It's not often that a player returns to school after their professional career has ended. Many say they'll finish their degrees, some even do during their playing careers, but it's rare to see an athlete follow through after they've hung up their spikes. Then there's what recently retired D.C. United defender Robbie Russell announced he would do last week.
After a 14-year playing career in the U.S. and Europe, 33-year-old Russell plans to head back to school to begin the long path to becoming a doctor.
It's a dream Russell has always held in the back of his mind. Born in Accra, Ghana, raised in Massachusetts, Russell went on to play soccer at Duke University, where he hoped to take on the rigorous pre-medical program.
"My family isn't necessarily well-off," explained Russell. "I couldn't juggle being an NCAA athlete and going to school at Duke and handling the pre-med program, so I made the decision early on to just focus on an easier major so I could keep my scholarship and stay in school."
After a highly-touted collegiate career with the Blue Devils, Russell traveled to Europe after graduation in 2000 where he would play for clubs in Iceland, Norway and Denmark before returning to the US to play for Major League Soccer's Real Salt Lake in 2008.
That's when his dreams of med school were reawakened.
"When I came back to Salt Lake, that's when I first decided to maybe pursue medicine. I started an internship with the team doctor there [Dr. Andrew Cooper] and since then I've been on that path," said Russell, who could often be seen rubbing elbows with D.C. United trainers after he joined the club last season.
"He sits in the training room a lot and wants to know what's going on constantly," said midfielder Chris Pontius.
"I do spend a lot of time in the training room, for various reasons," Russell laughed. "I've always kind of been drawn to it so this is kind of like a second dream come true."
Russell appeared in 19 matches, starting 16, for DCU in 2012. Once the postseason hit, however, it became clear that he was not a part of United's longterm plans.
"Last offseason D.C. decided not to pick up my option and they decided to negotiate me down," explained Russell. "I think they liked my mentality and my presence in the locker room and they wanted me to be a part of the team just in case, but I don't think they were really moving in the direction where they say, 'we want you to be part of the club for a long period of time.' So that kind of was a warning for me.
"I talked to the wife and she said, 'Let's just get a backup plan in place and start doing all the stuff that we were planning to do at the end of next season.'"
With a new baby, Russell's 31-percent pay cut and the prospect of living in D.C. on just wife Tiana's salary, the family obviously had a lot to consider before making any moves.
"There's massive reservations," said Russell. "You wonder, can I be a student again after being out of school for so long? Can I hack it? Am I too old? Does the brain not really function the way it should anymore? Then there's being a student where you're not making income. Is this the right decision for my family? Is this what's best for us? Luckily my wife has a job as a lawyer at a law firm here in D.C. so really we're in the perfect situation for me to be able to do this.
"All those different worries aside, what really gets you through this is the family and people saying, 'You can do this,' and having faith in you. That came to me from some of my best friends from school who are doctors now and they all have encouraged me to do it. My father in-law too. He's a doctor and he's one of the first ones to say, 'You're absolutely going to do this.'"
Surrounded by a full support group, Russell applied and was accepted to Georgetown's post-baccalaureate pre-medical program, an 18-month fast track through all the necessary science and math courses to apply for med school.
Though the decision may have surprised those on the outside, Russell's friends and teammates at DCU almost seemed to expect it.
"It was always gonna be something like that. He's a bright guy," said head coach Ben Olsen. "We had heard rumbles so we knew he was kind of looking to phase out a little bit. He's put his stamp on this club in a very short time. He's been a leader for us and very influential to not only the young players but myself as well...I'm thankful for his stay here."
"He's a very smart guy," said teammate and friend John Thorrington. "I've been around long enough to see people play, retire and then just don't have a plan and those are the people that really struggle and really miss soccer. He'll never again have the same type of environment and the highs and the lows of our roller coaster life, but he's had this plan."
Russell will be in his 40's by the time he finishes his studies. But becoming a doctor has always been the defender's back up plan, something he firmly believes every professional athlete, especially in the MLS, should have.
"The way this league is and the kind of money that a lot of the domestic American players are making isn't enough to where when you're done after, even if you have a long career in the double digits range, you're not making enough to be able to retire-retire when you're finished playing. So it's important to have something to transition to, something to fall back on," said Russell. "It's important for a lot of these guys to understand that when you get to the situation like mine where you're at the end of your career, if you don't have anything else to do, that's it."
For now at least, Robbie Russell will remain in the DC area with the same twitter handle (@RobbieRussell03) and wants his United fans to know they can always reach out.
"My career has been so much more than I ever expected it to be and the fans are what makes that possible. It's been a career that I'm so proud of and I've so enjoyed because of the way that the fans have always supported me and kept me going. It's something that I hope they'll remember me for is my gratitude. I guess the end note would be, if you ever need to talk to me in the future, give me a call."