By Jeff Shearer
ATLANTA - Needing only two more classes to complete his Auburn University degree in health services administration, Dontavius Russell decided the NFL could wait.
"The narrative of college football is always you're a student-athlete first," Russell said. "For me, I didn't want that to change, given the success I have had while playing football. I wanted to make sure I was able to complete my degree before moving forward to a new chapter of my life."
Russell announced his decision to return in 2018 for his senior season on Christmas night, a most welcome gift for Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
"That's a huge thing," Steele said. "At the level that he's playing at, and what he does for us, down in and down out, I have to honestly say it would have been a challenge to replace that."
Monday's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl will be Russell's 40th Auburn football game, his 37th start at defensive tackle.
"Dontavius is a quiet guy," Steele said. "He doesn't say a lot. He's more lead by example. Everybody respects him for the fact that he does his job every day at a high level. He sets a standard by doing that."
"I don't have much to say unless I really know people," Russell said. "I don't want to bother people with a lot of words. I don't speak a lot, but when I do speak, I feel like I say good things."
Dr. Cathleen Erwin would agree. The associate professor and director of Auburn University's health administration program remembers Russell's first day in her introductory course, when the 6-3, 310-pound lineman told his fellow students he grew up wanting to be a nurse like his mother but figured "people would be scared to get a shot from me."
"It has been a pleasure to work with Dontavius," said Erwin. "He is a good student who is actively engaged in the classroom. I especially appreciate his great sense of humor, and his genuine interest in addressing health care disparities."
A redshirt junior from Carrollton, Georgia, Dontavius Russell will delay the NFL to return to Auburn for his senior season.
Russell, who changed majors from nursing to nutrition before focusing on health services administration, says Erwin is one of his favorite professors.
"She always takes time to really show and tell you real world applications of what we're learning in class," he said. "I've always enjoyed her classes."
Russell traces his interest in healthcare to spending so much time at the hospital where his mother worked.
"There are a lot of things people don't understand on the administration side that really affect the patient," he said. "I want to be able to help people. My main goal after football is to possibly manage a health organization. I really like what I'm doing now. It took time, but I'm glad I finally found what I wanted to do."
A mainstay on the SEC's Academic Honor Roll, Russell says he's "never struggled in school."
"My father leaned more toward sports, and my mother leaned more toward academics," he said. "I had both sides push me toward being good at both of them. I always wanted to do well in academics to please my momma, and I wanted to excel in sports to please my father."
As a child, Russell excelled too much for the people in charge of his youth football leagues.
"They kicked me out," Russell said. "They told me I couldn't play rec."
It wasn't because he was too big.
"They didn't have a size limit," he said. "I hurt people. I was just hitting people. Tackle somebody and they would get hurt."
Russell, No. 95, recorded 3 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss this season
League organizers solved their Dontavius dilemma by promoting Russell to teams comprised of older boys, a trend that continued into middle school.
"When I was 12, there weren't any more leagues to go to, so I thought I wasn't going to be able to play football, but luckily, they let me play on the junior high team," he said. "Then I got put out of the junior high team, and got put on the ninth grade. I've always never been able to play the age group I was at."
Ironically, now that Russell gets to choose in which league he will compete, he's deciding not to line up yet against older players professionally, choosing to return to Auburn for one more season.
"Auburn has always played a big role in my life," he said. "My uncle [Dennis Wallace] played here. My family were always fans of Auburn. I always wanted the opportunity to come and play here. I made up my mind. I told my momma when I was a little kid, I said, 'I'm going to be 6-3, 285 pounds. I'm going to go to Auburn and play football.' By the time I graduated from high school, I was that exact size.
"Auburn has always been good to me, and it helped me a lot to get to where I am."
— Greg Ostendorf (@greg_ostendorf) December 29, 2017
Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl Ticket Information
Join Coach Malzahn and the seventh ranked Tigers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as they play tenth ranked and undefeated UCF in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Monday, January 1. Tickets are available online at AUBTIX.com or by phone at (855) 282-2010.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer