POET INTERVIEW – RYAN K. RUSSELL
Question: What could possibly have prompted the internet to connect a sixty-year-old grandmother with a young NFL Defensive End? Why, a passion for poetry! Of course! Please welcome Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Ryan K. Russell on this, the day of the launch of his debut poetry book, Prison or Passion! (The title is linked to a site where you may purchase the book. After you read the poem below, I believe you will be heading straight over there with me to make your purchase.)
Overdraw – by Ryan K. Russell
Gold coin. Dollars. Cents.
Money can’t buy me a dad.
Birthday transactions aren’t bank statements but hugs and laughs.
Silver dollar. The little boy holler. No father to calm his cries.
Plastic credit card. Cold and hard like the floor you left me to sleep on.
I was below zero. It only takes one number, and plenty commas to make you love a zero.
Should I pay you to love me?
I prayed you to love me.
I cried for you to love me.
I bled for you to love me.
My deposit insufficient.
MARIE ELENA: Hello Ryan! A warm welcome, and congratulations on the launch of your book!
“Overdraw” is forcefully unsettling – born of your own life. So very much is said with few words, which is my favorite style of poetry. I look forward to reading more, getting to know more about the man behind the poem, and introducing him to our poetry “garden.” Thank you for taking time out of your ridiculously busy, high-profile life, to stop by our humble site. In my way of thinking, that speaks volumes of who you are.
This book-launch day is also the day of your mother’s birthday. May I assume this is more than just a happy coincidence? Was this something intentionally arranged, to surprise or honor her?
RYAN: It’s no coincidence that the book releases on my mother’s birthday. Everything about this book is intentional. The font, the cover design, the arrangement, and any pictures were done by me with great purpose. The relationship I share with my mother is the closest bond two human beings can have. The love I receive from her is truly unconditional. Growing up it was just my mother and I. My biological father was not in the picture. I had a stepfather that raised me until I was seven, then he passed in a motorcycle accident. My mother was all I had. Even though she worked three jobs at times and was still a full-time college student, my mother made sure that we had a strong bond. No matter how long or hard her work day was, she would listen about my day with in depth questions. Sometimes she would listen while resting her eyes, and I would doubt she was even listening. When I asked if she had been, she would be able to repeat back to me, almost word for word, exactly what I said. She made sure I always knew I was a blessing and not a burden. Releasing this book on her day is just one of many ways I continue to honor her.
MARIE ELENA: I am so sorry to hear about your father and stepfather – such devastating blows to a young child. Obviously your mother is a remarkable woman, raising you so beautifully on her own. What a gift you are giving her, with this book launch. We are happy to honor her right along with you, with this interview today. My intention was to shoot for May, but when I saw the book launch and your mother’s birthday were both today, I stepped on the gas. And I’d like to take a moment to wish her a very happy birthday!
How cute is this shot of you both?!
Ryan, one of the things I was excited to learn about you is that you were a product of the Big Ten, having earned a football scholarship at Purdue in Indiana. What did you study there? And why did you choose that field of study?
RYAN: I double majored at Purdue. Since I was on a football scholarship I spent most summers at Purdue training. That gave me an opportunity to take extra classes as well. I studied sociology and communications because initially I wanted to be a sports broadcaster. The plan was to have a long successful career in the NFL and then, when it was all said and done, be a big time broadcaster or analyst. Sociology peaked my interest to know the world around me. Also I have always been an emotional human being but I wanted the opportunity to study people in a more logistical way. Now I do a lot of public speaking at schools, where I talk about some of the struggles I’ve been through as a young man. Writing was more of a personal venture and a therapeutic way of expression. Eventually I realized that football was not the only thing that was innately a part of me, but writing was as well.
MARIE ELENA: Thank you for using what you have learned in your life experiences to help our youth. What most valuable lesson have you taken away from being a college and professional athlete? Is there any particular coach or fellow player that you would say helped you with that lesson?
RYAN: God, the lessons I’ve learned through football and the people I have encountered through it is endless. My friends often joke about my ability to relate anything in life to a football analogy. I would have to say the lesson that has resonated the strongest with me is the finite nature of life. When you’re young time seems endless, you feel invincible. Yes, there’s also a power in that, and a boldness that comes with it, but when you learn the finite nature of things though, details start to matter. Things become more beautiful because you understand they are temporary. You take risks because you know you will never have another opportunity exactly like that one again. You hold your loved ones closer and kiss your lovers deeper because you will never be there again, in that moment, at that time, with that person. Things will never go back to the way they were and they will never remain the way they are.
MARIE ELENA: So much wisdom, eloquently expressed.
