MADISON, Ala. - Huntsville City Council member, Mark Russell, participated in Friday night's coin toss to begin the Madison Academy versus Madison County game.
Madison Academy leaders invited him to return after he suffered a heart episode there in August. The coin toss signaled his return as a long-time fixture on North Alabama football fields, where you'll find him every Friday night during the season. He is a line judge.
This time, Russell came out onto the field without his uniform. He flipped the coin between his referee colleagues and the football captains, which he tells WHNT News 19 was an honor.
"It's a great honor for me. I love this. I love the sport. I love football, I love kids. It will be a great honor just being with the captains, who are leaders of their teams," Russell said.
"He's a city councilman so a lot of our people know him. He's a special guy. So we just wanted to invite him to be a part of our senior night tonight," said Terry Davis, President of Madison Academy. "I think it will be closure. I mean, a lot of our kids never saw him when he was mended. All they saw of him was when he was on the ground."
Russell said it was one of his biggest chances to thank everyone who was there for him the night he collapsed on the field.
"I just have great appreciation for everybody that helped me. And great appreciation for the good samaritans who, they didn't have to help. They wanted to help. And obviously the trained medical professionals who ran to me," he said in an interview with WHNT News 19.
Russell took photos and again thanked Paulette Berryman, the cardiac nurse and football photographer who was first to his side. He did the same with the HEMSI EMT's at the night's game, who were the same who rushed to his aid on the 20-yard-line that night. He said he had met them previously, and thanked them then too.
"You seldom meet the people you help," said EMT Dion Schultz. "Sometimes you get to meet the people. But to meet them exactly where it happened? It's definitely a special time."
After the coin toss to open the game, Russell took to the sideline. This time, he was there as a spectator.
"It's very unusual for me to be dressed like this on a Friday night," he said, noting his lack of black and white stripes. Typically, he's a line judge. "I've spent many years on a football field," he noted.
And Russell has already made a return to the field as a line judge. He did so last Friday, and said he has already officiated five games.
Now he is back to that post, he is feeling great.
"I am really enjoying each and every day," Russell acknowledged. "This does put a special meaning on just waking up in the morning. And I am appreciative of having another day. I feel like I've been given a second chance," he explained. "People who didn't even know me saved my life and they gave me another opportunity here on this earth. The whole community can rally around this, and help people. We get so fixated on all the bad things in the world and this is one of the good things."
The last time he came to a football game at Madison Academy, it was a different story.
He had walked out on the field with the players, as captured in this photo on the right by self-appointed football photographer, Paulette Berryman. What happened soon after was anything but normal. Just after the ball was snapped, Russell collapsed on the field from a heart episode.
"The ball snapped and Mr. Russell blew the whistle. He was going to run onto the field. He got about three feet onto the field and collapsed," said Berryman.
Berryman, who is a registered cardiac nurse, recognized the signs of cardiac arrest and was the first on the field to administer emergency aid. EMT's quickly followed, as they were also standing just feet away from Russell.
"I knew in my mind that he had not fallen and had not tripped. Because most people push out to protect themselves. And he did not. He just kind of crumbled," Berryman noted. "I did a quick assessment of his breathing and pulse status and found there was none."
In just moments, people from players to spectators joined Berryman in surrounding Russell. There were many medical professionals either working at the game, or watching it, who came to assist. EMT's were able to take Russell to Huntsville Hospital for further treatment.
Days later, the rescued councilman would note online that he believes God put Berryman at his side.
"She was the first one to help me and she knew what to do. She took great action. So I'll be forever grateful for Paulette," said Councilman Russell in an interview after he was released from the hospital.
Russell said at the time that he wanted to return to the field to officiate because it's his way of giving back. "There's nothing like a Friday Night football game in our community," he said.