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More than just a great coach, Erk was a great man

I said it many times to many folks before last Friday, and I'll say it again now in print: Erk Russell was the best college football coach that ever lived.

Yes, I mean better than Bear Bryant, Eddie Robinson, Knute Rockne, Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, etc.

Never did these gentlemen line up to play with fourth string quarterbacks as defensive tackles.

Erk Russell did.

Never did those coaches win national championships with a team half full of walk-ons.

Erk Russell did.

Coach Russell never enjoyed the full cupboard of raw talent that those coaches did, but he won big anyway.

But that is not the real story of Coach Erskine Russell.

Too many times when a person dies, we hear the accolades and wonderful eulogies and are tempted to peep into the coffin to confirm that it is indeed the same person the preacher is talking about. That is not the case with Erk Russell. Terms like "true gentleman" and a "real man" could not be used in a truer sense than in a description of Erk Russell.

I've had the opportunity to have a handful of brief chats with Coach Russell over the years and, like everybody, there's stories to tell about his comments. My favorite was when I was coaching at Screven County and Coach Russell "teased" our head coach Sandy Hershey about his penchant for extra long commentary. I was in a group of young assistants that reveled in Coach Hershey getting a bit of comeuppance that was well past due. Even Coach Hershey couldn't help but laugh with us at Erk's wisecrack.

My favorite Erk Russell story however involves my sister. This story epitomizes everything that has been said over the past few days about him. He cared about everybody and never met a person that did not become his friend.

My sister Sophie's husband, David Shields, was among Coach Russell's first group of players at Georgia Southern in 1981. He even mentions David in his 1991 autobiography on page 150. In describing the type of players that showed up to play for the Eagles he described David as the fastest in the bunch with a 4.67 second 40-yard dash time. "He was white, and I knew we were in trouble," said Erk.

In 1997, Sophie was pregnant with her and David's first child. As luck would have it she developed a big time case of toxemia and was hospitalized in the old Statesboro hospital for two weeks before their son's birth. She literally looked like the Michelin tire man, swollen puffy like a giant marshmallow. Needless to say, she was miserable.

As Sophie lay helplessly in a hospital bed, she didn't want to see or talk to anyone, especially a man. One afternoon as she tried to nap, she heard Coach Russell talking out in the hallway. He then knocked on the door and entered her room before suddenly being stonewalled at her bedside. He was dumbstruck by the pitiful condition that she was in.

Without hesitation, Coach Russell's remark, with emphasis, was, "Sophie, I'm gonna' get David Shields for doing this too you."

Sophie declares to this day that Coach Russell was the only one that made her laugh during the whole ordeal of Trey Shields coming into this world. He later wrote a personal, handwritten letter to the infant Trey that he could read later in life about his parents with a few other lessons added in.

You see, besides once coaching David, Sophie worked at Eagle Bank and Trust where Coach Russell served on the board of directors. This was vintage Erk Russell. David and Sophie were just two of the thousands of common people that he had developed friendships with along life's way. They weren't rich and famous, and David wasn't an All-American player, but they were Coach Russell's folks.

It's the many stories like this from his former players, fellow coaches, friends and acquaintances that will prevent us from saying "Huh?" when people talk about the late, great Erskine Russell. If you look up the word sincere in the dictionary, his picture should be there. The best description of him may be one of his own when he said, "I only know one style and can't really say what that is, but my players, I like'em."

They didn't just like you, Coach. They, and their wives, loved you.

Web posted on Thursday, September 14, 2006

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