Andy Russell sees the evolution in the National Football League.
The players are much bigger and stronger than the time he spent in the league, and they are well compensated, to an extent which Russell points out most starters make more money in a single game than he did over a 12-year career.
The former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, however, is afraid rule changes implemented in recent years, especially the ones to protect the quarterbacks, may have gone too far.
“It’s a good thing that the NFL is trying to reduce the number of concussions, injuries and so forth,” he said Sunday during an appearance with the Steel City Mafia fan club at Fantatics Sports Bar. “I don’t believe in cheap shots, and if they can rule those out, that’s good. On the other hand, I’m worried they’re going to change the game so dramatically that it won’t be what it used to be.
“Let’s face it — it’s a violent game. But there’s more defensive players who get concussions than offensive players.”
Russell played from 1963-75 with the Steelers, although his time was interrupted by a two-year stint in the Army, where he served as a lieutenant in Germany. Now 69, Russell said unlike today’s players, he worked another job outside of football where an economics degree from the University of Missouri was put to good use.
“I formed an investment bank called Russell Investments and I would go to meetings before practice and after practice,” he said. “I’m not complaining because I loved every minute of it. It was exciting.
“The first year I was in business in 1969, I made more money than the Steelers were paying me. My wife asked me why don’t you quit football, especially if you can make more money. I explained it wasn’t about money, it was a passion. I told her I want to be there and see if we can win half of our games some day. We obviously did a little better than that.”
His company, not to be confused with the major corporation based out of Seattle, financed building projects with the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Pittsburgh International Airport. However, most of Russell’s notoriety came from wearing No. 34 on the football field where the seven-time Pro Bowler helped change the Steelers from an also-ran into one of sports’ iconic franchises.
“My rookie year in 1963 through the ’60s we were pretty bad,” Russell said. “That all changed when (head coach) Chuck Noll came. He was a genius and I loved the guy. Now people look at the Steelers as perennial winners.”
According to Russell, it really turned around with the 1972 season, famous for the “Immaculate Reception” win over the Raiders in the AFC playoffs. Two years later, Pittsburgh added rookie linebacker Jack Lambert to its vaunted Steel Curtain defense, and along with Jack Ham and Russell, one of the NFL’s greatest linebacker crews was created. Their play helped the Steelers beat Minnesota and Dallas in back-to-back years for the first two of the franchise’s six Super Bowl titles.
While Lambert stood out as an intimidating figure, famous for flashing a smile that showed several of his teeth were missing, Russell rates Ham as the greatest linebacker of the era.
“They’re both great players and both deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” Russell said. “However, I’ve written a chapter in one of my books called Ham-Lambert and I make the point that Jack Ham was the best linebacker I ever saw play the game. He was the best on our team, that’s for sure.”
Russell, who was named to the Steelers’ all-time team in 2007, is proud that Pittsburgh’s great linebacker tradition continues today. He goes back to his rookie year of 1963 when Myron Pottios made the Pro Bowl as a middle linebacker and names others through the years like Craig Bingham and Robin Cole, to today’s talented quartet of James Farrior, Lamar Woodley, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons.
The sheer size of today’s players is a major difference from Russell’s era.
He was listed at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, slightly heavier than either Ham or Lambert. The biggest guy on Pittsburgh’s 1974 Super Bowl Champion roster was “Mean” Joe Greene at 6-4, 275. There were less than a handful of players in the league who stood 6-foot-6 or tipped the scales over 300 pounds, figures commonplace among today’s linemen.
“You have to understand back in those days they fined guys for being over 300 pounds,” he said. “Joe Greene, for example, as a rookie weighed 298 pounds. If he went over 300, they were going to fine him because they thought he would slow down and not be as athletic. They let these guys anymore get up to 350 pounds. Joe Greene could have been 370, but people don’t understand that.”
Many of Pittsburgh’s players from those glory days remain close friends. Russell said it’s a credit to the longtime owners of the Steelers organization, the Rooney family, who have stressed playing for the team involves much more than what they do on the football field.
“We get together all the time for charitable efforts,” he said. “We all try to live up to the Rooney doctrine that you give back to the community. The Rooneys showed us how to do it and we all feel a responsibility to do it. It doesn’t matter what the event is, we try to stay involved in a lot of them to raise money for the community.”