred and said she was within a few feet of where Russell and Hughes bumped into each other.
"I got pushed when it all happened and turned around and there were seven guys on top of [Russell] before you knew it," Whaley said. "They were beating the living crap out of him. I saw one come up and kick him in the head. It was ridiculous."
Asked if there was any way that Russell might have initiated the whole thing, Whaley said, "I'm sure that's what UT is saying, but there's no way. That guy [Hughes] was huge. Why would [Russell] go after him? It was scary to see that many big guys on top of one."
Morton said his bar does have a video surveillance system but that when he went to check the tape the morning after the brawl, he realized there must have been a power surge a few days earlier and that the tape hadn't been running for two days.
"That's unfortunate because it would have sealed everybody's fate," Morton said.
Russell said he was not drunk, nor had he been drinking. He showed a copy of his hospital report from that night to ESPN.com, and there was nothing on the toxicology report indicating that he'd been tested for blood-alcohol content or had alcohol in his system.
Russell, who's moved out of Knoxville for the time being to get away until everything settles down, admits to throwing a punch at Hughes.
"But I was just defending myself after he pushed me and then punched me in the chest," Russell said. "I didn't have time to say anything. I just swung back to defend myself, and he started hitting me in the face with his fist."
Russell and his father, also Gary Russell, talked with police on Monday.
"We're not walking away, and we're not backing up," the elder Russell said. "For Gary to get beaten like that ... we just want to see justice done.
"This was beyond a bar fight. This was assault, a criminal act," he said.
Chris Low covers the SEC for ESPN.com.