RYAN: My teacher for this lesson was my best friend, college teammate and roommate, Joseph Gilliam. Joe and I were the same age, lived in the same dorm, played on the same side of the ball, but were opposite in a lot of little ways. Joe was mature and grounded with a strong sense of self. I was immature at times, emotional, reckless, and discovering who I was and who I wanted to be. Joe did everything with purpose, he enjoyed all the little things in life, he took nothing for granted. Our final year at Purdue Joe suffered a career ending knee injury, and by this time we were the two closest people on the team. I was devastated my best friend would be missing his final season at Purdue. See life is finite, football doesn’t last, and you don’t know when it’s going to be over. Instead of sulking, Joe poured all his love for the game into those around him. Joe encouraged me every game, talking to me on the sideline, picking me up when I felt down, and watching film with me constantly. Joe didn’t sulk on the past because it was over. He made the most of every moment. I was with Joe in 2017 when he was diagnosed with stage four spinal glioblastoma. It was much of the same. I was devastated, as was everyone in Joe’s life. By this time I had introduced him to one of my childhood friends, Rachel, and they had married. Rachel and I did everything we could to be there for Joe, but looking back it seems Joe was consoling us. Joe didn’t torture himself with the past, he didn’t waste his moments fearing the future, he made every present moment full. His time was finite but he made an earth shattering impact on all that knew him. My best friend Joseph Marlow Gilliam III passed September 11, 2018. His life is more than a lesson but an example of how I try to live every day.
MARIE ELENA: Oh, Ryan … I’m so sorry about your dear friend. You have endured so much pain in your life. Great blessings, coupled with immense loss. I remember the story of Joe. Glioblastoma is a horrible thing. It took my husband’s mother. Hers was deep in her brain.
RYAN: I’m truly sorry to hear about your mother in law. Joe’s was initially at the base of his spine, then another developed on his brainstem.
MARIE ELENA: He sounds like the kind of friend everyone would want to have. I’m glad he was in your life, even for that short while.
You blew me away with what you consider the most valuable lesson you learned from football. Now in the reverse, what would you say has been the hardest thing about a life of football, on a personal level? Especially in the NFL, where I imagine there are temptations that are hard to resist. Have you found that to be true? If so, how have you dealt with them?
RYAN: I won’t ever deny that I’m an emotional person. I have accepted that about myself, and in knowing that, I have to protect myself. The nature of the business is brutal. I have been on three teams my five years in the league, and I have made tons of close friends. With every friend I have made, I have had to say goodbye to many more. I know it seems like something small but to me it can really take a toll. I grew up just my mother and I so friends for me are as close as family. One day a buddy you’ve been hanging out with all camp might roll his ankle. Next thing you know his locker is empty and there is someone completely different in it. That was hard for me to deal with at first. I know it ties into my abandonment issues I have from my father leaving me, and it took me some time to confront the root of the problem head on. After the passing of my best friend, I started going to therapy regularly and learning how to deal with a lot of trauma I’ve been through, including abandonment.
MARIE ELENA: That really doesn’t seem like something “small” at all, to me. That is an aspect of professional sports I have never thought of.
On the thrilling side of football, you have moments like the one in this photo. 🙂 Oh my goodness, Ryan! I wish you had been sitting with me when I opened this photo from you! I literally gasped, and then laughed out loud, all by myself! When I asked for photos, I never imagined something as thrilling as you tackling Drew Brees! You totally made my evening! I was so excited, I mistakenly hit “send” on a question I already knew the obvious answer to: Of COURSE you did not play at Purdue with Drew. He is an old man, compared to you! Sheesh! And I must say, hats off to the photographer. Thrilling action. Both names clearly shown. Both helmet decals shown as well. Excellent “catch!” (ahem)
RYAN: Though Drew and I never played together, he came back to Purdue multiple times to speak, and he was always inspiring. He’s a Texas boy like me, and he was the only reason I really knew where Indiana was on the map. I’ve spoken to him one on one a handful of times and he talked at lengths about the connection of humanity. How you can’t expect to be a good student without being a good son. In his examples he couldn’t be the best quarterback if he wasn’t waking up everyday trying to be the best husband, if he wasn’t tucking his kids in every night trying to be the best father. You don’t pick and choose when you want to be your best and in what fields. You just do it all the time in every way possible.
MARIE ELENA: Wow. That makes me glad I asked my embarrassing question. Thank you for sharing this about Drew, and confirming that he is the man he projects himself to be.
“I am used to criticism on matters of athletics, but not on matters of my heart.” This quote from you touched me. I do think both require a thick skin. Not that I would know anything about criticism on matters of athletics (I don’t have an athletic bone in my body!). But there is something about putting your “self” out there … the heart of who you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going, what you feel and believe and aspire to … it feels vulnerable. It is vulnerable. And maybe that’s where people with lives as different as yours and mine find common ground. Please expand on that quote of yours. What prompted you to splay your heart? And what prompted your use of poetry to that end?
