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Badgers’ Russo fulfills mission

Reserve defensive end served 21 months in Iraq

MADISON, Wis. — Greg Russo plans to cherish this holiday season:

Spend Christmas Eve in Lake Mills with his parents. Check.

Drive to Green Bay on Christmas Day to watch the Packers host the Chicago Bears. Check.

Today he flies to Los Angeles with his University of Wisconsin teammates to continue preparations for the Rose Bowl.

“What better way to end the year than to be in the Granddaddy of them all?” Russo, a senior reserve defensive end said after a recent practice. “Ringing in the New Year with these guys… . I couldn’t think of anybody else better. All of my friends on the team now… . the coaches.

“That’s OK with me.”

You won’t find a Wisconsin player who isn’t excited about UW’s second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.

Yet you might not find a player on the roster whose excitement level surpasses that of Russo, who does not expect to play in the game.

When you’ve twice spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years in a war zone as a member of the Wisconsin National Guard, your appreciation of freedom and football changes.

Russo’s story isn’t a secret.

A 2003 graduate of Lake Mills High School, Russo attended Wisconsin-Whitewater for one year (2003-’04) but didn’t play football. He joined the National Guard and eventually served two tours in Iraq, for a total of nearly 21 months. His assignment was to provide security for the base and convoys, which often entered hostile territory.

Between deployments, Russo took classes at UW-Whitewater and Madison Area Technical College.

He returned home from duty in January 2010, began working out, enrolled at UW last winter, joined the team as a walk-on for spring ball. Originally ruled ineligible to play by the NCAA, Russo won an appeal and was able to play in the closing minutes of the regular-season finale against Penn State.

Russo explained why he doesn’t share many stories from his time in Iraq.

“I don’t want to sit and preach about my time overseas,” he said, “If somebody is tired I can remind them what being really tired is.”

Russo was back home last January when UW fell to Texas Christian 21-19 in the Rose Bowl.

He watched that game on TV and struggled to control his nerves.

“I was on edge,” he said. “It was not fun to watch that game.”

He’ll have a better vantage point this time as ninth-ranked UW (11-2) tries to upset No. 6 Oregon (11-2).

“If it is anything like standing on the sideline here at Camp Randall, I’m going to be on edge,” he said. “I’ll be the one on the sideline, right up to the line, just about falling onto the field.”