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Matt Russell's retirement a surprise but for good reasons

Having overcome life-changing adversity, John Elway's right-hand man in the Broncos' front office will now dedicate his life to family.
Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
John Elway, back, confers with Matt Russell.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — To those surprised Matt Russell is retiring at the age 47 from his Broncos gig that most football lifers spend their careers wishing for, understand he reached this decision with a clear and sober mind.

He’s been clean and sober since July 6, 2013.

“What happened to me 7 ½ years ago gave me perspective,’’ Russell said in an interview Monday afternoon with 9NEWS. “And the first thing I needed to do was I needed to get help. I haven’t had a drink in 7 ½ years. And in those 7 ½ years, I realized I was on the cusp of throwing my career away, my family away. And John and Joe, by the grace of their good hearts, allowed me to save my career. And in doing so I saved my family. And I’m at the point where they deserve to have me around and I want to be there for them.”

Both a free spirit and a type A personality, Russell lost control of his drinking to the point where he wound up serving work-release jail time after he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol and careless injury resulting in the injury of a Breckenridge police officer. A former standout linebacker at the University of Colorado who became John Elway’s top lieutenant in the Broncos’ football operations department, Russell immediately checked himself into a rehab facility, step one in his journey to life repair.

It included the difficult 6 ½ month stay in the Arapahoe County Jail, which the scratch golfer Elway could reach with a drive from Broncos headquarters, starting in the summer of 2014. Despite public pressure to the contrary, Elway and Broncos’ chief executive officer Joe Ellis did not fire Russell. They gave him a second chance.

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So much good, and not so good, has happened to Russell since then. He helped Elway build a Broncos roster that won Super Bowl 50 to cap the 2015 season.

And then came a decline in the Denver football team that was gradual at first – the Broncos finished 9-7 but missed the playoffs in 2016 – before tumbling into a four-year abyss stained with consecutive records of 5-11, 6-10, 7-9 and 5-11. There were some astute draft picks in recent years – starting primarily with the Bradley Chubb/Courtland Sutton class of 2018 (along with undrafted college free agent Phillip Lindsay), followed by Noah Fant, Dalton Risner and Drew Lock in 2019, and Jerry Jeudy and Lloyd Cushenberry in 2020 – that bring promise of better days ahead.

But on Saturday evening, Russell was at Elway’s home where the Broncos’ top two football executives, and good friends, watched the Ohio State-Clemson game. It was there Russell learned of the final decision Elway made earlier that afternoon – the boss was stepping aside as general manager. Contrary to some reports, Russell was not offered the GM job. It had been discussed over the years that one day Russell would succeed Elway.

But it’s when a team is winning that top positions are filled internally. With the Broncos’ losing for going past four years, an external set of eyes was needed to reconstruct the roster. After Russell talked over Elway’s decision, Russell finalized one of his own. Although Russell could have gone through the GM interview process with his own team, and most likely would have received strong consideration, he decided to hang up the video remote.

He had been thinking about it off and on for a couple years – as all overworked Americans do. Russell and his wife Sonja have a daughter Delaney, 14, who plays for one of the top club volleyball teams in the state. Any parent whose had a child participate in club volleyball knows it can take up one’s life. The Russells also have a son Reis, 12, a big kid and a guard-tackle with visions of one day helping out Dave Logan’s Cherry Creek Bruins.

It’s impossible to put in the demanding hours as Broncos’ director of player personnel – worthwhile as the endeavor may be – and see all the kids’ games.

And so Russell chose to see his kids’ games.

“Matt loves his kids,’’ Elway told 9NEWS on Monday. “He’s a family man and his kids are right in that sweet spot right now where they’re playing sports. He loves to go to their games. So I think as he looked at it, where he is, he’s had such a great 20-year career in this league as an evaluator and was very, very good at it. He was so instrumental in what we did while I’ve been here. He was such a big part of everything and we couldn’t have done it without him.

“I’m proud of him in that this is the direction he wants to go. To take that time and spend it with Sonja and the kids. But with Matt being young and the reputation and relationships he has in the NFL, if Matt ever decides to come back, five, six, or three years from now, he’s going to have another opportunity.”

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Russell will help Ellis and Elway identify candidates for their GM search. And he will be available to help out the new GM in any way he can, whether it’s watching tape and compile scouting reports for the upcoming free agency in March or draft in April. But when he’s not called upon, he’ll be on all-day bike rides, he’ll be hiking in the mountains. He and Sonja will travel. He will be retired.

“A lot of guys talk about it, I’m doing it,’’ Russell said. “Between John and Joe and what they’ve done for me I’ve got nothing but great things to say about this place. I’m going to every (Broncos) game next year. I’m not going anywhere. I want to watch these guys we drafted perform. I’m not one of these guys that leaves and hopes everyone loses. That’s not who I am. I am for this place and I will always be a Bronco.

“It’s simple, I’m tired and I want to spend time with my family. Maybe that’s hard for people to understand but that’s just the truth.’’

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