Blake Russell, who traded his talent for drugs, seeks redemption

He had major league talent and a baseball scholarship, but he chose marijuana and alcohol.

He had a girlfriend who was an Auburn University cheerleader and future reality TV star, but he chose cocaine.

He had a supportive family, but he chose methamphetamine.

Growing up in Phenix City, Blake Russell seemed to have everything. But while the Central High School classmates who had voted him "Best Personality" were starting careers and families, he was in a state correctional facility, a seemingly hopeless drug addict and member of a feared prison gang.

Now 30, he's been out of prison for four months and says he's chosen Jesus and a life of sobriety.

Some family and friends -- those who've seen him at his worst -- are skeptical. But they're praying that he's truly launched a comeback, and that his story will be one of redemption.

'Absolutely dominating'

The youngest in his class, Blake started Central High at age 13. Early in his freshman year, he drank beer at a high school football game, and soon after he was smoking marijuana.

He was a prankster and the life of the party, but also friendly and respectful of authority.

His sophomore year, he made the varsity baseball team. He kept smoking marijuana and also started using ecstacy.

He said that several times in his baseball career he pitched while he was high.

"I had no idea," said former Central baseball coach Ron Nelson. "There was no indication he was on this road in high school. Blake was such a fun guy. You loved being around him."

Blake got a DUI when he was 16, but nothing changed.

"Even after I got arrested it didn't set in," he said. " There were no true repercussions."

On the field, he finished strong. He didn't allow a hit in two straight starts his senior season, pitching six innings one game and completing a no-hitter the next. In the playoffs, he struck out 12 batters in a win against Robert E. Lee. He was named second team All Bi-City by the Ledger-Enquirer in 2001.

Blake signed a baseball scholarship with Central Alabama Community College in Alexander City, Ala. He led the nation in saves and got attention from major university coaches and big-league scouts.

He had also turned to a stronger drug. "I was in my dorm room snorting lines of cocaine on the weekends," he said. "The thing is, it never affected my performance in the class or on the field. So nobody knew."

But people were talking. After Blake's stepmother, Michelle, confirmed that drugs had been found at their house, Central Alabama's coach kicked him off the team.

Adam Thomas, head coach at Chattahoochee Valley Community College, offered Blake a chance to move back home and play for him.

"I've always been a second-chance guy," Thomas said. "The way my parents raised me was to help kids, help people. Don't throw him away."

Thomas said Blake showed no signs of drug use at Chattahoochee Valley and he was "absolutely dominating on the mound."

"No question he would be drafted that year and probably been an All-American," Thomas said. "He had his whole baseball future ahead of him."

But in the fall, Blake was arrested for possession of marijuana and placed on three years' probation. He was off the team, but Thomas asked him to move in with him and get his life in order.

"He had no choice but to kick me off the team, but Coach pleaded with me," Blake said. "He was willing to invest in my life because he knew of my potential. What college coach does that to keep a kid off the streets?"

Blake told Thomas he was going to take six months to figure things out. But for the next decade, he would be either on probation or incarcerated.

He kept using drugs and was getting arrested after skipping scheduled meetings and violating probation.

"I was dirty on drug tests and I wouldn't go in there and take a urinalysis knowing I was high on drugs," he said.

He'd get caught and thrown into Russell County Jail. There, former Chief Deputy Steve O'Steen took a liking to Blake and gave him work details at the baseball and other recreational fields.

"In the environment I saw him in," O'Steen said, "Blake went back to the true person he really is -- charismatic, great kid, easygoing. You take (drugs) out of his life and he probably would have been playing in the major leagues."

But Blake couldn't stay clean. In addition to his jail time in Russell County, he spent more than a year in Muscogee County Jail for possession of cocaine and eluding Columbus police.

Still, his girlfriend stayed with him for 3½ years. Her name was Krista Klumpp, and she was an Auburn cheerleader, competed in the Miss Alabama pageant as Miss Smiths Station, and later starred on "Survivor."

On Blake's 21st birthday, he got high on cocaine and drunk on tequila. He'd also heard that Krista had a male friend at her apartment.

"I thought she was cheating on me," he said. "So I start making these threats."

When Blake arrived, Krista and her sister were driving away, so he chased her.

"At one point I had four Auburn Police Department cars behind me, four Lee County Sheriff's cars and a state trooper," he said.

He ditched his car and ran. He was arrested at Krista's apartment complex that morning.

"Krista broke up with me," Blake said. "She said, 'Our lives are going into two totally different directions.' I remember her saying she loved me so much she was praying more for me than herself."

'This ain't that bad'

Blake spent about a year in the Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery, Ala. He said he embraced the culture, using money from family members to buy cellphones, obtain homemade alcohol and smuggle marijuana.

"I'm just playing them for money," he said of his father, stepmother and mother, "and telling them all of these lies about how when I get out I'm going to do the right things."

He learned to adapt in prison, and he grew almost comfortable with his new existence. He said he remembered thinking, "This ain't that bad."

He was released in May of 2006, but he would soon return.

He went back to live with his father, Roger, and his stepmother, helping with their construction business.

After eight months, they kicked Blake out of the house, and he hasn't spoken with them since.

He moved in with his mother, Mona Sellers, in Smiths Station. She said he "brought hell with him."

Blake had first tried crystal meth in 2004, and now he was smoking and snorting it.

"It became my drug of choice," he said. "When it was my drug of choice, it was over. Cocaine went out the door. Ecstasy went out the door. I was smoking marijuana when I was coming down from ice. It took over."

He started selling drugs to support his habit. His mother said she would come home from work and find Blake and strangers passed out at her home, even some in her bed. Things went missing, including a diamond ring.