RYAN: Writing has always been personal and football has always been public. In high school on Friday nights everyone in Dallas was in a football stadium. They would cheer and boo during the game but after the game you were always going to hear an opinion. My earliest memories of football come with memories of criticism. It’s funny, when you’re a professional you hear so much more criticism from so many more people, but it barely affects you. I’m not sure if it’s because we are jaded now or because you know 99.9% of the people critiquing you have no idea what it takes to play at your level. On the flip side, I remember writing my first poem around the age of seven when my stepdad passed away. The format was a letter to God asking him why I didn’t deserve a father. Why I was a little boy who had a dad who didn’t want him and the dad who did want him was killed. No one read this poem. No one cheered or booed. It wasn’t the talk of the town and it wasn’t criticized. In my experience, sharing your story with people gives them the opportunity to connect. That part of it is valuable and beautiful. Also sharing gives them the opportunity to criticize. Even more so when you add a monetary value to your heart’s expression, criticism is expected. This quote is me preparing and acknowledging this fact. The noise of criticism grew louder in football when people started paying hundreds of dollars for a seat. The noise will inevitably grow louder for my poetry when people pay money to read them. I focus on the little boys who aren’t ready to share their poems, so they can read mine and know we are on the same journey. And that our journey has a happy ending.
MARIE ELENA: Again, so much wisdom here. And thank God for the happy ending.
Ryan, if I may ask … did the little boy who wrote that heartwrenching poem to God ever get an answer from Him?
RYAN: I think God had always answered that question. I was just too hurt a lot of the times to hear it. I believe he shows me all the amazing things I have that I deserve: my mother, my passion, my art, my career, my friends, etc. I think he also has given me great things I don’t deserve: forgiveness, mercy, hope, etc. God answers me every morning he wakes me up, and every night I fall asleep. He tells me, “It’s not about what you deserve, but what you receive and how you move forward from there. Make the most of it. Love the great, learn from the hurt. Go through the dark so that you may help someone who is stumbling around blind.” I hope that makes sense.
MARIE ELENA: It makes a world of sense, Ryan. A world.
From the outside looking in, we can tend to think talented people who have “made it” in life have few struggles. Obviously that is not true, and you have kindly been very transparent with us about some of your hardships. What or whom do you feel helped you survive, and even thrive, in spite of it all?
RYAN: I love this question because it allows me to shed some more light on the release date of my book. I chose to release Prison or Passion on my mother’s birthday, for the simple reason that I would not have survived the story my book tells without her. When my father passed and my biological abandoned us, my mother was more than enough. She was provider and nurturer, flawlessly. When I suffered abuse from family members, she swiftly removed me from the situation and protected me from harm. She put me in the best schools she could, she listened when I spoke, and she always encouraged my most outlandish dreams. When I suffered injury from football, she was my healer. When my best friend passed of cancer, she was my shoulder to cry on. When I was cheated on by my first love, she encouraged me to love again. She was the perfect balance of mentor and friend, not knowing she was really playing the role of savior.
MARIE ELENA: Thank you for sharing this beautiful, strong, loving woman with us. These photos speak volumes.
MARIE ELENA: Let’s talk some more about poetry. Is there a particular poet you are most inspired by? If so, who and why?
RYAN: I could talk at lengths about Maya Angelou and the role she played in my life not only as a poet but as an African American Female Activist. Not growing up with a lot of male influence on a day to day basis, I think I was more open to growing close with Angelou and her work. I was used to being raised by strong independent women. I learn that like I, she suffered abuse from a family member. She spoke many languages and traveled the world as I had always dreamed. She recited work at the inauguration of Clinton. She had been nominated for a Tony, a Pulitzer, and won three Grammys. Maya Angelou was like my poetry Mother without even ever meeting her. I also learned a lot about the civil rights movement through studying Maya Angelou.
MARIE ELENA: Your poetry mother. I’m sure she would have loved to have known that. Her death was a huge loss to the entire poetry community, as well as the world.
Have you been involved in any poetry slams? I am so shy, but would love to muster up the confidence to take part, sometime.
RYAN: Slam is actually one of the ways I found the courage to publish my book. One Tuesday night three years ago, my brother and I were visiting Los Angeles during my offseason. My brother was one of the few people who knew I wrote poetry and he looked up a one mic for us to attend. Da Poetry Lounge on Fairfax is a great intimate environment where poets all around the world come to read and listen. My brother ended up signing me up and I performed for my first time on that stage. Since then I have performed several times and go more often to listen and be inspired. My brother was under the impression that if I could read my work aloud it would be easy for me to just publish a book and let others read for themselves. Recently I have performed a poem from my book called Sitting Down at Da Poetry Lounge.
