NICEVILLE – Brian Haugen never met Tyler Russell before Thursday’s encounter inside the Niceville High School cafeteria.
The co-founder of the Taylor Haugen Foundation did hear a lot – all good things – about the senior.
There was one thing he remembered above all – how similar Russell was to his own son, Taylor Haugen.
All Sports Association members announced Russell as the 2016 recipient of the Taylor Haugen trophy and award, an annual recognition honoring the former Niceville student who died from a hit during an Eagles junior varsity football game. For the first time since its inception in 2009, the award honoring a former Niceville student will come to Niceville High School. Coincidentally, the recipient is a lot like the per-son whom the award honors.
“I was told by his parents and peers he has the same characteristics as Taylor, just a lot quieter,” said Brian, who co-founded the Taylor Haugen Foundation with his wife, Kathy Haugen.
Nominees for the scholarship must be seniors at a high school from the counties of Okaloosa, Santa Rosa or Walton. They also must have participated in a high school sport, have at least a 3.0 grade-point average, be active in community service and plan to attend a four-year accredited college after graduating high school.
Student-athletes were nominated by their coach, and the individual school’s principal, athletic director and Fellowship of Christian Athletes advisor selected one to represent the institution.
“For me, it was knowing Taylor,” Niceville athletic director and football coach John Hicks said of why his quarterback was selected. “I was here and coached him. They’re so alike.”
Then a committee of All Sports Association and Taylor Haugen Foundation members selected one winner. Mary Kate Myrick, a basketball and volleyball player from Freeport, was last year’s recipient.
Russell, who will receive a $1,000 scholarship, had no idea an announcement was planned. He had no idea he even won – thinking he’d learn of the winner at the Feb. 12 awards banquet. Inside the Niceville cafeteria, he went through a normal lunch routine. Then a swarm of people from the All Sports Association entered.
That was his first clue, since Russell knew he was Niceville’s finalist for the honor. Still, he remained poised as the committee talked about searching for the character traits of athletics, academics, community service, leadership and faith to pick the one winner.
“He hit all those things,” Hicks said. “That’s what players around him see – poise under pressure. When you are grounded and have good basic values, you tend to be like that.”
When the announcement came, Russell remained calm – even if his stomach was understandably packed with butterflies.
“I was mainly nervous, because I didn’t want to have to speak, which I did,” said Russell, who helped Niceville to a District 3-6A championship and region final appearance while throwing for 1,247 yards and 15 touchdowns.
“It’s a weird feeling. I was going through scholarships at the beginning of the year and saw the Taylor Haugen award. I didn’t think I had a chance, looking at the requirements, because I thought someone else would win it. Coach Hicks and (assistant principal) Craig Miller came up to me and talked to me about being Niceville’s choice.”