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Growing up, Black boys are often told that they should aspire to be strong men. Along with that expectation comes very specific ideas of what it means to be strong and what it means to be masculine.

NFL player Ryan K. Russell has a love and passion for two things that are commonly viewed as being polar opposites. But rather than hide or suppress any part of who he is, he embraces them both, finding success in his career as both an athlete and writer.

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A Purdue University graduate, Russell, 27, has played for the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a defensive end. Now a free agent, his last team was the Buffalo Bills.

Growing up, Russell admits that he tried to keep his love for football and love for poetry separate because he didn’t believe the two things could coexist. Football is associated with the idea of being “manly”; and from what he could see, writing poetry wasn’t viewed as something that men did.

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However, Russell explained to in an exclusive interview that his love of poetry manifested itself before his love of football.

He wrote his first poem at just 7-years-old after the death of his stepfather. He found that writing allowed him to express those feelings. “It was the first time I got to really assess what was going on in my life,” he recalled.

From then on he never stopped writing.

Balancing two very different worlds sounds difficult, but for Russell they’re both just a part of what makes him who he is. He has learned that both of his passions require his time and attention because when he’s not writing and expressing his feelings through poetry, his performance on the field and in practice suffers.

“When you starve one the other suffers,” he said.

To keep the balance, he journals every morning to help him organize his thoughts and set a “foundation” for the day. He’s a strong believer that “you have to give everything to everything.”

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Russell hopes that his work will help redefine what it means to be an athlete and what it means to be a writer.

“We are all more than one talent and one dream,” he says. “We are multifaceted and phenomenal beings with unlimited capabilities.” The advice that he wants to give to young writers is to simply start, and be true to who you are.

“Keep writing, keep fighting.”

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NFL Player & Poet Ryan K. Russell Is Redefining What It Means To Be An Athlete  was originally published on