MADISON, Wis. —Greg Russo plans to cherish this holiday season:
Spend Christmas Eve in Lake Mills with his parents. Drive to Green Bay on Christmas Day to watch the Packers host the Chicago Bears. Fly to Los Angeles on Monday with his University of Wisconsin teammates to continue preparations for the Jan. 2 Rose Bowl.
"What better way to end the year than to be in the Granddaddy of them all?" Russo, a senior reserve defensive end said after a recent practice. "Ringing in the New Year with these guys. . . . I couldn't think of anybody else better. All of my friends on the team now. . . . the coaches.
"That's OK with me."
You won't find a Wisconsin player who isn't excited about UW's second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.
Yet you might not find a player on the roster whose excitement level surpasses that of Russo, who does not expect to play in the game.
When you've twice spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years in a war zone as a member of the Wisconsin National Guard, your appreciation of freedom and football changes.
"I think it adds some perspective," said sophomore linebacker Chris Borland, who sat out the 2011 Rose Bowl after undergoing shoulder surgery. "Greg has been through more than anybody on the team, it is safe to say.
"I think guys understand where football comes in and really when you compare the struggles you have in the game of football compared to what Greg has gone through, you gain perspective."
Russo's story isn't a secret.
A 2003 graduate of Lake Mills High School, Russo attended Wisconsin-Whitewater for one year (2003-'04) but didn't play football. He joined the National Guard and eventually served two tours in Iraq, for a total of nearly 21 months. His assignment was to provide security for the base and convoys, which often entered hostile territory.
Between deployments, Russo took classes at UW-Whitewater and Madison Area Technical College.
He returned home from duty in January 2010, began working out, enrolled at UW last winter, joined the team as a walk-on for spring ball. Originally ruled ineligible to play by the NCAA, Russo won an appeal and was able to play in the closing minutes of the regular-season finale against Penn State.
Russo spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day in Iraq in 2005-'06 and 2009-'10.
"Our campaign then was called the surge," Russo said of the first deployment. "We were on a lot of missions. We were in harm's way pretty regularly."
Russo, 26, doesn't share with his teammates the details of his duty overseas, but he knows men who died.
"That's not something that we talk about," he said. "You kind of put that aside. You understand the bond you (soldiers) have with each other."
Talk to his teammates and they'll tell you two things:
They rarely, if ever, faced danger growing up. They can't imagine what it must be like to have to carry an M-16 for protection.
"Growing up in South Florida, I hung around with the preppy kids," redshirt sophomore linebacker Conor O'Neill said, grinning. "I didn't find myself in (rough) neighborhoods. I've been fortunate that I haven't been put in any of those situations. . . . We played ding-dong ditch and had water balloon fights.
"You see it talking to Greg. He is above and beyond. He came into the program last winter not knowing if he would get a chance to play. But you see his drive and his motivation.
"I can't imagine the things soldiers go through. You have to be a different individual. People in the military . . . that's something I honor and respect. I can't thank them enough."
Russo explained another reason he doesn't share many stories from his time in Iraq.
"I don't want to sit and preach about my time overseas," he said, "If somebody is tired I can remind them what being really tired is."
In Iraq, tired was going 72 to 96 hours without sleep because the mission didn't allow it.
"You might sleep on the floor . . . wherever you were," he said. "I've slept in Humvees. I've slept in crawl spaces. I've slept in tents on a bed of rocks with a little carpet on top. You sleep when you can."
And you deal with the heat. From June to September the range is about 115 degrees out of the sun and up to 150 in the sun. Then when the temperature plummets at night you adjust.
"There is nothing comparable to that," redshirt junior offensive tackle Ricky Wagner said. "I have a lot of respect for him. To a lot of people football is hard. I can't imagine what going over there would be like."
Russo was back home last January when UW fell to Texas Christian University, 21-19, in the Rose Bowl.
He watched that game on TV and struggled to control his nerves.
"I was on edge," he said. "It was not fun to watch that game."
He'll have a better vantage point this time as ninth-ranked UW (11-2) tries to upset No. 6 Oregon (11-2).
"If it is anything like standing on the sideline here at Camp Randall, I'm going to be on edge," he said. "I'll be the one on the sideline, right up to the line, just about falling onto the field."
And loving every minute.