Brayden Russell

With family, friends, and supporters by his side on a Friday night in July, Benton Panther running back and highly coveted collegiate recruit Braylen Russell made his future plans public.

“I’ll be spending the next three or four years playing football for the University of Arkansas,” he said after a brief phone call with Razorbacks head coach Sam Pittman.

With that, an enthusiastic “Woo Pig” could be heard from Alcoa Road to Military, as Russell chose the Hogs over dozens of collegiate suiters, including the Tennessee Volunteers and the South Carolina Gamecocks.

“The coaches never gave up on me. They showed all the love, and I knew that’s the place I was going to be,” he said during his commitment event.

Russell, a 6-1, 230 lb. four-star recruit, transferred last year to Benton from Hot Springs Lakeside, racking up more than 1,850 yards of total offense (1,643 yards rushing/224 yards receiving) with 27 touchdowns in his junior season.

“We made it to the semifinals of state last season, and when you consider our chemistry and how we all mesh well now, I believe this season could be really special,” he said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us before we kick off.”

Prior to transferring to Benton, Russell was a multi-sport star in Hot Springs. What most don’t know is that he preferred baseball and basketball to football. “Football was okay, but I was more involved in the other two sports,” he said.

But it was while visiting a football camp in Fayetteville as a freshman that things began changing.

“Prior to going to that camp, I had never really talked to [Arkansas’s] coaches,” he said. “While I was there, they offered me a scholarship.

“After getting that offer and going to a few games, I felt the energy that comes with being in the stadium,” he added. “I was sold on football. It won me over, and I knew that’s the direction I wanted to go.”

Russell’s talent on the field quickly drew the attention of other college football programs vying for his commitment to enroll and play for them. Before announcing his decision to attend the U of A and become a Razorback, Russell had received more than two dozen offers from schools across the country. 

“I got offers from places like Texas A&M, Purdue, and Arizona,” he said. “But after visiting and meeting the staffs, it came down to South Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.”

Benton Head Coach Brad Harris admits he’s never coached a player with Russell’s predicted upside into Division-I football. It’s a lot for a teenager to shoulder, but Harris says he’s proud to see how his incoming senior running back has responded.

“Sometimes as a coach, you end up coaching players who believe they’re really good and somehow above their teammates. Braylen Russell is in no way one of those players,” Coach Harris said. “He is as good of a young man as he is a football player, probably better.”

Russell says the attention, accolades, and offers have been nice. He credits his strong family ties with helping keep his feet on solid ground.

“They’re so excited and happy for this opportunity,” he said. “We could have never imagined or predicted something like this happening. I got my first scholarship offer on Father’s Day, and my father was crying. It was a really special moment, and they’re amazed.”

Russell’s mother, Shenikka Russell, has been beside her son almost every step of the way.

“I’m certainly one proud mother to watch what my son is experiencing, right now,” she said. “I tell him as I say in all things, ‘Without God, none of this is possible. We must always put Him first in all things, because without His guidance in our lives, none of this happens.’”

Mrs. Russell shared another fact about her son’s recruitment, one that brings more pride to their family than anything Braylen does on the football field.

“Braylen will be the first member of his immediate family to attend college,” she said. “It’s so exciting because, in so many ways you would never see something like this happening for one of your kids; then, ‘boom,’ there it is. I think Braylen has been really mature through all of this, and I look forward to seeing him continue to grow.”

Another element of recruiting with which Russell had to familiarize himself involved the new Name Image & Likeness (NIL) opportunities that attend the process. “It’s such a big part of recruiting now that schools lead with how much money they’re going to bring you through NIL. It’s what pulls recruits from one school to another.”

But the possibility of NIL has also helped Russell begin thinking about what he wants to do later in life and how his education and the benefits of possibly playing on a big stage might pay even bigger dividends later.

“I want to be a small business owner and have a real estate firm,” he said. “I’ve already been in touch with a number of people who are small business owners, and they’ve been kind enough to explain to me now the steps to take to get started.

“Using NIL, I want to start working at it when I’m 19 and keep building it out from there,” he added.

Russell and the Benton Panthers open their season August 26th at 7 p.m. in War Memorial Stadium, when they meet the Bryan Hornets in the annual Salt Bowl.