Former Pittsburgh linebacker Andy Russell had an extensive … and impressive … 12-year career in the NFL. Seven times he was named to the Pro Bowl. Four times he was an All-Pro. Twice he won Super Bowl rings and once he was named the team’s MVP.
Yet the former defensive team captain isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Worse, he’s never been discussed as a finalist and hasn’t been a semifinalist. But he is one of 27 former Steelers chosen to the franchise’s inaugural Hall of Honor, with the group celebrated at the team’s Nov. 26 game with Green Bay at Heinz Field.
“It was a big honor,” Russell said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast. “All of us who made it felt good about it.”
Yet not all of those who made it feel good about Russell … and Donnie Shell … and L.C. Greenwood … and Dick Hoak not making the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They’re the only members of the Steelers’ class of 27 not in Canton, and Hall-of-Famer Mel Blount has said he believes they’re victims of Steelers’ fatigue, penalized because so many of their former teammates are in Canton.
“That may be true, I don’t know,” said Russell. “The Hall of Fame is something we all look at a huge honor, and we would all love that.”
With several of his ex-teammates, including Hall-of-Famer Jack Ham, campaigning for Russell, the question is obvious: Does he believe he should be in? Or does he believe he deserves more consideration? Reluctant to talk about himself, Russell said only, “I would probably say ‘more consideration.’ You mention other players that are deserving, and I’m open to that.”
What he wasn’t open to — and good for him — his father’s advice when Pittsburgh made Russell a 16th-round pick (the 220th overall) of the 1963 NFL draft. He stayed one year with the club, then fulfilled a military commitment in Germany for two years before returning to the United States and starring with a team that went from the outhouse to the penthouse during his career.
But it was that military commitment, Russell said, that helped shape his career as a pro player and contributed to making him the leader he became with the Steelers.
“The 16th draft choice,” he said, “was something that happened because my father, who was a corporate executive, made me promise I would never play pro football; that it would humiliate the Russell family to have a son play a game for a living. ‘You’ve got to be a worker!’ he’s yelling at me from Brussels, Belgium. But then I made the team, and I had to go into the military. I had to do that. It was something I committed to.
“What really happened … and it was a good thing … was that we had division-level football over there, and divisions were 25,000 men each. And I got to be the captain and the coach of the defense. And being the coach of the defense was something that helped me a lot because I had to know what every single player was doing on the field. I had to be a coach.
“It was pretty good, and I got people helping me, as far as the Steelers were concerned, because the newspaper called the Stars and Stripes Army newspaper picked me as the MOP (Most Outstanding Player) in the U.S.A., Europe and Japan, which was pretty amazing.”
More amazing was the defense he captained in the 1970s, with four Hall of Famers on a unit so adroit that in 1976 it shut out five of its last nine opponents and allowed only 28 points … total … in those games. Do the math, and, yep, that’s right — an average of three points per start. “The Steel Curtain” it was called, and there was no defense that was better.
“All of a sudden we had this tremendous number of great players who could make great things happen, make all the plays they needed to make,” he said. “That’s kind of unbelievable defense you don’t see in today’s game. I think in today’s game they didn’t want to see defense like that. I think the NFL … they wanted to see offense.”
So did Pittsburgh’s opponents. But they failed.
“We had this tremendous number of great players who could make things happen, make all the plays the needed to make,” said Russell. “I think in today’s game … they didn’t want to see defense like that. The NFL … they want to see offense.”