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Paul Zeise: An ode to Andy Russell, a legendary Steeler with a Hall of Fame-worthy resume -- and life

Paul Zeise, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

Andy Russell was a Hall of Fame-level player in the NFL who likely will never get inducted because he had the fortune — or misfortune — of playing with the greatest collection of players we have ever seen.

There, I said it. And I said it because I meant it. Russell's resume as a football player speaks for itself — two-time Super Bowl champion, four-time All-Pro, seven-time Pro Bowler, 162 games started out of a possible 168 played over 12 seasons. He is both in the Steelers Hall of Honor and the Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame and he also was the MVP of the 1971 team.

That is a Hall of Fame resume in my estimation, and Russell would probably be in the discussion as the best player in franchise history if he played for maybe 10 or 12 other franchises or even if the Steelers didn't grow into the super-dynasty they became at the end of his career and into the end of the 1970s. The Steelers are different, though, and quite often, Russell gets lost in the shuffle of all-time Steelers greats.

Russell, who died at the age of 82 on Thursday, not only is not usually one of the first two or three names mentioned as the greatest Steelers of all-time, but he isn't even usually talked about among the 10 best of his era. Think about it. If you ask most people to name the 10 best players of the super Steelers of the 1970s, they will probably rattle off Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Joe Greene, Mel Blount and someone like Donnie Shell, Rocky Bleier or L.C. Greenwood.

Part of it is many of those players played in all four Super Bowls of that era, and Russell only played in two. But another part of it is they are all legitimately Hall of Fame players with Hall of Fame careers. There is often talk of "Steelers fatigue" among Hall of Fame voters, and some believe that is why it took so long for Donnie Shell to get inducted and why a player like L.C. Greenwood might not ever get in. Russell was in the same boat as those two, as he is often left behind in the discussions of the great players of those Super Bowl teams.

The interesting thing, though, is if you talk to people who watched those teams and those who played for them, Russell's name belongs right there among that group. In fact, there are many who believe he would be a Hall of Famer if he played for any other team, but so many of his teammates got inducted that it probably hurt some of the players like Russell.

 

But make no mistake — Russell was a great, great player, which is why he survived from the era before Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney took over and was even made captain despite the presence of a plethora of future Hall of Famers. Russell was a military man and actually took a season off to serve, and that is a part of his story, as well, and one of the reasons he was such an integral part of the first half of that Steelers dynasty.

Russell is unique in that he played in both the bad era of Steelers football and the golden era of Steelers football. That, too, is a testament to his value as not just a player but a leader.

That's why two things Russell's former teammates and colleagues continued to point to over the past few days since he died are his leadership and also his intelligence. He was not only a badass on the field, but he was the smartest guy out there and used those smarts to negate whatever athletic edge he was lacking.

"If you want to be a great linebacker, you also have to be smart out there, and he taught me the mental part of the game," Ham, Russell's former teammate and fellow outside linebacker, said to Brian Batko, who wrote Russell's obituary for the Post-Gazette. "I think that's what set him apart and made his career such a great career here in Pittsburgh."

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