Montgomery Catholic football coach Kirk Johnson had to beg Gabe Russo just to get him to try out for the team.
Soccer was Russo's first love, and his career on the pitch was already promising by the time he was a freshman at Catholic. But that was the year Johnson finally won him over, and Russo's path changed nearly overnight.
Gabe's brother, Michael, was a senior and the Knights' starting punter. Late in the season, Michael tore his ACL. Gabe made his debut against T.R. Miller wearing Michael's jersey.
The Russo brothers have a classic sibling rivalry. Those who know Gabe well think part of him just wanted to outdo Michael. That simple goal has given birth to a flourishing football career and a wealth of opportunities to play at the next level.
This summer, Russo earned a spot in the prestigious Under Armour All-America Game. Wednesday, he was presented with a ceremonial jersey. In January, he'll head to Orlando along with 100 other elite players from around the country for the game, which will be televised on ESPN.
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Russo is the first UA All-American in Catholic's history and one of three this season from the River Region, joining the G.W. Carver duo of James Smith and Jaquavious Russaw.
All-Americans at most positions have to be evaluated on stats or film or accolades, opening the door to debate. But the path for specialists is more straightforward. The top kickers and punters in the country were invited to the Kohl's National Scholarship Camp in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in July, with the top players earning spots based directly off their performance there. Russo won the punting competition.
"He was better than all those guys," Johnson said. "It wasn't, hey, we're judging this guy. He went out there and was the best in America. He beat them all."
Russo averaged 39 yards per punt as a sophomore, 42 as a junior, and is averaging 39 this season. He was named All-Metro in 2020 and 2021 and second-team All-State last season. In addition, he takes kickoffs for the Knights and has blasted 145 touchbacks on 197 attempts dating back to the start of 2021.
Gabe credits Michael, who was an All-State punter in his own right, with being supportive in his development. His prowess on kickoffs, he says, is "entirely my brother." While Gabe views himself as a punter first and foremost, he's worked with Mike McCabe at One On One Kicking in Birmingham to improve his kicking accuracy, to the point where Johnson thinks he's a better field-goal kicker.
"When he kicks the ball," Johnson said, "it sounds like a shotgun."
Johnson swears he isn't exaggerating when he says "everybody" in the country has tried to recruit Russo, "from Michigan State to Virginia Tech to Samford." The holdup: most schools have been hesitant to offer scholarships because the vast majority of specialists end up walking on. But Johnson is adamant that Russo, who Kohl's rates as a five-star punter and four-star kicker, is worthy of a full ride.
"Every school in the nation wants him, they just think they're gonna get him for free," Johnson said. "... We want the best deal, the best situation."
Special teams recruiting is some distance from recruiting at other positions. For one, there are less spots available: College coaches might sign four wide receivers in one cycle, but generally are only in the market for a punter every four years. And since specialists only are on the field a handful of plays during a game, it doesn't make sense for recruiters to trek across the country for them. Camps, like Kohl's, are where they look instead.
"For getting your name out there, they're required," Russo said. "First thing a special teams coach looks at is the camps. ... It's harder. You have to be a lot more outgoing."
The heavy emphasis on camps is, all things considered, beneficial for Russo, who gets fewer in-game chances than most. Catholic has gone 24-1 and averaged nearly 50 points per game over the last two seasons. Russo only punted 18 times last fall and has nine punts this season, not even enough to qualify for the state leaderboard.
Not that Russo minds at all. Especially since he'll get to show off his skills in Florida, in front of a national TV audience, in two months.
Jacob Shames can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 334-201-9117 and on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.