Wearing masks made of jerseys makes days better for ER doctor, former DC United defender

Former D.C. United defender Robbie Russell never had an opportunity to put a U.S. men’s national team jersey on his back in a game, but now he proudly wears one on his face in his new role as an emergency room doctor.

The jersey that Russell puts on at work covers his mouth and nose and is one of hundreds of game-worn U.S. men’s and women’s national team jerseys that have been turned into protective masks.

On the covering that Russell uses, he can see part of a number eight and the initials J.F. but is not sure which player, male or female, once wore the jersey in a game.

While Russell never played for the U.S., he did get called into several national team training camps and appreciates the teamwork that has gone into turning the kind of fabric he once wore as a player into something that is essential for him as a doctor.

Russell is in his first year as an emergency room resident in the University of Virginia medical system after graduating from medical school at The George Washington University last year.

“Playing for the national team is a big honor and I had my shot at it, but it didn’t pan out,” Russell said. “Any way that I can be affiliated with the red, white, blue means a lot to me. And so I’m definitely going to take these masks and show off and talk trash. It definitely was a good day when I got these masks in the mail.”

U.S. Soccer not only sent Russell a mask, but also added a few others for him to give to co-workers.

Like many great ideas, the genesis for turning jerseys into protective masks started with a problem. In the basement of its headquarters in Chicago, U.S. Soccer has hundreds of game-worn jerseys and needed to find a way to put them to good use.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is wearing a mask made from a jersey worn by Abby Wambach. (Courtesy National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

By checking Etsy, an e-commerce website that focuses on handmade items and craft supplies, U.S. Soccer discovered Melizabeth Santos, who lives in Chicago and already was busy sewing face masks for front line workers. Santos needed material, and U.S. Soccer had jerseys.

The game plan was simple then: Get the jerseys to Santos and let her do the rest.

And Russell gets emotional when he thinks about the kindness of Santos and U.S. Soccer in turning jerseys into face masks to show their support for front line workers.

“I live in fear every day when I’m working that I’m going to bring back the virus to my family, and it’s going to lead to one of them getting sick,” Russell said.

“So when I see people out there doing their part to prevent spread and prevent infection, it means so much to us. It lets us know that we’re not the only ones, putting ourselves out there and trying to do something every day.”

For his medical work, Russell is based in Charlottesville, Virginia, but his wife and three children call Northern Virginia home.

After playing at Duke, Russell enjoyed a 13-year soccer career that included several seasons in Europe, winning a Major League Soccer title with Real Salt Lake in 2009, and then finishing his professional journey with D.C. United in 2013.

With a U.S. national team jersey as his face mask, Russell has found new energy as he continues his work in the emergency room, hoping to turn “someone’s worst day into a better day.”

And receiving a mask made from a game-worn national team jersey is helping to make the days better for Russell.

“We have been dealing with this pandemic for a long time and fatigue starts to set in,” Russell said.

“When this mask is on my face, it is prominent; and when I am walking around the hospital, people ask me about it and I get to tell a cool story about it. After all, wearing a mask shows a common care for your fellow man that you’re willing to wear a little cloth on your face to protect other people.”

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Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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