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All set to work for Erk
N. Brooks Clark
November 09, 1981
Erk Russell, creator of Georgia's Junkyard Dogs, is building a whole new team
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November 09, 1981

All Set To Work For Erk

Erk Russell, creator of Georgia's Junkyard Dogs, is building a whole new team

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A visitor recently asked Jean Russell, Erk's wife, what her reaction had been when Erk first mentioned going to GSC. "I thought he was joking," she said. "I did. I thought he was joking the first and the second times we came down to look at the area. The third time, I could tell he wanted to take the job, if I was willing."

There were some perquisites. Erk's perks: Russell's salary is a trifle bigger now (about $47,000) than it was in Athens, and he's eligible for the state teachers' retirement program, which he wasn't at Georgia. And in a way he can't lose: He has inherited neither a tottering program nor the pressures that go with a successful one (see Faust, Gerry). Besides, the bumper stickers are naturals, from WORK FOR ERK to NEVER BUTT HEADS
WITH A BALD EAGLE. And, says Wagner, "The money is out there."

The first potential booster Russell met was Lincoln Womack, a man in his seventies who owns considerable forest acreage. He arrived in a Statesboro lawyer's office in overalls—to listen to Russell's spiel about the coming glories of GSC football and the desperate need for equipment and practice fields. When Erk had finished, Womack said, "Mr. Russell, I don't know a thing about ball. I never had no time for ball myself. And I don't have a million dollars like they say I do. But I've got a million pine trees, and when I sell some of them, I'll help you out all I can." That help has come at unpredictable intervals; once Womack stopped by and extracted "a wad of hundreds the size of my fist," says Russell, and peeled one off for Erk's Eagles.

What Russell needs most, of course, is a stadium (in the meantime the Eagles will play on Statesboro High's Womack field). One plan for its location would do away with a pine grove that is a town landmark. There, in 1901, Dr. Charles Herty and Frank Klarpp devised a method of extracting resin from pine trees without damaging them, thereby revolutionizing the turpentine industry.

Russell has gone under in his zeal to come out on top. Last month, for instance, he was in the dunking chair at the county fair to drum up cash. Scott Lamb, a 14-year-old lefthander, paid one dollar to try to send the 55-year-old Russell plunging into the tub, and he did. Russell aggravated an old knee injury while being dunked, and for a while his normal limp evolved from late George Patton to early Amos McCoy.

Other acquisitions have come easier. Sam Johnson, who played defensive tackle at Jacksonville ( Ala.) State and owns Johnson's Minit Mart in Statesboro, gave the Eagles weights from a health club he had owned. Jerseys were purchased second-hand from Ole Miss (including one of Archie Manning's No. 18s) and Georgia Tech, and grassing contractor Joe Smallwood is going to grade and re-turf two practice fields. For the time being the coaches' offices are in a 40-foot mobile home (complete with three-stool bar and mirrored bath) donated by Robert Mallard's Housing Center in Statesboro. "I'd feel a lot more comfortable," says Russell, "if they'd take the wheels off this thing; they're liable to roll me right out of town."

The team has been in pads for five weeks now, and scrimmages are coming up with the Florida State junior varsity, the Fort Benning Doughboys and the "Magnum Force" team of the Jacksonville, Fla. police. For now Russell has been treating his squad of walk-ons like Junkyard Dogs, and enthusiasm runs high. A linebacker from Macon, Tommy Raye, had GATA—an Erkism meaning, roughly, Get After Them Aggressively—shaved into his hair. "I'd like him on my side in a street fight," says Russell, "but he is small."

Back in Athens, Dooley confesses, "I miss Erk personally, first of all, and professionally because he's always been a perfect complement to me in every way. I'm excited for him because he's excited. It's a fun-type thing and Erk's a fun-type person."

When Georgia opened its season against Tennessee, the Russells were weekending on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Erk called Dooley after the Bulldogs' morning meal to wish him luck and to tell him his plans for the day, which were to take a cooler, some Red Man, a couple of cigars and a radio to the beach and listen to the game. "Jean and I sat there with our ears glued to that radio," Russell recalls. "What really amazed me was that there were 300 people in front of us on that beach, doing the things that people do, and not a one of them giving a damn about that game. For 17 years, I swear I'd never known that there were all those people outside of a stadium on a Saturday afternoon in the fall."

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