Former NFL player Twan Russell looks to tackle illiteracy.
Twan Russell has a Kermit the Frog figurine sitting at the edge of his desk, perched toward the back of his L-shaped workspace. There’s a wind-up lever on the back of the foot-high statue that belts out a tune when twisted. And in Russell’s sheepish words, “My office was the only place I could put it… I mean, I couldn’t put this in my home.”
The figurine’s a bit out of place in Russell’s otherwise sparsely decorated office – the only other form of décor is a huge University of Miami “U” sticker affixed to one credenza – located on the third floor of Sun Life Stadium, where he works as the Dolphins’ director of youth and community programs. But if the Kermit the Frog statue symbolizes anything other than an ill-advised tsatske purchase, it’s Russell’s ability to tap into his fun side and connect with area youths with his foundation, The Russell Life Skills and Reading Foundation.
The former NFL linebacker who played seven years in the league, including three seasons with the Miami Dolphins, co-founded a non-profit organization that quite literally does what its name says. It not only works to improve the reading skills of children in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, the charity also strives to push youths to be better people, students and members of society.
To understand why Russell decided in 1999 to create an organization that looks to eradicate illiteracy, one must understand his background. The middle of five boys, Russell describes his South Florida childhood as “humble.” He played football at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, where he says he was a decent student. But something happened around his sophomore year that changed everything: He read his first book.
“Well, I mean, I’ve read books before,” Russell, the tall, fit 37-year-old, clarifies as he chuckles. But he said he finally read a novel on his own from cover to cover. A man with an easy temperament and a strong belief in his faith, Russell says that moment lead him to where he is today. Up until that point, he flew under the radar at school and home by reading books via CliffsNotes and other shortcuts. But when he finally sat down to actually understand how a novel evolved, that’s when he realized he was missing out.
Russell can’t remember what that first novel was (he thinks it’s The Great Gatsby), but he uses that feeling of literary awareness in his foundation. Nearly 10,000 kids have enrolled in the foundation, which offers after-school teaching in areas like Hollywood, Miramar, North Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Currently 60 certified teachers work for the foundation and each have a goal of improving enrollees’ reading skills by at least one grade level. “Our brains are atrophying,” Russell says, acknowledging everyday activities like texting and tweeting may be leading to poorer reading and spelling skills. “Our program looks to work it out,” he says.
And he’s a follower of his own de-atrophying code. To this day Russell, a father of three who lives in Plantation, refuses to write “UR” instead of “your” in his text messages.