Without Erk Russell leading the Junkyard Dog defense, the University of Georgia still might have won the 1980 national title.
Without Erk, Georgia Southern still might have gone on to grow from a sleepy teachers’ college with an enrollment of about 6,000 to the vibrant university of about 20,000 it is today.
Yet without Erk, Beautiful Eagle Creek still would be an unnamed drainage ditch near campus, and the lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance and sustained excellence of GSU football would not have happened.
As a result, Erk, already a legendary figure in Georgia football circles, has become an iconic figure in Statesboro and dozens of other places around South Georgia.
So, there are roads and an athletic park named after him, and Paulson Stadium has a bust of Erk near the players’ entrance to Glenn Bryant Field.
There’s even a fairly high-powered movement to get Erk into the College Football Hall of Fame despite a rule that requires nominees to have 10 years as a head coach.
Erk only had nine — but in those nine, he went 83-22-1 and won three I-AA titles while building from scratch a program at a school that hadn’t had a football team since 1941.
Erk, already in the Alabama and Georgia halls of fame, sooner or later will get in the big one.
But somehow, all that still doesn’t seem like it’s enough of a thank-you. Not for what Erk continues to mean to the Georgia Southern community.
So, after years during which fans kicked around the idea on message boards, there is finally a serious effort afoot among the GSU faithful to get Erk a full-size statue at Paulson Stadium. That the notion has gained traction and, more importantly, financial backing, largely is due to Derek Sills, a GSU grad living in Midway who heads up the project.
For that alone, Sills deserves a pat on the back from everyone who ever thought they were a Georgia Southern fan. Still, I think if Erk were alive today, he’d ask why all the fuss — which, if you think about it, is a big reason why all the fuss is being made.
Had Erk been a jerk, he might’ve gotten a statue, but would people have so willingly rallied to the cause?
Yet Erk, it seemed, never met a stranger. As the great Sports Illustrated writer Douglas Looney once put it: “(Erk) has not a pretentious thought in his head or an arrogant act in his past.”
There’s this, written after Erk’s death by ESPN.com football writer Ivan Maisel: “I do recall the difference between Russell’s appearance — big men with shaven heads don’t have much trouble looking menacing — and his demeanor. He was a tough coach who produced tough defenses, but warmth and enthusiasm came off the man in waves.”
Both help sum up Erk and what he meant to Georgia Southern, and before that, Georgia. It’s why grown men can get a little misty-eyed when they see his image on a jumbo screen or hear a recording of his voice.
And it is very much why Erk’s online obituary in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Sept. 6, 2006, began, “Erk Russell, one of the most beloved college football personalities in Georgia, died this morning….”
Notice the obit didn’t begin by calling Erk one of the state’s greatest coaches, though that would have been equally accurate.
Instead, with a single word, it describes Erk’s place in the collective hearts of GSU fans and explains why guys like Sills will do whatever it takes to get a statue built.
Erk, you see, is beloved.