A Part of the Family


Rain or shine. She’s there.

Sleet or snow. She’s there.

Stephanie Russell is there because her team needs her. She’s there because it’s not just the Michigan State women’s basketball team - it’s her team. And she’s been there for them, shouting “I love you” behind the bench and waiting by the tunnel to high-five her Spartans as they take the court. She’s been there for them for 14 years, never missing a single home game.

The 25-year-old Grand Ledge, Mich., resident, who has Down syndrome, is the loudest girl in Breslin Center, screaming “I like you” and “I love you” to not just her team, but to the women who have become her family.

There are two seasons in Russell’s world: basketball season, and waiting for basketball season.

A Museum

When Stephanie pulled open a white drawer under her TV set in her room, it was overflowing with Michigan State t-shirts. It’s gotten to the point where at the games, her father tells her to give away the foam basketballs and t-shirts she catches, because they just have too many already.

Her room is a museum, filled with women’s basketball iconography throughout the years - signed basketballs and shoes, posters of each individual player and the team. MSU stickers and newspaper clippings of her team decorate the mini-fridge next to her desk.

Former guard Lindsay Bowen, 2002-2006, gave Stephanie her old shoes and signed them. Bowen and former center Kelli Roehrig, 2001-2005, were two of her all-time favorite players. At one point, Stephanie’s mother painted a mural of the two in her room.

Old pictures are tucked away. Pictures of banquets and teams past, birthday parties and events the players attended with her. She has photos of her and Sparty and a bobble-head of him.

“He’s my mascot,” Stephanie said.

The blankets are green and white, as are her pillows. She even has stuffed animal snowmen emblazoned with the Spartan insignia. If anything in her room isn’t MSU related, it has to do with Chris Cagle, her favorite country music star.

Her piggy bank is painted like a basketball. So is the pot holding her plants.

She lights up when she talks about her room, looking around with pure joy on her face, an effervescent love for what it means to be a Spartan.

Generations of Spartans

It was Nov. 15, 2012, and the Spartans were in Ypsilanti, Mich., ready to take on Eastern Michigan. There was an Eastern fan making fun of all the Spartan girls, but he was going after then-senior guard Jasmine Thomas especially hard, saying she looked like a horse.

Stephanie wasn’t going to stand for that.

“You rude man, those my friends, my team,” she said. “You rude.”

She walked about four steps away, turned around and told him to take off his baseball cap.

“Take your hat off inside.”

Junior center Jasmine Hines said Stephanie always has something positive to say to the team, even if they haven’t performed well.

“I'll turn the ball over five times and come out and she's just like, ‘Yeah Jasmine, good job, I love you,’” Hines said. “A lot of fans, if a player has a bad game they kind of criticize them, but she never has anything bad to say.”

Stephanie openly loves her team. She hugs the players and sometimes gives them a kiss on the cheek as they’re signing her posters on the concourse. Senior guard Klarissa Bell often gets a kiss on the cheek from her.

“Last year we were signing, it was the first year she ever gave me a kiss on the cheek, I was like, ‘Whoa,’” Bell said. “But that's Stephanie, you know. She's just so loving.”

Stephanie loves telling Bell and senior forward Annalise Pickrel she’s a senior too. For her, her special education programming ends when she’s 26.

“Every time she sees me she says, ‘Guess what? I'm a senior.’ She told me that about twelve times this year,” Pickrel said. “I just love it. She's just so bright. It warms my heart that she's so in love with MSU basketball, and I hope that we give that same love back to her.”

Her father said Stephanie has a sweet innocence about her.

“It's so genuine,” Dave said. “She has no ulterior motive to like the basketball team, she just likes them. She thinks they're family almost. Every new class she just picks up right where she was with the other group.”

Her mother said each class has picked up where the other has left off with Stephanie too.

“I don't think we've ever seen any of the players be standoffish,” Terri said. “That says a lot about the girls and a lot about the coach.”

Throughout the years, Stephanie has befriended each team and family members of the players.

Former guard Taylor Alton, who played from 2008-2012 and is currently a first year veterinary medicine student at MSU, said Stephanie and fans like her were the reason she played basketball.

“It was a nice thing to look into the stands and see her so excited,” Alton said. “This is why we're doing this, this is why we're playing - to give her a joy for the day. I'm so thankful for her parents to keep doing it and keep bringing her back.”

Marcia Schiffauer, mother of former forward Courtney Schiffauer, said she’s going to miss seeing Stephanie.

“I think she's the best fan any team can have, and MSU is lucky to have her,” Schiffauer said. “You watch something like that and it puts a smile on your face. That's what life is all about.”

Former center Kelli Roehrig, now Kelli Henry after getting married, said Stephanie had a positive effect on the bench and would wait outside the locker room to give the players hugs as they came out.

“Her energy, we fed off of it,” said Henry, who played from 2001-2005. “The crowd loved her and we loved her. She was so in love with everything, basketball and us. Her dad and her mom were really supportive. Just knowing they took that time to facilitate that love for the sport, it's really neat to see that.”

A Team of Her Own

A photo of Stephanie hangs in the women’s locker room, because for head coach Suzy Merchant, Stephanie is a part of the team.

“She represents a true Spartan,” Merchant said. “One as loyal as day is long. Very excitable, good or bad. When you run out there, there's no doubt that every kid that's played here for four years knows who she is, where she sits and what she's all about.”

Around Merchant’s second or third year at MSU, she got an invite to Stephanie’s birthday party at Red Robin on the west side of Lansing and she thought it would be fun to surprise her by showing up with many members of the team.

“She was screaming,” Merchant said. “It was one of my all-time favorite moments to see the joy and appreciation on her face for us coming. She was so surprised.”

Her parents were amazed the team made the effort to come out. They had cake and ice cream with her, sang happy birthday with her. Moved tables around so they could do their pre-game huddle where they jump around and cheer. They put Stephanie in the middle of the huddle.

“Every time she's got something exciting to tell you, she runs right up to tell you because she literally is just bursting with excitement,” Pagel Dombroski said. “I think it's special when we are a special part of her life and I don't think she even understands how special she is to our program.”

For Dombroski, Stephanie is family. She even attended Stephanie’s high school graduation in Grand Ledge.

“Just to know that her parents take such good care of her,” Pagel Dombroski said. “Rain or shine, they're here. They work long hours and they do it out of love for Steph. So the least I could do is show up for important things in her life too. It's like having another family member.”