For the love of the game: Zionsville Community High School graduate passionate about rugby despite spinal cord injury


At the time, it seemed like any other hard tackle to White River Rugby Football Club player Jeff Russell.

Only this tackle, in a Sept. 11, 2021, game at Carmel, was far different. He dislocated the top vertebrate in his neck and had a spinal cord injury.

I stopped breathing and was carted off to the hospital in an ambulance,” Russell said. “I spent a week in the ICU. I was paralyzed from the head down.”

After almost another week in the ortho unit, he was able to walk out with a walker.

“Then I spent six months with partial paralysis on my left side,” said Russell, a 2004 Zionsville Community High School graduate.

Russell said images of his neck showed his top vertebrae was more cartilage than bone.

“I really had no business playing rugby for the last 20 years,” he said. “Now, I had just been rolling the dice every time I got out there and I finally rolled snake eyes.”

Although Russell hasn’t been able to play the game he loves, he is still devoted to it.

A Whitestown resident, Russell started playing rugby while he was a student at ZCHS. He is now the head coach of the White River Rugby club and is an assistant coach for the Carmel High Schools boys rugby team.

“I still have some lingering symptoms that will probably never go away,” he said. “I have balance problems because I damaged my brainstem. I can’t tell hot or cold on the right side of my body.”

Russell said the first couple of hours after his injury, doctors knew he was going to recover most of his functions.

“What they’ve learned over the years treating spinal cord injuries is that the first several days are paramount in making sure that you have adequate blood flow to that area to restore and prevent further injury from swelling and those kinds of things,” he said.

Russell said he has other coaches demonstrate contact drills.

When Russell was injured, he was playing against Louisville, a team he played with for several years. At the time of his injury, Russell was also the ZCHS boys coach.

White River returns to action Sept. 9 against Louisville. The team plays its home games at American Legion Post 155 in Carmel. Russell had played rugby and coached his University of Southern Indiana team and then played several years with Louisville’s club.

Russell said some people wonder why he is so passionate about the sport despite his injury.

“I had a congenital defect that I wasn’t aware of,” he said.

Russell said he highly recommends people have a CT and MRI scan to assess their spine before engaging in a contact sport.

Russell said he played rugby for 20 years and estimates he was tackled around 100 times a year before the catastrophic injury.

To Russell, the sport is special because people of varying abilities can play it.

“So, whether you’re a proficient athlete, or this is your first time trying a sport, rugby has a home for you,” Russell said. “I think it’s a really good way of keeping kids out of trouble. That certainly was the case with me. I wasn’t very good at any of the other sports that I tried.”

That changed when he began playing rugby his junior year at ZCHS.

“Rugby has made my life much, much better than it otherwise would have been,” said Russell, who is a heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician with Zionsville-based Earl Russell Heating and Cooling Inc., which he co-owns with his father.

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From left, Daniel Heindricks of Fortville, Parks Groninger of Muncie, John Harmon of Lebanon, and Brandon Forbes of Columbus during a recent rugby practice. (Photo by Adam Seif)

Reviving the club

At the height of COVID-19 pandemic, the White River Rugby club’s player numbers had shrunk.

Jeff Russell said in 2022 it was on the verge of folding. He took over as head coach and the club formed an operations board.

The roster has since grown from 15 to 65.

“I have people that are in law enforcement and business owners that are players,” Russell said. “We have lawyers and mechanics. We have people from Venezuela, Italy, South Africa and Germany. It’s a very diverse group that has all kinds of different talents and we’re putting that to use. We call ourselves the Dead Fish Society. We have two major goals. One is to grow the sport of rugby in central Indiana, and the other is to give back to the communities.”

The club will run a Ruckin Hot Ruck & 5K Aug. 27 at the Carmel American Legion Post, 852 W. Main St., Carmel. The event, which runs from 1 to 8 p.m., will include live music, food and a silent auction to raise funds for veterans.

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