Dimitry Russ said he wasn't on anyone's college radar after his junior year at Deer Park High School.
"We had just come off a 3-5 season and it was all about going into senior year,'' he said. "My goal was to be a different human being, go to the gym and train hard.''
What a difference a year made. Russ, a defensive end, led Deer Park to the playoffs with a 6-2 record, made All-County in Suffolk and is about to attend Stony Brook University as the recipient of the Raymond M. Downey scholarship, named after a 38-year veteran of the FDNY who died in the line of duty on Sept. 11, 2001.
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Russ is excited about participating in Tuesday's Empire Challenge. "I went to that game last year,'' Russ said. "It was one of my goals just to make the Boomer game, it's a big honor.''
Deer Park coach Ray Langella said Russ "made the most progress in one year of any player that I've seen. He had a very disappointing junior year. To say the least. Then, a lightbulb went on.''
Russ agreed. "After my junior year, I decided I was going to make it happen. I wasn't getting the looks [colleges] that I wanted and I felt that I deserved. I said 'I'm going to make it happen' and do whatever it took to get the looks.''
Russ started working out at a local training facility run by John Furia, a volunteer assistant for the high school team. Squats, weight training and exercise did the trick. He had eight sacks in his senior year.
Furia recalled Russ saying: "What do I have to do to get myself ready to play college football? He was a little overweight, a little out of shape. He started training four, five days a week. There was an amazing transformation. The kid absolutely remade himself. He dropped a good 7, 8 percent body fat, gained about 20 pounds of muscle. He worked extremely hard to get himself to Stony Brook.''
Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore said the program is anxious to have him report to fall camp.
"I thought his [game] film got better and better as the season went on,'' he said. "I know he weighs about 230 pounds now. He probably can be a 255-pound kid when all is said and done. He's got a big frame [6-3], long arms, big shoulders . . . We're excited about him. Certainly, he's going to get a long look in preseason to see if he can be an impact player for us as a freshman.''
Russ was able to meet with Chuck Downey, the son of the 9-11 hero, and knows he must live up to the merits of the scholarship.
"We have criteria,'' Downey said. "First, the candidate has to show the same type of personality as my father, hardworking, dedicated.''
Russ is ready to uphold those ideals.
"It's a major responsibility,'' the player said. "Downey is a big name in my town, just to be under the name of that scholarship is a big achievement, I just feel honored. I will honor his name completely.''