Saturday, 22 October 2016

DON RUSSELL, HONOURING A COACH

The best head coach I ever had, Don Russell, was inducted into my university's Sports Hall of Fame  (our 1969 football team is already in en masse), along with our defensive coordinator, Pete Kostacopolous, who also, in his other role on campus, coached a Wesleyan baseball team all the way to an NCAA final. In fact, in this photo the defense must be on the field, and Don is probably yelling into the headset to ask Kosty what he wants to do!

Let me tell you a few things:
When Don was 'recruiting' me (he spoke at a New Haven Register/National Football Foundation awards dinner where I was being honoured and mentioned I was headed to Wesleyan, which I had chosen after being recruited heavily by the University of Pennsylvania) he told me that if I came to Wesleyan I would play football because I wanted to, not because he or anyone else could make me, or take a scholarship away, and frankly, not many people on campus would care one way or the other. And that sold me on the school. That and my student guide around campus that day driving me home, rather than making me take two buses from Middletown to Milford.


In the summer of 1970, when there were layoffs at the Fafnir plant where my dad worked and I lost my summer job, Don got me one on building & grounds at Wesleyan, and I worked there all year round for two years. At that point, following the student strike, I was seriously debating not returning to Wesleyan, so by a strange synchronicity the loyalty of my football coach in getting me the job I needed to pay my share of the costs not covered by my scholarship was a big factor in my returning for my final two years of college. And doing much better at it than I had in the first two.


And when in 1972 I was applying for conscientious objector status I asked Don to write a letter of reference to the draft board. He wrote that although he disagreed with my stance, he respected the way I'd made my decision, understood my grounds for it as I'd expressed them, and would support me 100% because he believed in my honesty.


All three of those things meant a huge amount to me at the time, and still do. I want to thank him for that, and for being a fine coach who led us to an undefeated season, The Lambert Cup, and two Little Three titles in the two years I played for him (he stepped down in my senior year to concentrate on being AD; we stumbled to a .500 season that year and didn't win another Little Three title for more than 40 years). Don succeeded in part by recruiting a few very good players, but more by understanding that he needed to get the best out of a bunch of less talented players who played because they wanted to, because they enjoyed it, but who also had other options. We called him the Silver Fox, and it was a term of respect.

And I can't help by recalling how the defense on that undefeated team, which Kosty coordinated, featured among others a 175 pound middle linebacker and a 155 pound rover, and when asked by a reporter if he didn't think his players were a little too small, Don reportedly told him, 'we may be small, but we're slow'. And he told another that the key to our beating Williams in 1969 was that we 'held Jack Maitland to 167 yards rushing'.

Plus he (and Kosty) chewed tobacco. I hadn't ever met anyone who did: it was reserved for red necks down south and baseball players, not two mutually exclusive groups. I always figured it was because they were from Maine. But what was frightening, and funny once practice was over, watching the brown juice run down Don's chin when he got angry or excited. I can remember it once spattering over someone still lying on the ground who was being berated for doing something wrong and landing there. It was hard to keep a straight face, but as a football player you knew you had to.

I was very sorry I had to miss that induction banquet. To think all these years later I'd still be doing football on a weekend: this time the NFL playing their first ever game at Twickenham, which I first visited with my Wesleyan teammate Blake 'Mole' Allison, in 1972 to watch the Combined Services play the All Blacks.

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