You go to a college graduation, you hear about amazing young people. Nate Russell's story is a little different than most, but no less remarkable. He grew up on the streets of Hartford, often not knowing where his next meal was coming from, or where he'd be sleeping. A week ago Saturday, he walked in graduation at Springfield College. When he completes a final paper, he will have his master's degree in physical education.
Let's pick up Nate's story a dozen years ago, in housing court. He and his twin brother were being evicted from their apartment. The 18-year-olds lived by themselves; their father had died several years earlier and their mother, in thrall to a drug addiction from which she has recovered, was incarcerated.
They weren't being evicted for missing rent payments; the landlord was losing the building. Housing official Rich Tynan settled the case quickly but then stopped to talk to the boys. He noticed a bunch of papers in Nate's cargo shorts pocket and asked about them.
The answer was not what he expected. They were offers of wrestling scholarships from two colleges. The wiry, whip-thin lad standing in front of him was a state champion for Bulkeley High School as a junior in 2001 in the 112-pound class and was runner-up in 2002 at 119 pounds. After one of his wins, he told The Courant's Bo Kolinsky: "I just couldn't see myself losing tonight."
This seems to be his guiding principle; but at that point it was in danger. He had only two days to get his paperwork in, and much still had to be gathered. Most parents quarterback this rite of passage; Nate's weren't available. But there was something about the kid that made Tynan — a great guy and a real credit to state service — want to help him.
Tynan got on the phone, and everyone he called fast-tracked the transcripts and other forms. That fall, Nate entered William Penn University in rural Oskaloosa, Iowa. Wrestling gets the respect it deserves in Iowa, and Penn coaches had seen Nate wrestle.
He had barely a C average and red-shirted his freshman year to get his grades up. Oskaloosa is "nothing but cornfields," way different than Hartford, but he adjusted. The key was "doing the work." He suffered a bad shoulder injury, but fought back and made the varsity as a senior. He worked in the computer lab at school and refereed games at the Y for pocket money. Summers in Hartford he'd sleep on friends' or siblings' couches and bike to work in city parks.
It took him five years, but he graduated. He then told Tynan, by now his unofficial mentor, that he was thinking about the military. But, Tynan asked, what do you really want to do? Teach, said Nate. Tynan got back on the phone, and Nate was in graduate school at Springfield.
I had lunch with Rich and Nate recently. Nate is a boyish-looking 30 years old. He does mixed martial arts training. He dresses ghetto, as they say, with the sideways baseball hat et al., but that doesn't define him. He is smart, has a sense of humor, chooses his words carefully. There is a steel to the kid, no quit, not an atom of self-pity.
He wants to teach because he likes to see kids develop and get better. He really likes changing the minds of kids who aren't physically active because they don't think they're good at sports. He believes, as I do, that sports shouldn't be reserved for the best athletes. We make too big a deal out of sports in this society, but for some kids, it's a rope out of the tree. Nate said wrestling — a great sport — gave him confidence. "Once you've wrestled, everything else in life is easy."
He has applied for jobs in several communities; he'd like someday to buy a home, have a permanent address, be able to bring his mother to live with him. I'd hire him because I think he'd inspire kids to get off their butts, and because they might pick up some of his resiliency. This is a kid who used to get sandwiches at the Boys & Girls Club to take to away wrestling meets. After you've wrestled, everything else is easier.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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