She continued to pray, never giving up hope Blake would change. "My family would say I was in denial," she said. "I just knew God was going to change him."

In 2008, Blake was on the run after police busted a meth house in Fort Mitchell, Ala. Six days after the drug bust, on his 25th birthday, he called his mother, asking for food and cigarettes. This time, she said no.

"After that last bit of trouble, I told him I had to ask Jesus," Sellers said. "I finally told him no. That was the first time I told him no. I would take him food, transport him from house to house. People may say I enabled him. I don't care about that. I loved him. I never gave up on him."

After five weeks of running from police, Blake got into a car with a person who was wearing a wire. He pled guilty and would spend the next five years in prison.

His first stop was the Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala.

There, he said, he began using crystal meth intravenously. He learned how to smuggle in meth using prison guards, who he said were young and "making nothing."

"We'll say, 'Hey, man, you want some money?' They're either going to say, 'Get out of my face or I'll beat you' or they're going to falter a little bit and we're going to see it."

In 2011, Blake joined a prison gang called the Latin Kings, enduring an iniatiation that involved taking three beatings from gang members while holding the gang sign above his heart.

He also began to collect tattoos.

His right arm is covered in a mural of sorts: a prison tower, a meth lab, the words "Sin City," Benjamin Franklin holding a gun, and a rat being stabbed in the back.

His fingers spell out "WAY 2 REAL." His right hand says, "Smile now," and his left says, "Cry later."

There's a chain of crowns that loops around his neck and leads to a star near his belly. It's large enough for fellow prisoners to recognize across the yard.

Blake said the Latin Kings were like a family to him. "It's a brotherhood," he said. "I still love them."

While at Staton, his activities drew the attention of authorities. In April of 2012, he was transferred to Easterling Correctional Facility in Clio, Ala., the only tobacco-free correctional facility in the state of Alabama.

It was a huge turning point.

'I won't go back'

At the new prison, Blake's drug dealing ended. It was stricter there, and if drugs entered the building, officials got them within an hour or so.

For the first time in nearly 15 years, when he drank beer at a football game, Blake had no drugs to use.

Gang activity was still an option, he said, but he decided to "chill for a little while."

He started lifting weights and gained 30 pounds of muscle in six months. He also started reading. Most of all, he started thinking clearly.

One day, in between books, he picked up the Bible, which had been next to his prison bed for years.

He'd read it before, but the words never made sense. This time was different.

"As I'm reading it, I was in the New Testament and Proverbs about how a man should live," Blake said. "Something took off inside me where I couldn't get enough of it. I understood it."

He said he realized he was separated from God and needed to be reconciled to Him. Today, He points to Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

Others noticed a change.

The Department of Corrections took Blake to speak to the Alabama Drug Abuse Task Force. A video of his testimony on drugs and Christ was posted on YouTube on Feb. 2, 2013, and now has more than 2,600 views.

His mother noticed, too.

"I remember one time I went to see him," Sellers said, "and I was looking at him and the Lord told me I saw the light of the Son in my son's eyes. My prayers were answered. I went into the bathroom and cried and thanked God he turned him around."

Blake was released from prison on Dec. 3, 2013.

He now works as a pastoral assistant for The Fort, a church with a main campus in Fort Mitchell, where Blake once manufactured crystal meth.

His passion for Christ has taken him back to the streets to preach the gospel. That includes "The Fort Unlocked," a ministry at the Russell County Jail where officials share Jesus with inmates. He also goes to the old dope houses he once inhabited to pull out people who call for help.

Blake said God has pulled him out of drug addiction, and that he isn't participating in a drug rehab program.

"From my experience they never worked for me," he said. "I don't put down drug programs. God's part of those programs. He's a step in a possible 12-step process. He's in the equation. But for me, God is the equation. God is all of it for me."

He also has a new girlfriend, Jessie Wilson, who is eight years his junior and the praise and worship leader at their church.

She said she was reluctant at first to get involved with a man with tattoos who just got out of prison.

"He feels like a young soul," Jessie said. "I don't see the age difference. Spiritually, we're on the same age level. He doesn't have the life of a 30-year-old. Of course, he's more experienced in the bad things in this world that I can't relate to, but he can't relate to that anymore."

Her mother, Babbie Cornett, had heard the stories about Blake, but after the initial shock she approved.

"After I met him, I knew his intentions were true," she said. "He has obviously found God. I have the most admiration and respect for him. I've accepted him as part of our family.

"But I did tell him prison was nothing compared to what would happen if he hurt my baby."

Some relationships remain broken. Blake hasn't spoken with his father and hopes the relationship will be mended one day.

There are other friends and family who aren't ready to reunite with him. Blake says he understands: "I burned bridges there. I don't fault them. But I pray to Jesus that he'll lay it on their hearts to forgive me. I just want to say, 'I love y'all.'"

Blake has exchanged encouraging words on Facebook with his old girlfriend, who is married and is now Krista Klumpp Howard. She said she "loves sharing his story with people who need to hear the truth of hope."

"To be honest I thought the next time I might be asked to speak about Blake would be at his funeral," she said. "It brings me so much joy knowing this is not the case and that I'm speaking about his life being a testimony of redemption."

Ron Nelson, Blake's coach at Central, said he thinks Blake is sincere.

"I remember seeing him when he first got out and he came up to the field, and we had a long talk," Nelson said. "I'm so proud of him, and I keep praying for him.

"He can make a difference in other peoples' lives by his testimony."

That's what Blake is hoping to do. He's spoken to Central's baseball team, and Thomas at Chattahoochee Valley said he would "love for Blake Russell to come talk to my team."

Blake knows he still has much to prove. His track record isn't good, and he's covered in prison tattoos.

"I can't go back," Blake said of his life before Jesus. "I won't. He won't let me."