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'Coach' Russell helping Cyclones from the dugout

Douglas Fritz • Updated Apr 19, 2019 at 8:23 PM

For four years, Corey Russell was one of the toughest players in Northeast Tennessee to bring to the ground on the football field.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even a baseball-season-ending knee injury didn’t keep him from finding a way to compete and succeed.

Russell has carved a new niche with Elizabethton’s baseball team. And in that role, he has made a significant contribution to the team’s 18-4 start to the season.

“We didn’t buy him cleats,” said head coach Ryan Presnell. “We got him the same shoes the coaches wear, and all of the kids started calling him ‘Coach Russell.’ He knew this was his opportunity to learn the inside of the game. He took it on full-hearted.”

Russell’s role as an extra coach isn’t a consolation prize. He’s the rare mix of athlete, student and teammate who can handle the unique responsibility.

“I talk to my teammates about the game plan, what to look for here, what to look for there,” said Russell. “Sometimes they may not understand what the coaches are doing in certain situations. I can be the mediator between the coaches and players. It’s really nice seeing things from the other side. You see things a lot differently.”

Presnell said he is tickled to have an extra path of communication to his players.

“The coaches are the top of the pyramid in leadership, and we’re always looking for a link to the locker room, to let us know what the temperature is,” said Presnell. “To have him step up and be around the team in that role is priceless.

“Just his presence is a calming effect for a lot of the young guys, who have been asked to fill roles they might not otherwise have been asked to do. The maturity level he has displayed has been priceless as well.”

Russell still has a playing future. He will sign to play football and baseball with Centre College — located in Danville, Kentucky — on Wednesday at 3:15 p.m. at the high school.

But all of this didn’t seem so likely back in November. On the last play of his high school football career, with the final seconds ticking away for the end of Elizabethton’s season, Russell was at quarterback. As he battled through defenders in the middle of the field, Russell suffered the wrong kind of hit. The former Johnson City Press Elite 11 player of the year had a torn ACL.

“It was a regular play,” said Russell. “It was kind of a freak accident. I didn’t know how bad it was at first. On the sideline they didn’t tell me what it was, but they kind of knew. It was a pretty emotional night. They wanted me to come in and see how it was the next day. They still didn’t want to tell me what they thought.”

The timing of the injury, just four months from the start of baseball season, was a tough blow. Russell had surgery on December 18. Returning before the end of baseball season was basically out of the question.

“It was tough,” said Russell. “It was my last time I would be playing for Elizabethton. I just took it on as a challenge. I wanted to help the team and be there any way I could.”

Russell said he knew the Cyclones would still be a very good team in 2019. Elizabethton reached the Class AA state tournament last season, and are ranked No. 3 in the state this year.

“We knew the younger players were really talented,” said Russell. “And we have a couple of seniors who have played all four years. Everybody is really talented, and they work hard. They are ready to accept the challenge and build off of last year.”

When fall rolls around, Presnell said Centre College will begin to find out it has reeled in a special catch.

“To be honest, I think Centre College got a steal,” said Presnell. “It’s a fine institution with a good athletic program, but I think they signed the best athlete that will ever go through Centre College. I believe he will have a lot of success in both sports.”

In football, Russell will play under offensive coordinator Ben Fox, a former Daniel Boone standout who has helped the Colonels go 19-3 over the past two seasons. Russell will likely play as a receiver in football, and then play middle infield or outfield in baseball.

“I was really surprised about the campus,” said Russell. “They have great facilities and the people there are close knit.”

Russell said he plans to take a career path toward becoming a physical therapist. He said he hopes to be able to help others who encounter the same things he has experienced.

“You just try to not let stuff hit you in the wrong way,” he said.

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