It’s hard to forget the moment. On June 3, the start of the Knoxville Regional, Tennessee catcher Evan Russell was mysteriously out of the lineup for the Vols’ opening game against Alabama State.
“We’ll give it some time to figure out what’s going on because I have to get with Dr. (Chris) Klenck, but obviously Evan Russell was not here,” Vitello said after the game on June 3. “He was sick this morning. I got a message from him.”
Later that night, during the Stillwater Regional, ESPN’s broadcasters from the Missouri State vs Oklahoma State game reported unsubstantiated rumors that Russell had been suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. It was later uncovered that ESPN’s “source” on the matter was a troll, fake report from an account on Twitter.
“It was pretty crazy, failed a drug test so Evan Russell is suspended for the rest of the season, so Tennessee is going to have the whole rest of the team tested tomorrow, or the NCAA is. So it’s going to be interesting to see if that’s just a one-player thing or throughout that whole entire program. Performance-enhancing drugs is what it was said,” former Arkansas outfielder and ESPN color commentator Troy Eklund said.
On Wednesday night, nearly three weeks following the original incident, Russell spoke about that situation on Outkick’s Tomi Lahren is Fearless show. Russell, while in a relaxed sit-down interview environment, candidly spoke about his immediate reaction to the story when it happened in early June.
“It was kind of a shocking statement to be heard,” Russell said on the Tomi Lahren is Fearless show. “Especially if you knew me and you knew the team. Not any of it was true. But to hear someone go on live television and say that, without any sort of evidence at all, is kind of wild.”
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“It comes from a lot of the success that the team is having,” Russell continued on to say. “Coach Vitello he’s done a great job of building the team and building a program that was worth people talking about. So to hear some people that have a big voice say some things like ‘The whole team was cheating’ in a way where a lot of people were convinced that we were cheating in numerous ways. But to hear that come out, for a professional to say that, was kind of a shot to Tony Vitello and his character. Which, if anyone knows him and how he has built the team, it’s been nothing but competing at a very high level and going about things the right way. So to hear them say that I think it was kind of pretty low. But I think the team was mature enough to keep playing and not let that affect them.”
Russell then went on to explain, in his own words, why he was not present for Tennessee’s regional game against Alabama State.
“Ironically, it kind of came from media,” Russell said. “Kind of looking for fulfillment with people’s opinions, about how I was playing, just a lot of stress and anxiety had built up over the season and a lot of people had felt that since I had changed positions, learned a completely new position, that I was the weakest part of the team. And I was the chance for other teams to take down a really good team, a really talented team. A lot of that pressure was building up. I didn’t handle it correctly of missing a game. I’ll have to live with the decision of running from the pressure and bailing on my teammates. But I really think it’s a good thing that we won the games after that because if I didn’t show that I was able to play, there would be a lot of people that would still be convinced I was suspended for PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs).”
As a player with hopes and dreams of playing Major League Baseball, Russell admits that he is slightly worried about the situation causing problems down the road.
“It’s always going to be a blemish just because it was out there on national television,” Russell went on to say. “People can make an argument even if, for some reason I end up playing 10-15 years from now with some success, people always will have an argument of, ‘Oh well he took steroids, he took PEDs, of course, he is going to have success.’ But I’ve been a walk-on as soon as I got on campus. So to put myself in position to be a draft guy, to have a chance at the draft. To have any sort of blemish, even if I am not a projected first-rounder, to have a blemish to prevent me from having an opportunity kind of worries me a little bit. But hopefully, it doesn’t affect it too much.”
After missing the opening game against Alabama State, Russell did return to the Vols’ dugout for the remainder of the postseason. Despite not starting on Saturday against Campbell, Evan Russell did get an at-bat before taking back over his starting duties on Sunday against Georgia Tech.
The full interview from Evan Russell on the Tomi Lahren is Fearless show can be found here.