MARIE ELENA: Performance venues would be a good source of inspiration. My nearly sole source for rubbing elbows with other poets so far has been online. But I have gleaned much inspiration from them! Many of us here at Poetic Bloomings met online at Poetic Asides, which is a blog by Robert Lee Brewer (poetry editor of the Writer’s Digest). It was there that Walt Wojtanik and I met, and later decided to begin this little site we having going here. A few of us have even managed to meet one another, though not Walt and I as of yet. We have taken to referring to each other as “best friends who have never met.” Is there an online site where you interact with other poets? You know you are welcome here anytime to respond to Walt’s prompts. We are a small, but passionate and encouraging group. I know the Poetic Asides community would welcome you as well!
RYAN: Thank you for the invite Marie. I would love to join some more poet communities. I have been so busy doing everything for my book, so I actually haven’t had time to meet as many poets as I would like. I met one of my idols actually on Instagram. I had been following contemporary poet Christopher Poindexter online for a while and after sharing some of my own work, he showed interest in me. Christopher is the creator of three poetry books himself and was looking to start his own publishing company with his brothers. We met on Venice beach, swapped poems, stories, and ideas. Months later I became his first published poet of his company, Jack Wild. Other poets I have had the pleasure of interacting with on Instagram are Atticus, Tyler Knott Gregson, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Jon Lupin, Danez Smith, and some others. I have been very fortunate to be accepted into this community that I have always secretly felt so connected too.
MARIE ELENA: You are definitely plugged in! Much of Christopher Poindexter’s poetry speaks to the heart of the, “say much in few words” poet I aspire to be. I have to admit to snooping around a bit on Facebook, and saw that you actually used typewriters on Venice Beach. I can’t think of anything more fun! I bet you drew a lot of smiles from people strolling the beach!
Now for another quote of yours: “We are multifaceted and phenomenal beings with unlimited capabilities.” I love this, Ryan. And you seem to be a prime example of it. I see that in addition to football and poetry, you are also an artist, a novel-writer, a playwrite, and, and, and! Please help me enter the mind of one with so many talents, such diversity, and such confidence.
RYAN: Honestly that quote is what I believe of the world. I knew it when I was a young boy. My mother was a mom, my best friend, a probation officer, a sister, a lover, a widow, a writer, a social worker, a spiritual guide, etc. She had so much on her plate yet it never seemed to get full. My family is Jamaican and my mother is the first generation to be born here in the states. I often heard the joke that Jamaican always had a bunch of different side hustling going on. I always thought that was so cool. When I used to visit every summer with my grandmother I thought it fascinating that the same man renting jet skis in the morning at the beach was the man selling curry goat lunches in the afternoon, and he also owned the club we visited in the evening. I think the perception of Jamaican’s are that we are easy going and laidback, but honestly I believe that we relax hard because we work even harder. I adopted that same mentality when I moved to LA. School is a great way to learn and expand but sometimes I think we use it to limit ourselves in ways. We pick subjects we want to specialize in, curriculum geared towards one subject. I see the need for this and by no means am I proposing a complete reform of formal education, but I think we need to emphasize the importance of informal education. Informal education to me is the education of life and its experiences. I do what my heart calls me to do, I learn from those I meet, I grow from the experiences I have and the relationships I create. Recently I have started writing songs as well. Hahahah but I do need to focus on finishing one project before starting five more. I have promised myself this offseason to try and focus on three projects as “work,” i.e. my poetry book, my novel, my script. Any other writing I’m doing right now I want to keep as leisure.
MARIE ELENA: You leave me shaking my head. So young for so much wisdom. And a true renaissance man, much like our own Walt Wojtanik!
RYAN: I think I’m just lucky. Hahaha!
MARIE ELENA: There is no such thing, in my book. 😉
Getting ready (sadly) to wrap up our chat, there is something I have never asked a guest here, but want to ask you. I hope you don’t find it a morbid question: When you pass from this life, what would you most like those left behind to remember you by?
RYAN: I want them to remember I smiled more than I did anything. I smiled more than I hurt. I smiled more than I cried. I smiled more than I hated, or judged. I smiled as much as I could through it all and I hope I made them smile more than I made them do anything in life.
MARIE ELENA: I want to just sit with that response a while, and soak it in. If we all aspired to this, we’d live in a very different world.
This last question is one I end every interview with: If there was only one thing we could know about you, what would you want it to be?
RYAN: Know that I believe in you. No matter what you’re fighting or what you’re striving for, I believe in you. If you know nothing else about me, know I believe in you.
MARIE ELENA: Well, you’ve certainly made me a believer in you, Ryan. Thank you so much for, well, for everything. For visiting our humble site and sharing who you are. For BEING who you are. What a pleasure this has been. I wish my dad was still “with us.” He would have loved this.
Take care, God bless, and Boiler Up!
For more of Ryan, please check out the links below.
My Websites/Social media:
Book Available On: