Russell Arthur Tillman died last Sunday.
For fans of the Washington Football Team who trace their passion for the team back to the days of Joe Gibbs or later, that name may not mean much. For those of us who go back a little farther, Rusty Tillman will always be “The King.”
The game Tillman played has been outlawed in today’s NFL. Officially listed as a linebacker, everyone knew that Rusty Tillman was first and foremost George Allen’s wedge-buster. His job was to run down the field as part of the kick coverage unit and fling his body into as many blockers as possible – busting up the blocking wedge and allowing his teammates to swarm the return-man.
Tillman was the best there was at this particular skill. His passion and effort resulted in him being chosen as special teams captain from 1974-1977. It earned him the nickname “King.”
Tillman was born and raised in Beloit, Wisconsin, and when you were a boy growing up in Wisconsin in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you lived and died with the Green Bay Packers. Vince Lombardi was your hero.
So when the Washington Football Team offered to sign the undrafted free agent in 1970, Tillman leapt at the chance to play under Lombardi, about to begin his second season in D.C. His goal was to be Washington’s middle linebacker. He had grown up watching Ray Nitschke patrol the middle for Lombardi’s great Packers’ teams. He hoped to do the same in Washington.
Two things derailed that dream. First, Lombardi succumbed to cancer before Tillman could ever play for him. Second, Harold McLinton stood in his way. McLinton arrived one year before Tillman and seized the middle linebacker spot. He would not give it up.
But as fate would have it, a year after Lombardi died, the Washington Football Team hired George Allen as head coach. And George Allen was one of the first proponents of professionally run special teams.
Under Allen, special teams were not simply a collection of kids and washed up vets biding their time until injury gave them a crack at the starting lineup. Allen placed teams on equal footing with offense and defense. He hired a dedicated teams coach.
In those early days, it was future Hall of Famer Marv Levy. They had special practices. They had starting lineups. Allen even went so far as to have the special teams lineup announced before a nationally televised game, as opposed to announcing the offense or defense.
Allen needed players who would buy into this new, elevated vision of teams. He found the ideal man in Rusty Tillman.
Together with other specialists like punt blocker extraordinaire Bill Malinchak, kick returner Herb Mul-Key, punt returner Eddie Brown, other coverage wildmen like Ted Vactor, Pete Wysocki, and long-time running mate Bob Brunet, these players won games for the Washington Football Team throughout the 1970s. None of them started, except as the occasional injury replacement. But they all became legends.
And Tillman was their king. He would bust up wedges and throw ferocious blocks through the 1977 season. By 1978, Allen was gone, and new coach Jack Pardee began purging some of the older vets. Tillman had injured his knee in the preseason but was eying a quick return when he was cut on August 29, 1978. It was the same day the Washington Football Team said goodbye to iron man center Len Hauss.
Rusty felt he could still play, but when Seattle coach Ken Patera was looking to upgrade his own special teams, he offered Tillman a coaching job. Tillman accepted and would remain in Seattle for the next 16 seasons, eventually rising to the level of defensive coordinator. He coached for five other NFL teams, eventually retiring as one of the most respected special teams coaches of all time.
Late in his playing career, Tillman admitted to Washington Post writer Leonard Shapiro that he had to come to terms with failing to become a starting middle linebacker for the Washington Football Team.
“I suppose I could have asked to be traded,” Tillman said in an interview with Shapiro, “but I’ve seen other guys on this team, people like Jerry Smith, Billy Kilmer, Sonny Jurgensen, Calvin Hill, all proven starters who had to adjust to sitting on the bench. You really have to admire the way they handled it. So I kept my mouth shut. And I believe in all that stuff that the team comes before the individual.”
Blocking wedges have been banned from the modern NFL. Wedge busters no longer exist. Rule changes designed to protect players have changed the nature of the game, perhaps affecting special teams play more than any other aspect.
A few years ago, Tillman spoke to Shapiro again. This time, the subject of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) came up. “I had 22 concussions. I forget things a lot, to tell you the truth. I don’t know how I couldn’t have it. If you got knocked out, they’d give you smelling salts. They’d hold up four fingers, and if you got to two, you’d go back in. That’s just how it was.”
Tillman was 75 when he passed away. He may have never officially started, but he left an indelible mark as a player (one of Washington’s all-time greats, as chosen in 2002), a coach, and even as a litigant in the landmark CTE case of 2013. His career is a story of triumph and of caution.
He was The King.