Watch me work: Chelsea’s Emerson Russell leads the way for the Hornets while relentlessly pursuing improvement

Published 8:13 am Friday, September 15, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Emerson Russell’s impact on the field for the Chelsea Hornets is easy to see.

His dominance as both a runner and in the receiving game stand out, and his performances on the field have endeared him to Chelsea fans.

However, most of his impact isn’t visible from the stands on Friday nights. Russell has established himself as the workhorse in the Chelsea locker room, and he is one of the Hornets’ biggest leaders because of it.

His influence on Chelsea’s program is evident throughout the building, and the work that he has put in both in practice and outside the team has earned the praise of fellow players and coaches.

“He’s just a great kid,” Chelsea coach Todd Cassity said. “And, you know, he hasn’t really got any D-I type offers yet. I really, really hope he gets that opportunity because he’s worked his rear end off to be that kid, and I have never coached probably in my 25 years a kid that is as talented and has the want to as Emerson.”

Just keep improving

One of the main things that sets Russell apart from the rest is his work ethic. Even though he has extraordinary talent as a running back, he doesn’t rest on that talent, but instead he works to improve himself every day.

For Russell, it’s all about being better than he was yesterday. He often scours his film looking for any area that he can improve on.

“I would usually make a highlight tape at the end of every season, and then I would just notice things that I felt like I could’ve changed every single season,” Russell said. “And I’ll usually add that to my game for the next season and just become 1% better each year.”

“Just knowing the mistakes I made and allowing those to change and going into the next season, it just adds small parts of my game, which allows me to become a better player.”

Part of the reason why Russell wants to be the best player that he can is because of his dream to play college football. That dream started becoming more of a reality when coach Cassity arrived at Chelsea and not only taught the players and gave them freedom to grow, but he and assistant coach Payton Holmes set up players like Russell to do well in recruiting.

“Going into this season, I’m a lot more motivated knowing that coach Holmes has coordinated a lot of like coaches coming into the game wanting to see me play, me and my teammates play and just knowing that is possible for them to be recruiting me,” Russell said. “And getting some offers that I would’ve never thought I could’ve gotten a couple of years ago.”

Cassity already had Russell on his radar when he came to Chelsea, but that grew even more when he saw him in person. That praise only grew when Russell posted an All-County season last year with 1,130 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground as well as a pair of receiving touchdowns.

“I had seen him on film,” Cassity said. “I knew that he had so much talent, but, you know, just watching him in the weight room smile every day, he never complains. I knew he was going to be special just by the way he approached his everyday life. And the first month I was there, I just got to know him and the work ethic that he put in, it pretty much confirmed to me that this kid’s the player that everybody said he was. And then to see him on the field last year, have 1,200 yards rushing in the region that we play in. you know, it was it was definitely well deserved on his part with all the work that he’s already put in to accomplish that.”

Russell put up those numbers even though he was in his first season in 7A and working in a new offense under a first-year head coach. He said there was definitely an adjustment period as he and his teammates got the snaps they needed to grow, but that things are looking up on the other side of last season.

“So, the main challenge was going in with a brand new coach and not really having the depth that we wanted, but we had to do what we had to do with the depth that we had,” Russell said. “So, it really allowed me to work harder and some of the other players that are also coming up this season to work harder and get that experience that we needed because we’re kind of young. But knowing that we’re young and we had those guys get experience, it’ll allow us to be a lot better this season knowing that they’ve already had the experience.”

That work ethic and desire to get better comes from his parents, especially his dad, who played for Woodlawn in high school and Samford in college before playing professionally.

From when Russell started playing football at age five to now, he remembers his dad motivating him to put in the work to chase his dreams.

“Mainly, he always used to tell me just the only things I can control is my attitude and effort,” Russell said. “I would just use that all throughout my years. And that’s really made me the player that I am today.”

Russell’s parents are still his biggest supporters to this day, and the more that Cassity interacts with Russell and his family, it’s obvious to him where he gets his values from.

