In summer of 2015, Cal football had its eyes on Russ Udé, a 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound star linebacker, as a key addition to the team’s struggling defense.
Sports reporters wrote that Udé, who came to UC Berkeley from Westminster, a private school in Atlanta, had the talent to follow in the footsteps of Cal football players who went on to the National Football League (NFL). And Udé hoped he’d follow that path.
But knee injuries he suffered in high school kept threatening to dash his dream. For fear of losing college scholarships, Udé played through his injuries, helping to lead his team, for the first time since 1996, to the Georgia High School Association Class AAA semifinals.
Udé chose to attend Berkeley, but redshirted his freshman year to fully rehabilitate from knee surgery. Then, the following summer, he struggled with an illness that caused him to lose 25 pounds just two weeks before football training camp. He played football his sophomore and junior years, but his medical setbacks forced him to retire from sports after that.
Udé’s parents had always pushed him to also excel off of the field, so after a few dark months, the college junior redirected his energy to his business classes at Berkeley Haas and to launching a career in the entertainment industry.
“I’m at peace with it now,” says Udé, a Berkeley Haas senior who graduates this Sunday and will head to a job at either Deloitte or Merrill Lynch in Southern California. “I’ve learned so much from my experiences. You have to roll with the punches and keep going. I never wanted to self-identify as just an athlete, nor did I want anyone to marginalize me.”
Born to Nigerian parents, Udé moved as a child from Nigeria to London to Belgium before the family settled in Atlanta. At the time, his mother, Uche, was a fashion designer with her own label, Uccé, and Udé modeled as a teen during fashion week in Atlanta. (He was also featured in an episode of ABC’s “Grown-ish.”)
In addition to his mother’s creativity and drive, Udé says he’s been inspired by the multifaceted careers of fellow Atlanta native Donald Glover and other successful creative types and business executives.
“Donald never puts limitations on himself,” Udé says. “He just does what he wants to do. That’s what led me to study business. I felt if I had a business education, I could take it and run with it and apply it to whatever interested me.”
Like Glover, Udé’s interests are eclectic. The summer before his senior year at Berkeley, Udé worked as an investment banking intern in San Francisco. Meanwhile, he was hired by Universal Music Group to do urban marketing and brand partnerships. With Ethan Erickson, a former kicker for Cal football, he created a YouTube content series. Udé also produces and records music, citing influences from Kanye West to Pink Floyd to the rapper Kid Cudi. Last February, he shot his first music video in London and, on his 22nd birthday, released his first single, “Makin’ Conversation,” under the name “RussThe404.” That song now has been streamed more than 100,000 times.
Udé teaches, too. On most Monday nights last fall, he co-facilitated a two-hour DeCal class and lecture series at Berkeley Haas on the music business.
Steve Etter, a Berkeley Haas finance lecturer who advises student athletes, says Udé was the driving force behind Udé’s own non-traditional career path. “Haas is not an entertainment industry-focused school, so he had the courage to let everyone know what he wanted to do here,” says Etter. “And for Russell, being a student was always as important as being an athlete.”
In class, Udé left strong impressions. “Russ is like no other — a true Renaissance man: creative, entrepreneurial, intellectual, multi-talented, interesting and, his most compelling attribute — he is interested,” says associate professor Dana Carney, who taught Udé in her leadership course. “He loves life and is interested in everything — how it works, why it is, who the players are.”
“He was a real force,” adds lecturer Dan Mulhern, who also teaches leadership to undergraduates. “He has a big presence, literally, but he was also very thoughtful and very engaged and, at times, outspoken in a good way.”
Udé also gives back. Over the past few years, he’s joined in Berkeley and Cal football community outreach programs to teach middle school students leadership skills, to volunteer with after-school programs for kids in low-income school districts and to speak on panels to Berkeley students and student-athletes on the importance of professional development.
Udé says he’s excited to graduate, but that he also will miss his Berkeley family.
“My own family lives so far away, but I have a bunch of friends here whom I consider close family,” he says. “I’m just excited to spend time with them at graduation, but there’s so much I want to achieve after.”
“I’m shooting for the stars,” he says.