And if Russell gets really mad? "I pinch 'em," he says. "They hate that. You know, you're really vulnerable on the insides of your thighs. So I pinch their skin as hard as I can. I grab it and roll it and twist it and pull on it. And you can hear them going 'Ooh, ooh, ouch!' "
Matt's father, Phil, who recently retired from the Air Force with the rank of colonel, says it has always been thus. "Are you familiar with something called the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator Test?" he asks. "When Matt was tested as a child, he graded out 'very emotional.' " No kidding.
Matt was born in Tokyo and led a military brat's life, moving 11 times before he got out of high school. His start in organized football came in seventh grade, when he played for a base team in Ram-stein, Germany, but he dreamed of being a football star long before then.
Matt's father was a defensive end at Baylor, and his maternal grandfather, Nelson Rainey, was a center at Henderson State in Arkansas. "I remember being nine or 10 and visiting him," Matt says. "I'd drag him out on the street and I'd say, 'Granddad, I want you to watch me run.' He'd say, 'Boy, you look like a fullback!' And I'd get so excited, I just couldn't do enough after that. For as long as I can remember, this is all I've wanted to be."
And yet Russell nearly quit in his first year at Colorado. He was being redshirted and says he "felt like a nobody." He was homesick for his family, and he often felt that everything he missed or held dear was under attack. "I'd sit in class with students who griped about the military and said that we didn't need one, that military people were just a bunch of warmongers," Russell says. "In my heart, I'm thinking my dad and my brother—he's a Marine helicopter pilot—they're protecting the freedoms that these people love."
Near the end of the Vietnam War, Russell's father was gone for an entire year on a mission to Thailand. In '92 he spent four months in Somalia. From 1984 to '86 the family lived on a base in England that was under 24-hour armed guard for weeks because of the threat of terrorist attacks. It had been the launch point for the U.S. planes that carried out the '86 bombing of Libya. "I stayed home from school the day the planes came back," Matt says. "I watched out the window as the cars came down our street and the pilots" wives came running out their front doors, holding flowers."
Russell stuck it out in Boulder—he will graduate in December with a degree in communications—and when asked what made him stay, he says talking to his parents and Cabral was part of the reason. "Mostly," he says, "you go home and your friends are all gone. You realize your life has changed. Nothing is the same anymore. Looking back, I think I was just growing up."
Russell? Growing up? That may draw good-natured dissent from Cabral. Russell has an imagination straight out of Marvel Comics, and he excels at putting people on. "Wherever he is during practice, I'll notice a bunch of guys laughing," Cabral says, "So I say, 'C'mere.' Matt comes jogging over, and I send him to 'Time Out,' just like I used to do with my kids. I point to a spot and he has to go stand by himself for 10 minutes. It drives him crazy."
Russell's football skill always wins him Cabral's forgiveness. Last season he led the Buffaloes in tackles (119) and tackles for loss (16). He has a knack for turning in his best performances in big games: a team-high 13 tackles against Nebraska last season; 12 tackles and two sacks in a 21-point romp over then No. 10 Oklahoma; 12 tackles in a 29-21 comeback win against then No. 3 Texas A&M.
Russell loves football and every: thing that goes with it. He often finds himself crying during games. "Tears just streaming down my face," he says. "I know it sounds weird. It's not tears from being upset. It's from being so excited. Knowing we are playing so hard for each other. I want to win so bad. It's that love and pride you have for your teammates, what I feel when we're down, or when it's real physical, or when it's a tight game. I guess it's like being a dad. You're just so proud."