Orange County Sheriff Deputy James Lee Russell dead at 26 - It's not the number of years you live but how well you spent those years...
Russell, an accomplished sportsman, outdoorsman and racer who fought a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis to become an Orange County Sheriff's Department deputy, will be memorialized Saturday, after his death this month at the age of 26.
Despite being born with the life-threatening disease, which causes severe lung and nutritional deficiencies, family, friends and co-workers say Russell never let his condition slow him down.
The Anaheim native became a competitive motocross rider in his teen years, while also lettering as a baseball player at Loara High School and earning a black belt in tae kwon do.
When an accident ended his racing career, Russell spent several years working in sales for Troy Lee Designs, until his boss persuaded him to follow his dream and enter law enforcement.
"He was always thoughtful of people and wanted to protect people, and in his heart, he thought this would be the way to do it," said Becky Russell, James' mother.
After fighting to get medical clearance to enroll in the sheriff's academy, Russell overcame the doubts of his trainers.
"They said 'We aren't going to be easy on you. In fact, we are going to be twice as hard,' " said Jim Russell, James father. "And he said 'bring it on.' "
Only missing one day at the academy – for an unrelated illness, not his ongoing medical condition – Russell made his way into the Sheriff's Department ranks, becoming a motivation for other recruits in the process.
"He earned his badge; he earned his place in the department," said Sgt. Matthew Prince, Russell's supervisor. "Nobody gave him anything."
James outgoing spirit and optimism, as well as the trust he earned in others, endeared him to those who met him in the academy, during his time working at Theo Lacy Jail Facility and in the department's recruiting department.
"He lived his life with gusto," Prince said. "He relished life and loved doing everything. Knowing he wasn't going to win the war, he won every battle he could."
Even when his health took a turn for the worse, eventually leading to a hospital stay in December and his final time in intensive care in late April and early May, Russell refused to draw attention to his condition.
"He'd smile and say 'I'll feel better tomorrow,' " said Deputy Nate Beyer, who worked with Russell to recruit deputies.
Russell clung to his independence, residing in his own two-story home and driving himself to the hospital when he required care, fighting the at-times debilitating effects of cystic fibrosis that force some to live with relatives or under supervision.
"That wasn't living for James," said Deputy Bobby Blackburn, a close friend of Russell's who met him before joining the sheriff's academy and worked with him for several years at Theo Lacy.
Russell's parents say they have been overwhelmed by the outpouring that has followed his death and hope that his life will serve as an example for others diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
"He had cystic fibrosis; he didn't let cystic fibrosis have him," Becky Russell added.
A memorial service for Russell is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Fairhaven Memorial Park, 1702 Fairhaven Ave., Santa Ana. It will be followed by a celebration of his life at Don Presley Auctions, 1319 Katella Ave., Orange. In lieu of flowers, family members are asking that supporters donate to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, www.cff.org.