Sports

Peninsula High’s ‘gentle giant’ Andrew Russell rides through life on his back wheel

He’d see the massive kid with the long, flowing hair popping a wheelie on his way to school, doing donuts on his 29-inch Big Ripper BMX around the parking lot, and Peninsula football coach David Young was baffled.

What are you doing? Young would think, watching Andrew Russell. You’re going to hurt yourself.

That was before he really knew Russell. Knew he wasn’t reckless. Wasn’t a hothead. Just a sweet-natured enigma.

After he joined the Peninsula football team, some of Russell’s teammates ventured to the Industry Hills Speedway. They were there to see him on his off day — a now-17-year-old racing dirt bikes professionally, beating adults along the way.

“Coach, you gotta see him, he’s like a celebrity,” Young remembered players telling him. “Like, dude, he’s the dude out there.”

None of it seems to make sense, at first glance. Russell is 6 foot 3, weighs 275 pounds and shreds as a motorcycle racer in a sport where the small and wiry are most successful. He’s a standout lineman, but when he first came to Peninsula he was planning to join the marching band. He’s a “hulking figure” who looks like a bruiser, Young said, but also one of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet.

Toss first impressions out the window. This is just who Russell is.

“He’s this gentle giant that — he plays music, he rides bikes, and on Fridays, he goes and kicks butt,” Young said.

The roaring crowds first lit a spark in Russell, tagging along to speedway races with his father, Dave, when he was little. Russell started to race in the second grade, and in 2016 won the 150cc second-division race at the Gumball Rally in Industry, a premier race at the flat-track dirt speedway.

At that age, he was “maybe one of 50 kids in the country” who competed at that level, his father said.

“He’s like a name out at this track,” Young said.

Now, Russell’s list of racing accomplishments and finishes is dizzying, ranging from Pee Wee competitions in 2013 to races in front of thousands of spectators in the adult division this year.

“It’s a thrill,” Russell said. “I’ll never get tired of it.”

He was a tuba player and never even watched football. When band got put on hold his freshman year during the pandemic, he decided to give the sport a try.

“I honestly had no clue how football even worked when I first joined,” Russell said.

Specifically no clue how to use his frame. He was so gentle, Young said, that his freshman coach had to encourage the kid to play meaner, to toss around opponents.

As he learned the game, his size — a detriment at lower weight classes of bikes as a racer — became an advantage. He’s improved his pass rush and quickness off the snap, Young said, and become such a consistent presence that he plays offensive and defensive line, taking a handful of plays off a game.

With an eye on earning a college football offer, Russell knows he might have to leave the racing behind in a couple of years. Yet, at least casually, it’ll forever remain a part of his entity.

“The bicycle’s always been my escape from everything,” he said.

When he graduated eighth grade as COVID-19 hit, the middle school had a drive-through commencement ceremony. So while everyone else rolled up in cars to pick up their diplomas, his dad remembered, Russell careened through by himself on his bike.

Front wheel in the air.

“Everywhere you see him, you just see him on the back wheel,” Dave Russell said.

Russell dug in at the line in Friday’s 28-21 loss to Redondo Union in a special setting — a night game for Peninsula.

Doesn’t sound particularly unique, but the school has never installed lights. It was just the second night game at home in Young’s seven-year tenure, he said. In 2018, when the school made the playoffs, Peninsula couldn’t host games that had to be played at 7 p.m.

The community in Rolling Hills, Young said, had shot down efforts to install a permanent light system. They were able to “soothe the neighbors” for Friday at least, Young said, bringing in an excavator Wednesday to dig up turf for temporary light trucks to be installed.

“We have to kinda … tell them, ‘Hey, we’ll be cleaning up after this,’ and some unnecessary stuff just to have a football game,” Young said of the community. “But whatever it takes.”

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