The old half T-shirt is fighting for its dear life, but throwing it away would be worse than any interception to Temple quarterback Anthony Russo.
Through the good times and bad, Russo has never abandoned the shirt, wearing it under his uniform to pay homage to his father, Tony. The younger Russo still laughs about it, even as he prepares to lead the Owls (8-4) into the Independence Bowl against Duke (7-5) on Dec. 27 in Shreveport, La. But if you suggest the shirt get heaved in the trash can, the laughter will stop.
“It’s like my good-luck shirt,” Russo said last week before the team departed for Shreveport.
It’s more than that, though. It’s a way to honor his father.
“Growing up, he was the one who helped me with this stuff, and it is my way of thanking him for all he has done,” Russo said.
As the story goes, before Russo’s first flag football game, believed to be when he was 5, his mother, Nancy, told him his father had worn a half-shirt under his jersey when he was a quarterback at Bishop Egan High School, now Conwell-Egan, about 40 years ago. Tony Russo had held onto the shirt, and Nancy suggested that Anthony wear it.
“I ended up playing well in that game and have been wearing it ever since," he said.
“Yes, every game," he said.
Anthony Russo has had to do some alterations to make sure the shirt still fits under his uniform. The sleeves are virtually nonexistent.
“The bigger he got, the smaller the shirt was,” Nancy said, laughing at the thought.
And the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Russo, now a redshirt sophomore, has gotten plenty big as his football undershirt has shrunk.
His father didn’t even know about the ritual until Anthony was a junior at Archbishop Wood High School.
“It was very humbling, a testimony about our relationship, and I am very blessed,” said Tony Russo, who graduated from high school in 1981.
The old shirt symbolizes a close relationship that is typified on NFL Sundays when Anthony is able to return to the family’s Doylestown home and watch football with his father.
The conversation is between not only father and son, but also quarterback and quarterback.
“We watch football on Sundays and pick each other’s brains,” Anthony said.
His father said that the son’s brain is picked the most.
“The days of me being on the same level as Anthony and noticing things on the field have certainly shifted,” his father said. “Sometimes, he has a lot of patience with me.”
Tony was an all-Catholic League choice as a senior, but the game is so different these days.
“When I played, you had a two-man route and you looked basically at one guy,” he said. “Today, there are a million new defenses.”
Anthony Russo was a hotshot recruit coming out of high school. He first committed to Rutgers, but after a coaching change he signed with Temple. LSU made a late pitch for him, with then-coach Les Miles visiting the Russo home and asking him to take an official visit to Baton Rouge.
Russo said he was committed to Temple and then-coach Matt Rhule.
What Russo didn’t anticipate was that he wouldn’t see any time at quarterback his first two years. He redshirted his first year, and during his second, his only action came late in the season as the holder on field goals and extra points.
Anthony conceded that not playing was more difficult than he had envisioned. In the past year or so, the coaches have marveled at how he began putting in extra work, in the weight room and film room, and how his grasp for running a complex offense grew.
All he needed was a chance, and it came in the third game of the season this year.
Temple began 0-2 and was a two-touchdown underdog at Maryland. Russo was supposed to be the backup, but starter Frank Nutile was nursing a sore knee. An hour before the game, Russo was told he’d start.
The first thing he did was text his parents, who were in the parking lot outside the stadium. Needless to say, the Russos rushed in, not wanting to miss a snap.
The Owls upset Maryland, 35-14, and turned their season around. Russo completed 15 of 25 passes for 228 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
He continued to play well, and even when Nutile became healthy, Russo retained the job.
“It’s been a dream come true, watching him this year,” his mother said.
He didn’t play in the regular-season finale, a 57-7 rout of UConn. Russo had hurt a thumb the previous game and had a cast on it. The cast is off, and he says he is ready to lead the Owls in the bowl game.
Russo can make every throw that the best of college quarterbacks can attempt. That is both a blessing and a curse. This season, he has completed 57.9 percent of his passes for 2,335 yards, but with 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
“He is not all the way there yet and still tries to force the ball once in a while, and still has that ‘I can do anything’ mentality," Temple interim coach Ed Foley said. "But that maturity, that knowledge in the last year has been — it’s been like watching him grow like a lot of these guys grow, from a boy to a man. He is a man.”
A man who still wears a kid’s T-shirt each game, a reminder of his football roots and a way to pay tribute to his all-time favorite quarterback.