KeiVarae Russell makes good on his promise to return

In his two years before suspension, KeiVarae Russell recorded 109 total tackles and three interceptions. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- KeiVarae Russell sits in an office inside Notre Dame's football complex and tries to piece together the timeline of his past year when the significance of the day dawns on him.

"Today's the 15th?" he asks. "Man, a year ago. ... Today is officially a year."

A year since the cornerback and three teammates were pulled aside before practice and told their college futures were decidedly uncertain amidst an internal academic probe. A year since the loquacious, kinetic Russell had to do what he was seemingly incapable of: relax and not let his emotions overtake him. A year since he and his family developed a plan that ended up aligning more with his big-picture philosophy than had he simply proceeded through his junior season as expected.

"For lack of a better term, it was an exciting moment to see, 'How am I gonna get through this test?'" Russell said of last fall. "I didn't know at that moment."

Russell is through with the hardest part now. Of the four players suspended during preseason camp last year, Russell is the only one practicing here in fall camp.

It's been a lengthy process for him. Notre Dame first announced its academic investigation Aug. 15, 2014. For nearly two months, Russell and the other three players were suspended from team activities while they awaited their fates and went through the school's honor code process.

Days after his suspension was announced, Russell went to athletic director Jack Swarbrick's office, with the two then embarking on a campus stroll that proved therapeutic.

"He just kept repeating: 'If I get the chance, I am gonna be so much better than I am today.' He must have said that 20 times," Swarbrick said of Russell.

They walked across campus to the Grotto, where Swarbrick showed Russell a statue and letter of Dr. Tom Dooley, a Navy doctor in Vietnam who, while being hospitalized with cancer in Hong Kong in 1960, wrote to school president Father Theodore Hesburgh.

"Do the students ever appreciate what they have, while they have it?" Dooley wrote. "I know I never did."

"I just thought, 'OK, here's a guy who was dealing with the ultimate adversity, and he wrote this remarkably moving, optimistic letter about Notre Dame,'" Swarbrick said.

Russell finally learned in October he would have to serve a two-semester suspension from Notre Dame. He planned to spend his year away training near his native Seattle while taking classes at Everett (Washington) Community College. And he set out to learn if everything he thought he was had been merely a façade.

Before all this, Russell took pride in his resiliency -- the Seattle-area native grew up below the poverty line, one of two kids of a single mother who worked as an in-home nurse.

He took pride in his charisma -- anyone associated with the Irish will talk about his infectious energy.

He took pride in his grades -- anything short of a B as a child earned him an earful from his mother.

Still, the way he saw it, he may not have gotten everything he wanted growing up, but he had everything he needed. So it only made sense that when he needed to find his way, he went back home, where he trained at his old high school and took classes at Everett (Washington) Community College.

"How charismatic are you now? How much energy can you bring to the room still? Can you still make an impact on people during your downfall?" Russell said. "It's easy to make an impact on people when you're at Notre Dame, when you're a true freshman starting, you're receiving all these accolades and doing all these good things in life. It's easy for people to follow you. Now when you're down and people start to fall off that bandwagon, what can you do?"

Before Russell set out on his path back to Notre Dame, he informed coach Brian Kelly that he wanted to address his teammates to let them know just how committed he was. As everyone gathered inside Notre Dame Stadium for an Oct. 9 practice, Russell delivered a passionate speech, apologizing for getting in trouble and promising he would be back for 2015.

"We definitely knew he was serious, and we believed him," linebacker Jaylon Smith said. "And that's why there's no shock: No one's shocked or anything about him being back doing what he said he was gonna do, because as a man, that's what you do."

Kelly announced Tuesday that NCAA has officially cleared Russell to play this season, and if all goes according to plan, he will be on the field when Notre Dame faces off with Texas on Sept. 5.

All this could mean an All-America-type season is on the horizon for Russell, who started all 26 games his first two years with the Irish. This could mean hearing his name in the early rounds of next spring's draft, should Russell declare. But Russell is taking nothing for granted after nearly having everything taken away a year ago.

"The potential word, the 'P'-word, that doesn't get you anywhere unless you work," he said. "I want to be a great corner. I want to be a great individual. I want to be great in whatever I do, so I've constantly got to be driving. I've constantly got to drive and drive and drive."

Russell is asked what exactly drives him, and he gives a nearly four-minute seminar that essentially boils down to the art of being great, a lesson that ends only because he admits he could talk all day on the subject if he does not stop himself.

"I feel like if you have talents and you don't use it, you have a pointless life," Russell said. "God's given you so much talent, and you're not using it?"

On an anniversary most would like to forget, the eternal optimist can see all the good this past year did him.

"I feel so much stronger, and I don't like to say I'm glad I went through it, because it's a little weird saying that, but I'm so much stronger going through that as a player, as a person, as a teammate," Russell said. "But as an individual? I'd say yeah, it really helped me."