It's mid-June, the sun is glinting off the aluminum bleachers in deserted Folsom Field, and Matt Russell, Colorado's All-America linebacker, is half-a-year removed from his last football game. But he looks as if he just played eight quarters against Nebraska. Angry red scratches stand out on his thick right arm as he absentmindedly dabs a few fingers beneath one nostril and explains, "Just checking for blood." Two nights earlier he had been teasing his 26-year-old brother, Randy, about being an old man when—"BOOM!" Matt says with a laugh—Randy, a former linebacker at Arkansas, caught him with a forearm shiver to the face.
Now Matt is rubbing his swollen nose, which is red and bent a little to the right. "He broke it," Russell says, laughing again.
Not even a freshly broken nose can squelch the inspiration Russell gets the next day when he parks his black Jeep in front of his Boulder apartment and Nate Chine, his best friend from high school, climbs out the other side of the vehicle. Chine, who played linebacker at Air Force after starting beside Russell at Belleville East (Ill.) High, makes the mistake of turning his back. Russell takes a two-step running start and—"BANG!"—his blindside hit sends Chine flying into the screen door. The screen explodes out and clatters on the ground like a pot lid. Chine and Russell exchange startled looks. They look back at the door, which is hanging crooked on its hinges. Then they both break up laughing.
For Russell, there's little difference between life on the field and off. He lives to have fun and loves to play aggressive football, and often the twain meet. Usually with a BOOM! and a BANG!
He's a 6'2", 245-pound wrecker with a body by Caterpillar. He plays with a fury that has made him the leading candidate to win the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. Says one NFL scout, " Colorado has had some pretty good linebackers the past few years—Greg Biekert, who's with the Raiders, the Patriots' Ted Johnson. But they're not nearly as good as Russell. This kid just takes people on."
Russell is so competitive that he fumed when the bass in his favorite fishing hole near Boulder suddenly quit biting for a few weeks this summer. Soon he and Colorado tight end Matt Lepsis were hustling back to the pond with two diving masks, two snorkels and, alas, just one set of fins—they each wore just one flipper as they "sleuthed around," as Russell says, in search of the shy fish. No slime-slicked bass was going to get the best of Matt Russell.
He's just as driven between the sidelines. If someone beats him on a play, Russell turns into a vigilante in shoulder pads. A critical look from linebackers coach Brian Cabral is enough to whip him into an arm-flailing, teeth-gnashing frenzy. Soon Russell's nostrils are flaring like a racehorse's and his outrage is visible; teammates can see his chest rising and falling as he awaits the next snap, his body coiled like a spring.
"When he gets like that he's just going to run out and hit somebody as hard as he can," says Cabral. What's wrong with that? Says Cabral, "They don't always have the football when he goes after them."
Even teammates who grab a fistful of Russell's jersey in practice know they risk being broadsided or goaded into a fight on the next play. Russell lasted all of three snaps before getting thrown out of Colorado's first spring scrimmage this year. "I was coming on a blitz and, well, I don't agree with the rule that quarterbacks shouldn't be hit," he says. "When I got close to [quarterback John] Hessler, I thought about pulling up. Then I thought, Nah...I'm not gonna stop. So I sacked him." And Hessler was Russell's roommate.
Russell reserves a special antipathy for impudent running backs. He says, "I had one guy in the pile tell me once, 'Hey, hey, you can't get the ball from me.' So I said, 'Oh? All right.' Then I started bending back the guy's fingers, pulling and twisting and grabbing at them."