Word came across the wire Monday of the death of legendary former Nashville Banner sports editor Fred Russell... and the world of sports journalism paused momentarily to mourn the loss of one of its venerable giants.
But for fans and supporters of Vanderbilt sports, the loss cut even more deeply-- the school lost easily the greatest friend it had ever had in the media.
The tributes to Russell and his rich legacy will no doubt flow in over the next few days from his colleagues in the sportswriting fraternity. What can one say about a writer who was a protégé of Grantland Rice; whose writing career spanned eight decades and over 12,000 columns; who covered luminaries like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Bobby Jones and Jack Dempsey?
I will leave it to others to eulogize Russell as the wordsmith and prince of a man that he was. Among Commodore fans, however, he was even more revered, for he represented the last link to a golden era, a time when Vanderbilt was a feared name across the gridirons of the South. His passing marks the ultimate end to that grand era.
Certainly Russell loved all sports, and covered them all, from baseball to boxing to golf to horse racing. From Notre Dame Stadium to Yankee Stadium to the old Sulphur Dell. Russell, the consummate sports editor, saw to it that even the most obscure sports were covered in "The South's liveliest sports section", as the now-defunct Banner used to advertise itself.
But make no mistake, it was Vanderbilt football-- and subsequently Vanderbilt basketball, baseball and other sports-- that held the dearest place in the august editor's heart. Or if not, you could have fooled me. Heck, he was an alumnus, even played a little for the baseball team, if I remember correctly.
From McGugin, Morrison and Sanders, right up through George MacIntyre and Watson Brown, Russell saw them all, knew them all, and waxed eloquent on them all. The inaugural game at Dudley Field in 1922... the famous hidden ball play... the winning streak of 1948... the Gator Bowl... Russell could recount the details at the drop of a hat. He was a walking, living encyclopedia of Vanderbilt football.
Fortunately, much of Russell's best work survives him. In 1936 Russell authored the long out-of-print 50 Years of Vanderbilt Football, the definitive, archival work on the era when Vanderbilt was a feared name across the gridirons of the South. (Good luck finding a copy; you might have better luck tracking down I'll Go Quietly, or his autobiography, Bury Me In an Old Pressbox.) Ironically, had he wanted to do so, he could have penned a sequel, 65 Or So More Years of Vanderbilt Football-- though, sadly, that would have made for mostly dry reading.
A native Middle Tennessean, Russell was the product of a kindlier, gentler era of sportswriting-- a far cry from the caustic, bombastic style of today. Years later, some of it would no doubt be considered sappy. But Russell, ever the Southern gentleman, composed lyrical prose that always found the good side of defeat, and praise for those who fought valiantly.
Appropriately, the pressbox at Vanderbilt Stadium was named years ago for Russell. As one who has had the privilege the last few years of covering football games from the pressbox, I can tell you that the shadow of the great sports bard hangs heavy in the cramped box where he used to ply his craft. A number of timeless photographs make the place almost a shrine.
Just last April, Vanderbilt also named the pressbox at gleaming, new Charles Hawkins Field for Russell. Though his health was failing, Russell made it to the dedication ceremony in a wheelchair, and made a point of letting everyone in attendance know that his wit was just as sharp as ever.
Fred Russell (1906-2003) passed into the next life late Sunday night at the Richland Nursing Home in Nashville. God bless him-- there'll never be another like him. He was an inspiration to generations of readers, and his legacy of writing is just one more reason why it's great to have been a Nashvillian.
In one of his most inspired, poetic columns, written upon the occasion of Coach Dan McGugin's untimely death in January, 1936, Russell pictured "a little band of men in gold and black" in the celestial abode, deceased Commodore football players who joyfully welcomed their esteemed coach into their circle...
They have been waiting a long time. Finally, "Coach" has come... They sit in a circle. "Coach" has a lot to tell them about the things down there. About old Josh Cody going to Florida; about Ray Morrison's success; about Manier and Craig and the Blakes and Browns and Metzger and Hardage and Bomar and Wakefield and Reese and Spears and the boys.
There's plenty of time in that land of no defeats. Each day they will sit in the circle where the sun is always warm and the grass is ever green. And when each Commodore comes out of the battle of life, just a bit weary, "Coach" will stand up, pat him on the back, and welcome him to the squad that never dies.
Now, 66 years later, "Fearless Fred" has joined the circle, and attained the "land of no defeats"... and doubtless, once again there'll be a good bit of catching up to do.
Comments? Contact Brent firstname.lastname@example.org
photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletic Department