Former Purdue football player Ryan “R.K.” Russell wrote poetry during his time here to address his emotions, feelings and mental health.
Now, at age 27, he has completed a “poetic memoir” based on his life called “Prison or Passion.”
After graduating from Purdue in 2014 with a dual degree in sociology and communication, Russell has spent time in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills. In 2018, Russell stepped away from football because of an injury and has since turned his focus to writing.
Russell, who lost both his biological father and stepfather early in his life, began writing poetry at the age of 8.
“It was a way for me to understand how I was feeling,” Russell said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
According to Russell, writing has served as a way for him to have conversations about his emotions and experiences and to engage his creative side. As an athlete for most of his life, Russell emphasized his belief that, in many cases, male athletes aren’t encouraged to talk about their emotions.
“For me, writing was that dialogue that I wasn’t getting in the male sphere in sports,” he said.
Be A Man
I had to fit all my emotions
into the simple phrase,
Russell received a scholarship to play football at Purdue, where he played defensive end. When asked about what brought him to Purdue, Russell’s answer was quick: Drew Brees.
“Every Texas kid playing football knows Drew Brees,” Russell said of growing up near Dallas.
But it wasn’t only Drew Brees. Russell also credits players at his position such as Anthony Spencer, Rob Ninkovich, and eventual Purdue teammate Ryan Kerrigan. In addition to the opportunity to play football, Russell acknowledged that Purdue offered him a quality education, something his mother wanted him to pursue.
“That Purdue degree, people love it. They love that I am not only a successful athlete but a scholar, too,” Russell said.
When asked about what he thought of his time at Purdue, Russell jokingly said it was cold before adding that his time on campus shaped him to be an adult and gave him the best friends he has to this day.
Russell also met his best friend, Joseph Gilliam, who died in September. Russell claims Gilliam was his biggest influence here.
“He was the first guy where I had an intimate friendship with,” Russell said. “He was the first guy who I could really talk about my feelings and emotions. It was the first time I had ever felt a brotherhood bond with someone.”
Coming and Going
I came into this world surrounded by loved ones.
Hopefully I'll leave it the same way.
Despite the brotherly bonds Russell made with his teammates, he didn’t feel the need to let his teammates know he wrote poetry. But he believes his writing helped him on the field.
“If you have something heavy on your heart or your mind, writing that and putting it into the physical world helps you get it out of your head,” he said. Getting (those feelings) out of my head and being able to be present for football and my teammates was a huge benefit.”
Russell eventually did let his teammates know that he was passionate about writing poetry.
“The encouragement and the love that I got from my teammates was amazing. With concussions, and CTE, and brain injuries, and mental health, having a healthy outlet like writing to get my emotions out is good and I think it is encouraged,” he said. “People would rather see me writing about what I’m going through then having me take it out on myself or repressing it.”
Russell is passionate about the topic of mental health.
“I don’t think it’s being addressed enough,” he said. “But I also don’t think it is being addressed enough anywhere, not just in sports.”
Piece by Piece
Don't cry to me about how you fell apart.
I was born piece by piece shattered, torn, and broken.
I was never whole.
Russell emphasized the value of “pillars” in life. He said he tries to maintain a physical pillar by taking care of his body and a mental pillar by writing and reading poetry.
“There’s a lot of emphasis in college for your physical pillar, for your career pillar, for your financial pillar, but there’s not a lot for your mental pillar.”
To fix this, Russell spoke about the need for universities to embrace and encourage the use of psychiatrists.
Looking back on his time in the NFL, Russell said that although teams have their own psychiatrists, they are not used well enough. He explained that early on, teams let players know that the psychiatrists were there for them, but little is done later to encourage players to seek them out.
Russell believes the way to begin helping football players at both professional and college levels is to incorporate mandatory therapy.
“You have to see where these kids’ heads are at and where they’re going,” he said. “You have to know how they feel about themselves, because that’s huge.”
Face to Face
I pray to God so much
That some day soon
I think we should just talk
Face to face.
Russell remains a loyal fan of the Boilermakers. He expressed his support of Coach Jeff Brohm and the culture he is building on campus.
After reflecting on his own time here, Russell offers some advice that he would give to young people trying to choose between passions.
“Be all of who you are. You are a football player, so be a football player. You are an artist, so be an artist,” he said. “You do yourself no good focusing on one and not giving attention to the other. We are all multifaceted, multi-gifted beings.”
Writing poetry helped Russell understand his own feelings throughout various stages of his life. Today, he is believed to be the only active NFL player to have written a poetry book.