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Statue to honor beloved Russell

ATHENS, Ga. -- Derek Sills read lots of stories in recent years about various schools commissioning statues of their legendary football coaches and players. That sparked the Georgia Southern booster's interest in bestowing a similar honor on former Eagles coach Erk Russell.

Sills' interest became an obsession two years ago when, while on a trip through Baltimore to watch Georgia Southern play Delaware in the FCS playoffs, he visited the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame and saw the original statue the University of Maryland built of its turtle mascot, Testudo.

"I was like, 'Oh, heck no. If the turtle gets a statue, Erk gets a statue,' " Sills recalled with a laugh. "Literally after the game was over with, I started making phone calls. I started calling some buddies of mine and they were like, 'Stop by my office and we'll start cutting checks.' That's how it began."

Sills' vision is close to becoming a reality. After mounting that fundraising drive -- a process that is not yet complete -- Sills hired Athens artist Stan Mullins to fashion a 7 ½-foot version of Russell, who in 1981 revived a Georgia Southern program that had been dormant since World War II. Russell led the Eagles to three national championships before retiring after a 15-0 season in 1989.

Mullins also created the statue on the UGA campus that honors former Georgia coach Vince Dooley -- the man with whom Russell is forever linked.

In fact, Russell is as beloved among Georgia fans as he is among Georgia Southern supporters, thanks to the folksy charm and uncanny motivational skills that he employed as Georgia's defensive coordinator for 17 years with Dooley. He went on to build the Eagles into perhaps the nation's most dominant Division I-AA (now FCS) program.

Dooley is among the many luminaries who contributed money toward the $100,000 Russell statue objective -- a group that also includes Georgia Tech coach and former Russell assistant Paul Johnson; Hugh Nall, who played on Russell's last team at Georgia and was a member of Russell's first coaching staff at Georgia Southern; Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken and university president Brooks Keel; Dale Lick, the Georgia Southern president who revived the football program and hired Russell to make it work; and sportswriter Tony Barnhart.

Also contributing were individuals with no public profile whatsoever.

"I wanted it to be that everybody could have a part in this statue, no matter how big or small," Sills said. "I have received donations that ranged from $10,000 to a college student at Georgia Southern sent me $5 and he said, 'That's all I've got. That's all I can afford, but I wanted to honor the tradition of Georgia Southern and Coach Russell.' "

More than two decades have passed since Russell coached the Eagles, but Georgia Southern clings to the traditions he started. Only Russell could take the drainage ditch that ran alongside the Eagles' practice field and nickname it "Beautiful Eagle Creek," whose supposedly magical waters he would use to fill a milk jug and then pour the contents onto the field at big road games as a motivational tactic. Only Russell would head-butt his players, resulting in the occasional trickle of blood down his trademark bald head. Only Russell could have sold his folksy philosophies, including "G.A.T.A." (Get After Their A--es), "Just One More Time" and "Do Right" to players in their teens and 20s without getting eye rolls in return.

The Russell statue will feature a milk jug of "Beautiful Eagle Creek" water at the coach's feet and will also honor the "One More Time" motivational saying that he began using at Georgia and famously employed at Georgia Southern -- including his final game as the Eagles' coach, the 1989 national championship win against Stephen F. Austin.

"At Georgia for the 1980 national championship, he had 'One More Time' T-shirts made because they needed to win one more time, one more game, to be national champions. He then comes to Georgia Southern," Sills said. "At the pregame of his last game, which is the 1989 national championship, he's got a pullover on. He brings the team together and he pulls off the pullover and he's wearing the original 'One More Time' shirt.

"Now by this time, it's ripped up and shredded and falling apart. But he brought that saying to us: 'One More Time. We can do anything just one more time.' And the team went crazy.

"When Coach Russell died, they actually found a Maxwell Coffee can in his belongings and there was a handwritten note on the coffee can that said, 'Shirt I wore to my last big game,' and they opened the coffee can and it's the 'One More Time' T-shirt. It's the only sideline clothing that he kept, but he kept that. It kind of ties that whole history of where he came from and where we went to."

Aside from the milk jug and tattered shirt on the statue, Sills and his fellow boosters also determined that Russell should be wearing one of his three championship rings -- and they "have pretty much nailed it down to" the 1989 ring.

Mullins has nearly completed the sculpture in wax-based clay, with a few molding stages to go before the piece is ready to be cast in bronze. He hopes it will convey a sense of intensity that characterized Russell's tenure at Georgia Southern.

The sculptor expects the statue to be complete during football season, but there is no scheduled timeline for its unveiling. Georgia Southern is in the midst of a fundraising project for a 57,000-square-foot football complex at Paulson Stadium, with the statue serving as the centerpiece for Erk Russell Plaza at its entrance.

"I told somebody that to a Georgia Southern fan he's the houndstooth hat at Alabama, he's Chief Osceola on Renegade at Florida State, he's the hedges at Georgia," Sills said. "He is our tradition and he symbolizes everything that began at Georgia Southern. Sometimes people forget the story of how Georgia Southern began and how he turned us into the most dominating FCS team ever. Six national championships later, here we stand.

"I just felt like I wanted my son to know those stories and know about the man and I assume there would be other people that would want their children to know about the man."