Imagine going from starter to cut, but sticking around in the province where you played, living with friends who also happen to be season-ticket holders for the team that cut you, helping out at a kids' camp and then getting called back to the team that didn't want you a month ago. That's what happened to Eddie Russ, the once-and-current Saskatchewan Roughriders' defensive back whose stranger-than-fiction story Rob Vanstone relates in The Regina Leader-Post. Russ joined the Riders in 2011 and started for the team for most of last season, but was cut in training camp this year. Instead of packing up and returning to his native Florida, though, he headed two-and-a-half hours north from Regina to Warman, Saskatchewan (population 7,084) to live with two season-ticket holders he'd made friends with, Keith and Shelley Heinrich, and help out at the youth bible camp their church supports. Now, all of a sudden, the Riders have brought him back.
It's a remarkable story, and one that showcases the deep ties that can form between CFL players and their communities. Shelley Heinrich told Vanstone she and Keith met Russ at a men's breakfast and youth event in a nearby town after the 2012 season. They became fast friends, which eventually led to them offering him a place to stay after he was cut, and his decision to stay with them and help at the camp:
While living with Keith and Shelley for 23 days, Russ helped out at the Rosthern Youth Farm Bible Camp. Keith and Shelley attend Hague Mennonite Church, which provides support for the camp.
"The kids and the staff had so much fun with Eddie,'' Shelley said. "You know how he is.''
For his part, Russ said the experience of getting away from football proved important for him, but he was fortunate he was able to remain near by:
"Maybe I needed to get away from football in a sense,'' Russ reflected. "That's what God wanted me to do - to do some of His work and refocus. So I was out there with (the Heinrichs) family and their kids, and working with some special-needs kids. It just helped me reprioritize and realize that it's not just about football.
You use football as a platform to get better in different things. You meet people and everything. I actually got to stay in (Saskatchewan) and I didn't leave, so it's kind of like it was ordained for me to come back. ...
They brought me in like another son. They were like parents to me and it was awesome. They hooked me up through the camp and they even brought me back here. They took time off work and drove me back and dropped me off. It was awesome. We're like family now as well.
Maybe I needed to meet them. Maybe they needed me there. You never know, right?"
We've seen plenty of CFL players stick around in Canada after their playing careers and pick up occupations ranging from police work and firefighting to blacksmithing to restaurant ownership. We've also seen players hold unusual jobs during the offseason, including fellow Riders Tearrius George and Macho Harris working on Saskatchewan oil rigs, and some players even take on extra work during the season. Still, Russ' story is unique. It's remarkable to see season-ticket holders form such a close bond with a player, and it's amazing how this turned out so well for everyone involved. It's another only-in-the-CFL moment, but one that shows how special this league can be.