Russell Arthur “Rusty” Tillman, who passed away last week at the age of 75, was an NFL special teams legend from coast to coast, from the state of Washington to the District.
He coached special teams for the Seattle Seahawks, along with a stint as defensive coordinator from 1979 to 1994. He would go on to coach with Tampa Bay, Oakland, Indianapolis and Minnesota. But over 15 seasons and multiple coaches in Seattle, he left a legacy with that franchise.
“He really was an incredible special teams coach,” former Seahawks safety and defensive backs coach Paul Moyer, who played under and worked alongside Tillman in Seattle, told Seahawks.com. “He was a fantastic motivator, he really made you feel special teams were incredibly important. He had great ideas. He was just a really good fundamental coach. He would challenge you like nobody’s business, it didn’t matter if you were an All-Pro or a rookie.”
He learned that in Washington, playing for the great George Allen, the first NFL head coach to truly recognize the value of special teams. He was the first one to have a special teams coach, Dick Vermeil, when Allen was with the Rams, and introduced special teams before a game on national television while he was here in Washington.
Tillman was the face of those Allen special teams for Washington. His nickname was “The King” and was special teams captain from 1974 to 1977.
Ironically, when Allen got hired as the Washington coach in 1971, Tillman thought he would be out of a job. He had been an undrafted free agent out of Northern Arizona and signed with Washington in 1970 — before Allen arrived.
“I wanted a chance to play for Vince Lombardi, so the Redskins made an offer and I decided to go there,” he told me in an interview for “Hail Victory,” my oral history of this franchise. “But then Lombardi died.
“When George came in 1971, I thought I would be cut, because I knew he liked veteran players. But once George saw I was a good special teams player, that changed for me.
“George would come back and talk to me before a game and tell me how important I was to the winning effort and how I had to make a big play, and I thought I was the most important guy on the team,” Tillman told me. “But every other guy felt the same way. He made every guy feel like he was the most important guy out there. It was a tremendous talent.”
It was when Tillman was here that the tradition of the shower room pep talk began for special teams, and it continued under Joe Gibbs’ special teams coach, Wayne Sevier.
“The shower thing started when George came,” Tillman said. “All of us who were on special teams — myself, Bill Malinchak, Bob Brunet, Ted Vactor — realized how much importance George put on the kicking game. Before our first game, Bill Malinchak got up and made a speech to the special teams. ‘Hey, this guy really believes in us. He thinks we are as important as the offense and the defense. We need to go out there and do the best we can.’ That was the start of the shower huddle, when George came. We used to get really fired up.”
Tillman told me a legendary tale of the lengths Allen would go through to fire up his players.
“We are getting ready to play Dallas, maybe around 1974,” he said. “The team would meet on Tuesdays at 11 after a Sunday game. Now, it was well known then that George Allen and the writer, Jack Anderson, were taking martial arts lessons from Jhoon Rhee, the guy who had the commercials with the guys attacking him in the parking lot and he fights them off and says, ‘Nobody bothers me.’
“At 11 a.m. there is a big gong, and into the locker room walks Jhoon Rhee, with about a half dozen guys with him in full karate garb,” Tillman said. “Here comes George and he is in full karate garb. The whole locker room went crazy. We were shouting, ‘George, George, George.’ It was electric. He talks about Dallas week and how he would like to fly to Dallas and meet Tom Landry at midfield and fight him. If he could beat Landry, we would win. We all kind of snickered, because we figured Landry would beat the (blank) out of George.
“He had two boards, and these guys were going to hold the boards. He was going to break two boards with his hands, and two other guys were holding up two other boards, and he was going to break them with his feet. If he could break the boards, were going to beat Dallas. The place is going nuts, chanting, ‘George, George, George.’ Now he starts to warm up and is making all kinds of noises and taking deep breaths. It was unbelievable. All of a sudden he screams, comes down and breaks the two boards with his hands and the other two with his feet, and the place went nuts. I see George’s hand start shaking. He broke his hand. The trainers had to take him out of the room. You know what happened? Dallas beat the (blank) out of us.
“There was nothing he wouldn’t do to motivate the team. If it would help us win, he would do it.”
Tillman carried Allen’s special teams’ passion with him throughout his coaching career.
“Rusty was one of the great special teams’ players of all time when he was with Washington,” Moyer said. “He was a legend. He was one of the best motivators and is one of the greatest special teams’ players and coaches of all time.”
You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at email@example.com.
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