Exclusive with Steelers Running Back Russell Davis, 1979-1983


First, can you let me know what you’ve been doing since your time in the NFL?

I’ve been retired from working in the public school system in Jackson, Michigan since 2010. I was the Athletic Director and Principal when I left.

Since then I’ve been a granddad. That’s my role now in the family, to babysit my five grand babies. They are all here in Michigan so I get to see them weekly.

How hard was the post-NFL adjustment for you?

That’s a great question. It was a hard adjustment, as I’m sure it was for a lot of guys. I went to work in Pittsburgh after the NFL at a juvenile detention center. I was there for a couple of years but wasn’t satisfied. It just didn’t suit me. I hadn’t finished school at Michigan though.

So, I knew I knew football so I thought I wanted to coach. I drove to Ann Arbor and spoke to Bo Schembechler and asked him about a coaching job. He told me “Russell, Michigan is an institute of higher learning. You need to finish school.” I told him I was the team captain and MVP. I asked him if that didn’t qualify. But he said no and told me that if I went back to school and finished my degree we could have that conversation then.

So, I moved my family from Pittsburgh to Michigan. I went to school during the day and worked art night. I had to feed my family. I was mopping floors at night at the hospital. It was an honorable profession but in my head I went from an NFL player and star at Michigan to mopping floors. People would recognize me and ask me if I was Russell Davis and I’d say no. I want to emphasize, it was a perfectly honorable profession and there was no shame in it. It was just where my head was at at the time. My head was just in a different place.

But you didn’t end up coaching…

After I finished school I went back to Bo but I decided I didn’t want to coach.


I grew up in the military. I was a military brat until I was 15 and was always the new kid in school. We moved around like no one’s business. Coaching is a lot like that. You move around a lot. That’s the life of a coach. I had other options and took a job in Jackson in the public school system and was there for almost 20 years. That was my life after the NFL.

You were one of the first players to sue the NFL over concussion issues. How are you health-wise now? 

I’m struggling health-wise in some areas. My memory isn’t great and I rage at some things now which isn’t good. Things that used to make me angry now make me rage. I’m trying to take advantage of the NFL offerings – they have hospitals and clinics they work with to better understand what’s going on with me. I also have the typical stuff – knee replacement and arthritic issues. But the rage issue scares me.

Taking a step back – what was the draft process and draft day like for you?

It was interesting. I thought I’d go to Atlanta. They wanted a big back and I was as big as you got back then. My weight was around 235 pounds. I got picked in the fourth round by the Steelers – I was their third pick. I think hey lost their third round pick to a rules violation. They picked me up in a trade with Detroit and chose Calvin Sweeney with their other fourth round pick.

I thought I might be a first round pick. That was the scuttlebutt. I had a great career at Michigan. How many fullbacks rush for 1,000 yard seasons. I was at home but after the second round I apologized to my family and went to my girlfriends house. My father called me though and told me I needed to get back home, that the Steelers called and said they were going to draft me. I went home and they called back and congratulated me on being drafted. I forgot who called me but they told me they’d fly me up for a meet and greet.

Anyone help mentor you as a rookie?

The rookies reported a week earlier than the veterans so I didn’t meet any of them until later. I was in awe, to be honest with you. To see Greene, Swann, Stallworth, Franco, But I had to get over that feeling. I needed to make the team and had to knuckle down and learn to block and tackle.

Was it frustrating going to a team that offered limited chances for carries then?

It was hard in terms of having Franco and Rocky on the team, and our first round pick was Gregg Hawthorne, who was a running back out of Baylor. So there was a lot of talent there. And a lot of guys wanting to come in and take my spot every year. You had to fight to maintain your spot and hold on.

I remember practice once, trying to remember plays and not making mistakes. Terry broke the huddle and I was looking down and trying to remember which direction I was supposed to go and looked at Rocky and we made eye contact. He pointed in one direction and I went that way and it was the wrong way. Guys got all over me for it. Rocky was laughing. He was joking, but it was a mistake on my part.

Any fun stories of your time there?

When Bradshaw was having an interview, sometimes we’d find out ahead of time. He had a toupee and a partial {teeth} then, and we’d hide them from him. He’d be so angry.

And sometimes we’d come in from practice and see underwear pinned to the board with skid marks on them. We’d wait to see who put their pants on without underwear to see who it was!

How hard was it after those four years to retire from the game, and what prompted that decision?

I had an illness and was on injured reserve for a year. I had sarcoidosis -a growth in my lungs caused scarring. Because of that I only had 72-73% of my lung capacity. When I walked up steps I would get out of breath. Teams would inquire about me but asked about the disease. I don’t know how the learned about it, but it prompted me to make a decision to get on with my life’s work.

As a Steeler, what coaches helped you most and left the biggest impressions with you, and why?

Dick Hoak was so knowledgeable. He’d tell you the little tricks, like footwork to put you in a better position to succeed. He could help better than someone who hadn’t played the position because he knew those tricks.

And of course Chuck Noll was a master of many things. A pilot, chef, photographer….his success as a coach just amplified how smart he was. He was a genius. I respected him. We all did.

I don’t see the same kind of respect these days for coaches by players. I don’t say that as an absolute. But more guys act independently and don’t seem to feel the need for that type of instruction and coaching now.

Any last thoughts for readers?

You know, I loved the city of Pittsburgh. I thought I’d be there for the rest of my life. My children were born there, I bought a home there. I thought I’d stay there and liked the changes the city made over the years. All of those old rusted steel mills have been fixed up and changed, they have a subway now…it’s a destination city. I still like going to visit. I have friends there. It will always be home for me.

Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades To order, just click on the book:

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