In a room full of dwarves, elves, and ogres, Brian says it was the bald human who stuck out like a sore thumb.
That's because the bald human was Russ.
With bare feet, earrings, and an ensemble that often included a Scottish kilt, Russ did not look like any other member of the Dungeons and Dragons group. In fact, "I remember thinking, 'Dave, what have you brought into our group?'" Brian says in an episode of This Is the Gospel.
More than 26 years ago, Brian was at a young single adult ward activity when he met a group of guys who seemed to share his same interests in comic books, science fiction, and superheroes. And when they asked him to fill in for a character for their Dungeons and Dragons or D&D group, their friendship became a bond that has lasted decades.
"We still get together every other Monday night and play," Brian says. "In fact, two of the guys I play with were my best men at my wedding reception because I couldn't pick between them—we were that close."
But about 10 to 15 years into their friendship, something completely unexpected happened. Dave introduced his friend Russ into the group. Of course, introducing new players wasn't an unusual thing. Many people had come and gone throughout the course of the group's D&D campaigns. But the "core group," the group Brian had become friends with decades ago, had stayed.
"I was really protective of the group because this was the first time I had a close group of friends," Brian says. "We did everything together."
But, after the initial shock of Russ' appearance and "bulldog" exterior wore off, it became very apparent that Russ knew a lot about D&D and so "he fit in that way," Brian says. However, Brian was certain Russ would only ever be a part of the "playing group," not a part of his longtime friends.
That was until Russ volunteered to go with Brian on a road trip to Las Vegas.
At the time, Brian's work regularly required him to travel. And just for fun, he would ask if anyone in his D&D group would like to join him on his business trips around the country. Usually, no one could make it because of their own work schedules.
"And then one day I said, 'Hey, I've got a trip down to Vegas next week. Is anyone interested in going with me?'" Brian remembers. "And Russ piped up and he said, 'Yeah, I'll go with you.' And I remember thinking, 'Oh, okay.' I didn't expect it because we didn't do anything outside this group, but it would be rude to say, 'I meant all the other guys, not you.'"
And so, wanting to be polite, Brian agreed to have Russ join him. Not long after, Brian found himself in a car on a week-long road trip with the man he never would have chosen for such an occasion.
But as they began talking on the drive to Las Vegas, Brian found he had a surprising amount of interests in common with Russ.
"We started to try to figure out who among us was the bigger geek," Brian says. "And we decided that he ended up winning simply on the fact that his father-in-law's name is Bruce Wayne, which, obviously, to any geek, is a trump card that can't be beat."
With the ice between them beginning to thaw, Brian found himself being drawn not only to things he and Russ had in common but also the things they did differently.
A self-described creature of habit, Brian would routinely eat at the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels when he traveled for work, sometimes even staying in the same room of the same hotel. Russ, on the other hand, "was very much against any type of chain," Brian says. "He was very much, 'Let's look at the hole-in-the-wall diner over there.'"
For Brian, the break in his usual routine became an unexpected adventure on his week-long road trip.
"I started to come out of my shell not only around him [Russ], but just in general because it was new and it was fun," Brian says. "And he kind of taught me that a lot of times those are the best places to go, some of the best food you'll ever try."
After the week was over, Brian found his attitude toward Russ had completely changed. Where before he had felt Russ was an intruder in his core group of friends, he now saw Russ as a welcome new addition.
And in the years following that road trip to Las Vegas, Russ and Brian became close friends, going on many additional road trips across the country.
"He is one of the few people that when I talk to him on the phone I'll say, 'Hey, I love you man.' And he'll say it back," Brian says.
Brian says on these trips he often likes to walk in a grocery store or a gas station just a few seconds behind Russ, who often wears a kilt.
"And I do it on purpose and he [Russ] knows I'm doing it on purpose," Brian says. "If I walk in behind him in, especially in little, small towns, that's the best because the looks he gets from the people who are in the stores are priceless. And I know, in my head, that they are doing the same thing in their own way that I did when Dave brought him into our group."
Looking back, Brian knows it would be easy to say that God put Russ in his life to teach him not to judge others, to "look on the heart" more than the outward appearance. But Brian knows there is more than one lesson to be learned through his friendship with Russ.
"I think God knew that I would need Russ," Brian says. "He was there for me in one of the lowest points in my life. I was battling—still battle—with depression, and I had gotten to the point where, as I would drive, there were times that I would think, 'If I didn't turn at this corner up here it would look like an accident.' And when I needed to talk to someone, he was there. It didn't matter what time, he would just listen."
Though nothing about Russ' and Brian's friendship makes sense, from their different taste in music to their differing fashion sense, Brian says he knows that his friendship with Russ has helped him in more ways than he could have imagined when he first saw him walk into his D&D group. And when he thinks about that question, "Dave, what have you brought into our group?" now, he knows the answer.
"I know that he [Russ] was put there to teach me a lot of things and to be there, almost as a stand-in for my older brother," Brian says. "I'm the oldest but, I mean, you know, my heavenly older brother, to put his arm around me when I needed it."
To listen to Brian's story or read the transcript, click here. Brian's story begins at the 9:30 mark.