U's Joe Russell: One dream leads to another
Joe Russell's dream life in wrestling was interrupted by a motorcycle accident. With the help of Gophers coach J Robinson, Russell, an assistant coach, rebuilt it. Now he'll be honored by wrestling's hall of fame.
Last update: May 30, 2007 ? 12:01 AM
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'It was a dream year," Joe Russell said.
Russell, an assistant coach for the Gophers wrestling team, was talking about the first seven months of 1985. He won junior titles in both Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. Though just about to enter his senior year in high school, he finished third at the U.S. Team trials. The 1988 Olympics were within reach.
And then the meticulous life of a wrestler changed with one carefree decision by Russell in his hometown in suburban Portland, Ore. He and a friend were going to work out. Russell hopped on the back of his friend's motorcycle. He had no helmet, but it was just a couple of blocks, right?
Russell fidgeted a little in his chair Tuesday, preparing to take the short ride again. The accident feels more remote all the time, he said -- except for recently. Russell has been thinking about it a lot as he prepares to accept the National Wrestling Hall of Fame's Medal of Courage on Saturday in Stillwater, Okla.
Most of us have a series of small moments that end up defining our lives. Russell has those, too, but he also has life before and after Aug. 12, 1985. As he told his story, however, it was clear that "dream year" somehow applied to the entirety of 1985. The ability to make it so has defined Russell for the past 22 years.
What happened next
A truck pulled in front of the motorcycle. His friend laid the bike down to avoid it. They were going slow, but the bike flipped. The foot peg gouged 3 inches into Russell's skull.
He remembers none of it. Not the experimental surgery in which pieces of his skull were fit back together "like a jigsaw puzzle." Not his brother, Dan, who was riding behind him, who saw the whole thing and who helped save his life by putting pressure on the wound. Not the one-third cup of brain matter found at the scene.
This is what Russell has been told: "They didn't expect me to live. ... They really don't know what saved me. ... My parents were ready to sign away my body parts."
He was in a coma for a week. When he awoke, his left side was paralyzed. Russell was determined to wrestle again -- to resume the path he had been on.
"I assumed there was a reason God let me live," Russell said. "I thought it was for wrestling."
In a way, it was.
Russell wrestled in high school for the Gresham (Ore.) Gophers -- a nickname picked during the 1930-31 school year in honor of the U of M, a football power during that era. He returned to school in the spring of 1986, but he needed an extra year to finish. By January 1987, he had been cleared to wrestle.
"I was terrible," Russell said.
He had regained some of the functions on his left side, but his low leg and ankle were (and are) still affected by the accident. He went from one of the top wrestlers in the country to someone who didn't qualify for his state tournament.
"J was stupid enough to recruit me," Russell said. He was referring to J Robinson, who took the head coaching job at Minnesota in 1986.
"All you know is here's a kid who had a bad deal and he needs a break," Robinson said. "You give people a chance, and you never know where it's going to go. That's what life is about."
Russell came. He kept thinking "maybe tomorrow" everything would fall back into place for him. As much as he tried -- including some wild stuff like shock therapy on his ankle -- it never did fall in place on the mat. It certainly did off the mat. He graduated and went on to law school at Minnesota. He received that degree in 1995; a year later, he became an assistant coach with the Gophers.
"He's a master of the sport," said outgoing senior Cole Konrad, who won two NCAA titles as a heavyweight with the Gophers. Just as important, Konrad added later, "He's a coach you could talk to, no matter what."
Russell said he thinks he can relate well to all athletes because he's been both a star and a grinder. The dividing point in time is clear; that Russell could adapt his life to fit both molds is the reason he will be honored this weekend. His wife, Sadie, is turning the event into a reunion of family and friends -- of those who knew Russell on both sides of a dream year.
"I have my dream job," Russell said. "I bleed maroon and gold, and I feel really fortunate to have the position I have. ... Coaching is a blast. I can't believe I get paid for this."