Like father, like son: Familial bond grows as Emerson Russell aims to walk on at father Jerome’s alma mater Samford

Published 9:00 am Sunday, June 16, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Emerson Russell and his father, Jerome, have always had a strong relationship, one that goes beyond sports.

“My relationship with my dad has always been good,” Emerson said. “He’s always pushed me to be a better athlete, student, man and all that, and he’s always strives for me to be better than he was and everything he does is to benefit me.”

The Russells’ relationship was built on sports from early on. With Emerson being the only boy out of four children, Jerome actively sought out ways to bond with his son, and sports was one of those avenues.

“Emerson kind of was like my only guy that I can hang out with in the home for the longest,” Jerome said. “So, he and I, we’re pretty close. And of course, through Little League, I coached him up until he got to eighth grade. We always had that relationship with sports and being the only guys in the house, so it was pretty cool.”

However, Jerome’s love of sports didn’t come from just anywhere.

Jerome played running back at Samford University from 1996-99 before enlisting in the Army. While he was there, he broke the career rushing yards record with 3,122 yards and currently sits in third place on the program’s all-time list. He also has the most punt return yards in program history with 769 yards.

Jerome’s love of football eventually rubbed off on Emerson after he started watching football on TV with him, and eventually, he signed up to play flag football.

During that time, Jerome used his knowledge and skills to coach Emerson and helped explain to him how to play the game well and pushed him to be better.

While it wasn’t always easy at first, Emerson grew to love football and used Jerome’s teachings to develop quicker than some of his peers.

“At times, I think he got frustrated because early on, not in the later years, because I may have pushed him a little bit harder than I pushed some of the other players,” Jerome said. “But I think he grew to appreciate it, and I basically try to give guidance, teach him about a game that I fell in love with and just telling things to look for. I think it may have pushed his sports IQ a little bit faster because he was living with the coach. So, I could explain things in more detail to him and also tell him why we’re doing things a certain way where everyone else, you just kind of trust that they trust you.”

Another way Jerome helped grow Emerson’s game was showing him the specific ways he could use his smaller size to his advantage. Both father and son are similarly built as smaller running backs, with Emerson ending his senior year at 5-foot-7, 155 pounds.

Through Jerome’s guidance, Emerson learned how to be quick on his feet to avoid being hit.

“Me and him, we both have a lower center of gravity, so we both play in a similar way, but most of the smaller backs do,” Emerson said. “But the way he played, with us smaller backs, we don’t take bigger hits, so he used to always say like, ‘That one small move at the end will help you avoid getting hit.’ And I’ve always done that to prevent injury. That’s one of the bigger things I’ve taken from his game.”

When Emerson moved up to tackle football, he was intimidated by the size of his opponents. Jerome explained to him that he could actually use his shorter stature as a positive.

“Football is all about technique and it’s a game of leverage, so if you can understand how to use your size to your advantage, you’ll be able to do whatever you want,” Jerome said. “And after (Emerson) understood that, he played wide receiver, he played running back and he played corner a lot of times when he was being coached by me, and it was straight technique like that he used in order to make up for size. And after a while, I think he just forgot about it.”

After an All-County junior season that saw Emerson rush for 1,130 yards and 11 touchdowns in Class 7A, he was on pace to eclipse that mark with 1,037 yards and 10 touchdowns in seven games as a senior, earning him another All-County spot.

In addition, his work as a pass-catcher added to his impressive resume as he earned two receiving touchdowns each in his junior and senior seasons.

As Emerson saw success on the field, Jerome beamed with pride from the stands as his son chased his dreams.

“I love it,” Jerome said. “I think I may like watching him play as much as I enjoyed playing it, and to see him improve from year to year, I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Through it all, they’ve grown closer on and off the field and developed a strong bond that’s easy for everyone to see.

“You talk to Jerome and it’s just like talking to Emerson,” Chelsea head football coach Todd Cassity said. “You talk to Emerson, it’s just like talking to Jerome. And they’re almost the same person. It’s so cool to see them together and to watch them interact as well because you can tell there’s a true love there for each other and that father-son relationship is awesome.”

Emerson said their bond comes from how much his father can relate to him, whether it’s through football or life.

“He’s always understood the stuff that I’m coming from,” Emerson said. “He’s taught me a lot of lessons that I’ve been able to take with me. I’ve been in a lot of different environments and him just guiding me through it has allowed me to be able to adapt to so many different environments, personalities and people.”

Those similarities included Emerson’s ultimate dream: playing college football just like his dad.

“I always knew I wanted to play college football, but I always like wanted to be like him in certain ways and sometimes use his game in mine,” Emerson said.

However, neither father nor son foresaw just how similar their journeys would become.

As the time came closer for Emerson to make a college decision, he had built deep relationships with multiple coaches and programs and had his mind made up on where to commit to playing at.

That all changed while he was at work one day and Samford offensive line coach ­­Shawn Bostick called him with a unique proposition: walk on to play football with the Bulldogs.

According to Emerson the call came out of the blue. He had competed in camps at Samford before and had met the coaches, but nothing concrete came out of it until that point.

Both Emerson and Jerome knew that he would be taking a chance by walking on at Samford. However, Emerson believed in his abilities and his dad supported his path.

“For me, I was like, ‘Hey, if that’s the route, I believe in you, I believe in your skill set. Do it,’” Jerome said. “After that, I think at that point, his mind was made up.”

Now, Emerson has a chance to follow in his father’s footsteps once again. If he succeeds in making the team, he’ll share one more thing with his father as fellow Samford football players.

“Oh, I think it’ll be awesome,” Jerome said about if Emerson makes the team. “It’ll definitely bring a certain element of pride to the dinner table for Thanksgiving and other holidays. But I also think that off the field is kind of what makes Samford what it is, and I told him that. I was like, ‘Man, listen, if you want a place where it’s big enough but yet small enough where you can still handle business in the classroom and off the field, then I think you’re making the right choice,’ but I can’t wait to see him play at Samford.”

“It would mean a lot,” Emerson said of playing at Samford. “I would try to probably beat his records since he’s in the record books, but it would just mean a lot to play at the same school as my dad and be able to leave my mark.”

Jerome likes Emerson’s chances of doing just that. With Emerson going into his freshman year at just 17 years old, Jerome believes he has time to develop and catch up to the level that other kids in his class were at.

He also thinks that the lessons that he taught Emerson over the years put him a step ahead of where he was at Samford. Jerome had to spend time behind starter Rashad Brewer to learn a brand-new position at first whereas Emerson has been a running back for years now.

“Personally, I think his skill set at his age is a little bit better than mine because I was kind of raw when I got to Samford,” Jerome said. “I was a DB that got switched to running back. So, with Emerson, he has everything that I learned from all the great backs that I played with, like Rashad Brewer, he came in my sophomore year and kind of started for the last half of the year. And so, I took some of the stuff that he did well and added it to my game, which kind of pushed me to that level to break the record my senior year. So, I think just from a raw talent spot, Emerson may be a little bit farther along than I was.”

Nothing is certain yet about whether Emerson will make the team, but one thing is for sure. Whether he makes the team or not, his relationship with his father will continue to be as strong as it’s been.