KENYA BROWN - Wednesday, July 10, 2013
It is not often one hears about a soccer player trading in his cleats and shin guards for ER scrubs and a stethoscope, but that is exactly what the recently retired Robbie Russell will do as he prepares for medical school.
When the former U.S. national team prospect informed Major League Soccer side DC United of his immediate retirement, it was greeted with surprise. However, according to Russell, the staff eventually supported his decision after seeing it from his perspective as he had to balance his classes, MCAT preparations and applying to medical school with playing soccer.
Many may have thought that Russell's decision to retire during the MLS season was a jump-of-the-gun decision. However, the decision to retire and focus on his medical career was something that he thought about for a long time.
"I had started to consider retirement the minute I had returned to U.S. soil from Europe," he told Yanks Abroad. "The plan had been for me to return to school while my wife (an attorney) picked up her professional career where it had left off. I started interning for the team doctor in Salt Lake, to get some hands on experience with medicine. That was really the first concrete step I took down this path."
While the former DC United and Real Salt Lake defender spent some productive seasons in America's top league, many remember him from the time he spent in Europe. It was in 2000 when the Accra, Ghana native signed with Norwegian first division side Sogndal, opting not to sign with the Los Angeles Galaxy who selected him in the MLS Superdraft.
According to the former MLS Cup winner, the decision to forgo a career with the Galaxy to try his luck in Europe was not easy.
"My contract with Sogndal was entirely due to a one week trial I went on immediately after the draft," Russell explained. "I had been drafted by LA with them knowing that I was leaving to go on trial in Europe. They had done so with the hope that things wouldn't work out over there and they would still have my playing rights when I returned. It was a very difficult decision because I had initially been projected at going much higher in the draft prior to my informing the league of my departure, and they made it very clear that if I left and came back they would punish me with a league minimum contract."
After signing with Sogndal, Russell would go on to earn a spot in the starting lineup of the team. Despite not being one of the strongest teams in Norway's top division, he would be rated as one of the best right backs in the league. While the accolades were much appreciated, Russell preferred to keep his mind on what was happening on the field as he fought to keep his team out of the relegation zone.
"I hardly even noticed. I was playing with a team that was new to the Tippeligaen and was a perennial relegation contender," he explained. "Playing those types of games every week is very intense. Every week is a make or break performance for your club in order to stay in the top league. The team had started to do well, and I was surrounded by a lot of other players very close to me in age. It was a very tight knit group, and the success of the team was celebrated by everyone. My individual accolades were very much second place."
Russell may have not noticed during that time, but his displays on the field were getting noticed by several teams, one of them was Rosenborg BK, the most successful team in Norwegian soccer. To move from a relegation contender to a team expected to win the league title brings huge expectations, but the 33-year-old was very excited to take the challenge as he also had the opportunity to face some of the best teams in European competition.
"I was honored. Rosenborg is a powerhouse in Scandinavia, and was in UEFA Champions League every year. In fact one of their players held the world record for the most number of Champions League appearances, and the chance to play in that tournament was a dream come true. At the time I had been contacted by several smaller teams in Germany's Bundesliga, with possibly much better offers. But the pull to play in Champions league was the deciding factor for me," Russell said.
After helping Rosenborg claim its 19th league title in 2004, Russell was hit by a rash of injuries during the 2005 season, limiting his playing time. However, despite his setbacks, he said the support of his teammates was one of the highlights of his time in Norway.
"The following championship season I was hit with some horrible injuries and ended up not playing in enough games to be considered part of the team according to Norwegian Tippeligaen rules. But the way the guys on that team helped me recover, kept me going was indescribable. Being apart of that squad will always be a cherished and unforgettable, if not recorded, season for me," he said.
As like most American soccer players who have headed abroad to ply their trade, Russell was no stranger to the stereotypes that came with playing for a team. While confident in his skills and ability to adapt to the game, most coaches thought otherwise. This was an obstacle the former Viborg FF man had to overcome throughout his time in Europe.
"There were a lot of stereotypes surrounding American footballers when I started playing over there. Most of the coaches would look at me coming in and automatically assume I was one hell of an athlete but wouldn't know the first thing about football," he intimated.
"In fact, after my first training with the new team in Sogndal the head coach sat me down and explained to me that I was brought in to run constantly during the game and to use my ‘American athleticism' on the field. I was not amused. I come from an African background and had been watching and playing football since I could crawl. Now being told to not use my brain at all and just run was not a good experience for me. Luckily that coach did not stay with the club for very long."
Having made an impact in Norway and playing regularly, the next stage in Russell's career was trying to become a member of the U.S. men's national team. While he was called into several camps by the team, it was the injuries that would ultimately prevent him from earning a cap.
Despite not being able to represent his country on the international stage, Russell holds no regrets on what he believes has been wonderful 13-year career.
"There are always what if's and what could have been's floating around in your head. The phrase 'hindsight is 20-20' is something that I think everyone can relate to on almost a daily basis. Unfortunately right around the time when I was getting all those accolades in Norway, and getting called in to the U.S. national team, was also when I was hit by a series of knee injuries in an eight-month period that left me wondering if I would ever walk again let alone play soccer," he said.
"The what if's from that period are something that I could dwell on from now until the end of my life, but what could have happened isn't what did happen. The only thing I try to ruminate on is what did happen, and I couldn't be happier with how my career has ended up. I have so many unbelievable memories at the highest levels of football that only a handful of human beings ever get to experience. If you had told me that would be how my career would end at the start, I wouldn't have and still won't change any single minute."
After a long career, Russell now has his sights set on becoming a doctor as he is currently taking courses at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Whether soccer fans will have the chance to see him gracing a field to tend to the injuries of players is still up in the air, but it is one option he is not canceling out.
"After school, if I have the chance to give back to the game that has given me so much, I would jump at the chance. But we will cross that bridge when we come to it. For now I am just concentrating on getting through my studies," he said.