L.J. Clark could see it in Chapelle Russell’s body language after practice.
The redshirt-sophomore linebacker — then a junior at Lakewood High School in New Jersey — didn’t want to go back to the Red Carpet Inn, where he lived at the time. The hotel, about a 25-minute drive from Lakewood, had no cable or kitchen. Russell’s mother, Nikita Smith, paid $40 a day to send him and his brother to school via taxi, he said.
Smith, who is in the Navy, was getting deployed to another location soon, but Russell didn’t want to leave the Lakewood area.
Clark, Lakewood’s football coach, offered Russell to spend the night at his parents’ house after practice. After staying at the house for a few days, Clark reached out to his mother, Barbara Clark, to make Russell living there a permanent solution. He still lives there today.
“This boy was on a mission, and I could see it,” Barbara Clark said. “We’re a football family. … This was our mission, to get him where he needs to be. And it’s exactly where he is right now.”
Russell has started the past three games for the Owls. His 34 tackles rank second on the team, and he has recorded 10 or more tackles in two games. Prior to Temple’s game against Tulane in 2016, Russell tore his ACL and had to miss the remainder of the season and 2017 spring practices. He wasn’t 100 percent healthy until the beginning of September, he said.
Four games into this season, Russell feels like he’s right where he belongs.
“I waited my time behind some great guys like Tyler Matakevich, Stephaun Marshall, single-digit guys that carried on this linebacker tradition,” Russell said. “So I just wanted to be able to go out there, knowing that I was next up, and put on for guys like that.”
Russell is originally from Hinesville, Georgia, but he moved often due to his mother being in the Navy. His mother and father separated when he was younger, and his father stayed in Georgia. As he grew up, Russell kept in touch with his father, who was sick for most of Russell’s life, L.J. Clark said.
Russell lived in Virginia, Chicago, Baltimore and New York before he arrived in Lakewood when he was in the eighth grade.
Russell finally settled in one spot once he moved into the Clark household with Barbara Clark and her husband, Larry Clark. The two knew Russell because they were involved with Lakewood’s football program. Before every home game, the couple cooked six pounds of bacon and 12 dozen eggs for the team.
L.J. Clark also hosted team-building events at his parents’ house, where the team would bond over grilling food and swimming.
Even with some familiarity with Russell, Barbara Clark said it was awkward when he first moved into her home. She tried to make him as comfortable as possible. She bought him his favorite cereals: Apple Jacks and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
But Russell had to get used to the rules of the house.
“My father was in the military,” L.J. Clark said. “My father is…very structure-oriented. Chapelle, a normal high school kid, he would try to sleep until three o’clock in the afternoon. When my father wakes up, everybody wakes up in the house.”
Larry Clark, a Vietnam War Army veteran, woke Russell up at 6 a.m. for chores like raking leaves, walking the dogs and cleaning the pool. After Russell completed his chores, Larry Clark rewarded him by taking him out to breakfast.
L.J. Clark said his father and Russell developed a good relationship. The two watched football together every weekend. He even taught Russell how to drive a car.
L.J. Clark said his father watches every game Russell plays and will call or text Russell to let him know that he missed a tackle.
“Chapelle likes that type of stuff, he likes the structure,” L.J. Clark said.
When Russell enrolled at Temple, the Clarks helped him move into his dorm. Barbara Clark said she bought him his bedspread, pillows and blankets.
Russell was just getting settled into his new home at Temple. He was watching a movie with former linebacker Avery Williams when the phone rang.
It was then-defensive backs coach Francis Brown, who was with his mother. He told him to come to Edberg-Olson Hall. Once Russell got there, he found out his father died of brain and back cancer.
Through high school, Russell’s last name was Cook. He changed it to his father’s last name after he passed.
Russell said it was tough dealing with his father’s death, but he uses it as motivation and knows his father is watching over him on the field.
“This was always the dream,” Russell said. “Playing Division I football and coming from all of the stuff I been through, all the bumps on my road to finally make it here, being able to make plays on Saturdays, my mother in the stands, it just brightens her day, brightens my day. … So it’s finally good to see the little pal that everybody used to see running around do what I’m doing now.”