The Steeler Way: Jack Ham and Andy Russell.
The Linebackers, part 2.
“The Steeler Way — the Good Guys” continues its look at linebackers. This week, we profile two outside linebackers who played together in the 1970s, helping to forge the Steeler Way. Andy Russell and Jack Ham comprised two thirds of the best linebacker corps to ever play in the NFL. Together with Jack Lambert, they were the spine of the Steelers defense.
Known as “the Hammer.” The Steelers drafted the 6’2″, 225 lb. linebacker out of Penn State in the second round of the 1971 draft. The senior All-American from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Steelers country, was a natural for Pittsburgh.
Known as perhaps the smartest linebacker who ever played, Ham was never caught out of position. He was known as a superb pass defender, as good as most safeties. He analyzed plays in an instant and was almost never fooled.
Chuck Noll and Andy Russell both said he was the fastest Steeler on the team, CBs and WRs included, for the first ten yards. His speed, intelligence and perfect technique made him one of the greatest LBs ever. Ham had “a nose for the ball,” recovering 21 fumbles and grabbing an astonishing 32 interceptions. The Hammer still holds the career record for turnovers by a non-DBs.
Jack played twelve years, making the Pro Bowl eight straight times. He played on all four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s, though he missed SB XIV with an ankle injury. Ham was elected to both the NFL and College Football Hall of Fame.
Ham was a quiet, unassuming man, not a particularly big linebacker. I love this anecdote contained in Roy Blount, Jr.’s “About Three Bricks Shy of a Load”:
The players reported for physicals at the Pittsburgh Hilton, where Art Jr. heard a knock on the door of his suite, a soft-spoken fellow in blue slacks, a white golf shirt, and light jacket, saying, “I’m looking for Mr. Rooney.” Impatient, Art Jr. asked, “Do you have a message for me?” “No,” he said, “I’m Jack Ham.” Art Jr. blushed with embarrassment. Ham looked so small out of uniform.
Ham’s second career has been broadcasting, first in the NFL and currently as a Penn State football analyst.
He is almost always included in any serious list of the game’s greatest linebackers, often around number five.
Ham is active in several charitable causes. He often does joint appearances with Lambert and Russell. They choose a different Pittsburgh area charity each month and a portion of the income from the signings goes to the charities.
Andy Russell was not a typical football player in any sense of the word. Andy graduated from the University of Missouri as an economics major in 1963. He was drafted by the Steelers in the 16th round, the 220th player taken in the draft.
“The Captain” was an instinctive player, not fast, but very smart and, like Ham, always in position. In college and his early pro career he was one of the great hunch-playing blitzers. Once Chuck Noll came to Pittsburgh, Russell had to learn to play a more disciplined positional style. The change didn’t impede Andy’s career—he made the Pro Bowl seven times, six with Noll as his head coach. Russell was one of only five players from Noll’s first team to play in the Steelers’ first Super Bowl, five years later.
While Russell had plenty of smarts, speed was not his forte. Andy acknowledges that his teammates still rib him about being slow. At the Steelers’ 75th Anniversary celebration, Andy reminisced about an interception he made against the Baltimore Colts in a playoff game which he returned 93 yards for a touchdown. “It was the most elapsed time on a single play. Ray Mansfield said that the network cut to a commercial and was still able to show the touchdown.” (Post-Gazette link ).
After Russell’s first season in 1963, he joined the Army to fulfill his ROTC commitment. He returned to the Steelers in 1966, playing another eleven years. He played on the Steelers first two Super Bowl teams, SB IX and X. The Captain was named the Steelers’ MVP in 1971.
Roy Blount, Jr. called Russell the “team playing-hurt champion”:
In ’73 he missed a substantial portion of only one game, although he had the following injuries: a pulled hamstring, a pinched nerve and back spasms which bothered him enough that he tried acupuncture, a broken finger, a badly sprained big toe, a shoulder hurt severely enough to require three shots of cortisone, a pulled stomach muscle, a pulled groin muscle, a bruised thigh with a pinched nerve, a slight dislocation of the previously hurt shoulder, a bruised knee, a bad bruise of the other leg, and a tear of the groin muscle that had been pulled.
I guess you could call Andy a “gamer.” Andy never missed a game in his entire career: pro, military, college or high school.
Once, on a USO tour to entertain the troops in Vietnam, Andy stayed in a barracks vulnerable to attack. Blount recounts that Russell spent the night with a rifle, a candle and a martini. Buck Buchanan, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Chiefs, also on the tour, hid in the latrine.
In the off-season, Andy was an investment counselor specializing in tax shelters. When he retired, he continued in the business, becoming the managing partner of Laurel Mountain Partners and later founded his own investment banking firm.
The Captain’s charitable endeavors are far too many to list. He has been active in charities benefitting underprivileged youth, veterans, and various medical efforts. Russell has his own foundation, which concentrates on children’s medical causes. His foundation also supports research for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program. Here’s a link to the Andy Russell Charitable Foundation.
Andy was one of the pioneers of the Steeler way—smart, tough, a team leader. As his post-Steelers career demonstrates, he was successful in business and extremely dedicated to giving back. Andy does not just write checks, he gives his time and leadership skills to benefit many fine causes. Together with Jack Ham and the great Jack Lambert, who will also be profiled in this series, they helped establish the Steeler defensive legend and the Steeler Way.