“With his parents, with his family, his dad is always around helping out, doing anything that we need from him,” Cassity said. “So, he definitely gets it honestly from his father and his mom, and they’ve done a great job of raising him.

Being a leader

Russell’s work during his career hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Chelsea locker room. As he has grown up at Chelsea, Russell has grown into more of a leader each season as players look up to him.

Russell isn’t the traditional motivational and vocal leader, but instead he chooses to lead by example and let his work do the talking. To Cassity, that’s even more important because of the lack of players able to lead in that way.

“He’s not much of a talker,” Cassity said. “He’s more of a leader that shows what’s supposed to be done on a daily basis. And a lot of kids talk the talk, but they don’t want to walk it. And he’s definitely a kid that does more the affirmation, the showing of it than he does the talking.”

Russell views himself the same way, but he wants to grow more as a vocal leader as he enters his senior season.

“Most of my career, I was mostly like a lead by example type of player, but this year I really had to step into that role of being a more verbal leader, and I think I’ve been doing pretty good with it,” Russell said.

Russell is doing that by giving the younger players under him the chance to learn from him while he is still at Chelsea to set the future of the program up for success.

“I’m just taking most of those skill players under my wing, showing them everything that I know and allowing them to get those reps in that they need, so when I leave them, they’ll know what to do and how to do it,” Russell said.

With that great power comes great responsibility to lead well, as Cassity often tells Russell. He’s one of the biggest leaders on the team, and everything that he does has a ripple effect on the rest of the players.

“All the kids look up to him,” Cassity said. “He’s just one of those kids that everybody gravitates to. When he’s going really well, the entire team’s going really well. And I try to remind him of that on a daily basis, that all those eyes are on him. And if he walks out on that practice field and there’s a lot of energy and excitement, then the entire team’s going to be the same way.”

Russell rises to that challenge daily, and it’s very fulfilling to him to help make sure the next generation is more prepared to step into his shoes as a starter than he was.

“It makes me feel pretty accomplished, even though I’m not very done with that yet,” Russell said. “I’m still working on that some more. But knowing that I was in their shoes before and had those three years helped me and made me a better player.”

All in the family

By helping the younger players, Russell is helping to bring together the team and make them not just work well on the field, but grow closer off of it.

To Russell, Chelsea football is a family, and family means being there for his teammates no matter what.

“It’s just a real family-like environment,” Russell said. “It means a lot, and they’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Russell believes that part of Chelsea’s culture is crucial to their success because it makes everything mean more. When he and his teammates are willing to sacrifice for each other and value the team above everything, the sky’s the limit.

“Playing like a team, playing like a family, it really changes how the game is seen so it means a lot more to you when you’re playing,” Russell said. “You’re not being selfish, you’re playing for the guy next to you, and that’s what it’s all about.”

That respect, love and selflessness is a two-way street, and the players and coaches around him pour as much into Russell as he does into them.

Russell and Cassity in particular have a special relationship. Despite only going into their second season together, the two have a strong bond and are willing to anything for each other.

“It’s one that I can pretty much ask of him anything and he’ll do it, and he can pretty much ask me anything and I’ll do it,” Cassity said. “He had a car wreck last year before playing Oak Mountain, and we were one of the first ones to get there. I care about him. He’s a great kid.”

Even though Russell obviously means a lot to Cassity as one of his all-time best players, Cassity values his relationship with Russell as a person more than anything.

“He’s one of those that I will try to stay in touch with him the rest of my life, that type of kid,” Cassity said. “And I’m just proud to say that I’ve gotten the opportunity to coach him and hopefully that relationship will continue.”

It’s obvious Russell has left a great impact on Chelsea, and going into his senior season, he’ll have one more chance to lead his football family on the field while he aims to accomplish his dreams.

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the 2023 edition of the Shelby County Football magazine. To read the full issue, click here.