BREMEN – This small town on the west side of Georgia is a throwback to yesteryear when there was a pace that had energy without stress. The streets were clean, the neighborhoods were kempt, you could get a good high school education and Friday night lights were dear to all hearts.
Bremen has all that and more today, exactly the kind of environment to which the late Erk Russell would have swooned. While the rest of this story is not about Erk, the former Bulldog defensive coordinator and Georgia Southern head coach once made a poignant remark about coaching. It appeared in the late 1970s that Erk was not going to get a head coaching job. He was not overly troubled by that, however. One afternoon over a beer at the Rockwood Inn on the Lexington Road in Athens, he said: “You know, I could find a good high school job and be just as happy as I would be with a major head coaching position.”
Only Erk could have done what Erk did at Georgia Southern. An opinion, certainly, but you could compose an essay to substantiate that view. After all, he wrote in his high school annual that his ambition in life was to succeed his coach, Mr. DeYampert.
Today, the Erk legacy is perpetuated with the view that coaching is coaching and can be enjoyed on any level. Case in point: Years after taking the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl, Sam Wyche wound up becoming the offensive coordinator for the local high school in Pickens, S.C.
Erk’s grandson, Davis “Rooster” Russell, understands this.
Rooster is the laid back, easy-going, colorful Bremen head football coach. He looks like Erk, talks like Erk, and he coaches with the same take on the game and life as his legendary grandfather. Always smiling, always polite, about the only “Erkism” Rooster has not embraced is butting heads with his helmeted players before kickoff. But don’t count that out, just yet.
Rooster has had tee shirts made up with Erk preachments that have stood the test of time: “BIG TEAM, little me” and “GATA.” In case you have forgotten or reside with the unwashed, GATA means “Get After Their (Anatomy).” Rooster, the son of Erk’s youngest son, Jay Russell, not only believes there is psychological value in those slogans, he reveres the legend of his doting grandfather.
It was, after all, Erk who decided he should be called Rooster. “He has a streak of hair down the middle of his head,” Erk told Rooster’s mother. “He cries at sunup and he looks like a rooster.”
Another indelible nickname in the Erk Russell collection.
Bill Hartman, the competent long-time Atlanta TV broadcaster, sent along a video of Rooster’s post game comments after Bremen pulled off an upset in the playoffs a couple of years ago. Naturally, Bremen did not know which team they would be playing or where. All they knew was it was time to celebrate. Leading the hurrahs was the coach, who in Erk-like fashion told his players, “You beat a fine football team tonight. Some of those guys will play on Saturdays. Some of them will play on Sundays. But they ain’t going to be playing Friday night.”
A runt of a center, Rooster was a redshirt junior at Valdosta State when Erk passed away in 2006. He had already planned to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. That means fundamentals are underscored and Rooster will always try to gain a psychological edge, championing overachievement and keeping the game fun.
“When we got here,” Rooster says, “there was something of a defeatist attitude. We were the 10th smallest school in class AA and were forced to play in Class AAA. That did put us at a disadvantage, but the town and community are behind us. We have excellent facilities and great support.”
Rooster often reflects about sitting on Erk’s screened-in porch in Statesboro and at his beach home at Fernandina Beach. All the conversations were laced with the notion that football should always be fun.
In the summer, if you had stopped by Rooster’s and Kathrine’s home, you would have seen players, coaches and families cavorting at the backyard pool. As the kids splashed about, Rooster was on the grill flipping burgers and turning hotdogs. Sometimes this ritual takes place every afternoon of the week in the off season.
I wish Erk could see Rooster now. In my mind’s eye, I can see Erk puffing on his cigar, taking a sip of his beer, high-fiving Rooster and saying “damn good coach.”