Speeding toward the emergency room at Huntsville Hospital on Aug. 25, it would have been almost inconceivable to imagine how Mark Russell would end his football season.
Yet there he was, whistle at the ready, poised along the sideline at the 20-yard line at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 6, butterflies doing their typical pregame flight patterns inside his stomach as he awaited the opening kickoff.
After that first game, there were a lot of changes in my life.”
Russell, who serves as District Two’s representative on the Huntsville City Council and is currently serving as Council president, was for the sixth time in his officiating career working a state championship game. In this case, it was the Class 7 Alabama High School Athletic Association title game between Hoover and McGill-Toolen.
But it was the first time Russell had worked a state championship game as a heart attack victim, an eye-opening, pivotal event for a man of 54.
“It was definitely an interesting season for me,” says Russell, sitting in his seventh-floor City Hall office. “It started off in a really hard way. And after that first game, there were a lot of changes in my life.”
Heart attack in season opener
His heart episode, which took place during the season-opening game between Madison Academy and The McCallie School of Chattanooga, could have been devastating. But Paulette Berryman, a cardiac care nurse, was on the sidelines. She is Madison Academy’s (MA) football photographer and her husband Mark is an MA assistant coach. When she saw Russell fall to the ground, she responded immediately.
As Russell would later tweet, “God put Paulette next to me at the game.”
(Berryman was invited to be guest speaker for the North Alabama Football Officials Association annual banquet and was presented “honorary official” recognition.)
A HEMSI crew and trainers from both teams gathered to help. Russell was rushed to the hospital and a stent was placed in his chest.
Doctors told him to take two weeks off; his wife April suggested he should take two more off. So after missing two games, he was back in his stripes, working as electric clock operator for two weeks. Then, a month after his heart attack, he was back on the field as head linesman. (That’s the officiating position on the line of scrimmage, working on the sideline where the line-to-gain chain and down marker are located. And, not incidentally, in closest earshot to the home team’s head coach. After a brush with death, suddenly a constantly chirping coach is a piece of cake.)
With April’s encouragement, Russell improved his diet and has dropped 20 pounds. He was never terribly out of shape and had been training during the summer to be ready for the season, but doctors told him his heart problem was likely more hereditary than anything else.
Things were kept light-hearted
Every time he took the field, he was aware of what happened but reminded himself that being a little out of breath had more to do with chasing somebody’s 40-yard run around the end than it did a heart problem.
Mostly things were, well, light-hearted.
An official who has had paramedic training was assigned to his crew for several weeks, “so that was kind of a running joke,” Russell says. At each game site, he’d introduce himself to the HEMSI crew. Many of the team trainers already knew him and “they’d say they weren’t going to give me mouth-to-mouth if I went down. The other trainer would have to do that.”
Then came “the honor and the thrill” of another selection to a championship game.
“It was just a good feeling being out there,” he says. “Being in a large stadium like Bryant-Denny is neat, to be on a field where you’ve seen so many college games. Standing on the field, looking up at the video board, then seeing all the seats and how often I sat there was really fun.”
Even though it was his sixth championship game, and even though the officials aim to stay out of the limelight and have things focused on the players, Russell couldn’t help feel a little extra satisfaction this time.
“This year, it was really special to me,” he says. “It capped the season in the right way after it started out really bad for me.”