LINCOLN — The University of Minnesota never wanted Russell Gary, even though he was playing a few minutes from campus at Minneapolis Central High School.
Neither did any other major college football programs, really, other than Nebraska.
But the Huskers had been sending Gary letters since his sophomore year. They remained persistent and saw something in an undersized and underdeveloped kid that others didn’t.
And that was good enough for Gary.
“The Gophers didn’t basically start recruiting me until the week before signing day and hadn’t talked to me or anything,” Gary said. “The rest of the schools that wanted me were mostly Division IIs and maybe some people like Montana and Wichita State.
“I was so excited about Nebraska that it didn’t matter to me. It didn’t make any difference if I had the top of the line wanting me.”
The Gophers’ loss was a late bloomer who turned into a three-year regular (1978 to ’80) and All-Big Eight safety for NU, and then a future NFL All-Pro. Gary was announced last week as one of this year’s inductees for the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
Former NU assistant John Melton recruited Gary and teammate Rodney Lewis out of Minneapolis Central. The Huskers had taken lineman Calvin Anderson from the same school the year before.
“I thought if it was good enough for Calvin, it was good enough for me,” Gary said.
The 53-year-old Gary is back in the Twin Cities now, where he works as a behavioral specialist for the special education program in St. Paul. He’s a part-time football assistant at Concordia University — where he was hired 10 years ago by former Concordia coach and ex-NU quarterback Mark Mauer — and helps with the track team at Columbia Heights High School.
Though he’s back in Big Ten country, Gary didn’t necessarily approve at first of the Huskers’ departure from the Big 12/Big Eight.
“I didn’t like that at all,” he said. “I understand why they did it, but being biased about the old Big Eight and Oklahoma, I thought some things would be missed. In time maybe we’ll start another rivalry, but it will never be Oklahoma and Nebraska.”
The thing about NU-OU games when they were played annually, Gary said, was that “every down, every inch … it all mattered.” That’s why it pained him to miss the Huskers’ 17-14 upset of the No. 1 Sooners in 1978 after he injured a knee the week before.
With senior Jeff Hansen performing well in his absence, Gary still couldn’t help but pester former Nebraska defensive coordinator Lance Van Zandt about playing, though it had been decided that he would not.
“I’m a young 19-year-old kid and I’m like, ‘Hey, I gotta get in this game,’” Gary said. “I thought I was getting on his nerves, so I stopped after a while. After like the first few times, he didn’t pay attention to me anymore. He had other things on his mind, so he wasn’t worried about me getting into the game if I couldn’t play.”
After NU lost to Missouri the following week, Gary returned as the Huskers and Sooners met again in the Orange Bowl, which OU won 31-24. Gary got two more shots at the Sooners in 1979 and 1980, but NU suffered close losses in both games in what turned out to be defensive showdowns.
Gary at first didn’t seem destined for the defensive side of the ball — or the 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame that he took to the NFL.
Gary played I-back on the Husker freshman team in 1977, along with Craig Johnson and Anthony Steels. The staff brought up Gary and fullback Andra Franklin to practice with the varsity in Liberty Bowl preparations.
But in addition to Johnson and Steels, who eventually would move to wingback, the NU depth chart at I-back also included I.M. Hipp, Rick Berns and Tim Wurth, with Jarvis Redwine on the way before long. Gary was moved to safety after spring practice in 1978.
“I never looked back after that,” he said. “I came in as a running back, but I think they had in mind already what they were going to do with me.”
Gary said he pounced on the opportunity to lift weights for the first time and said Boyd Epley and Mike Arthur were huge influences on him. Once a 165-pound freshman, he was NU’s lifter of the year by his senior season in 1980.
That size, his Husker résumé and showings at the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game after his senior year led to him being the second-round pick (No. 29 overall) of the New Orleans Saints in the 1981 draft. His six seasons with the Saints included the All-Pro selection in 1983, and he finished his eight-year career with Philadelphia.
Gary will go into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in September with former Huskers John Havekost, Reggie Cooper and Keyuo Craver, along with former Nebraska Wesleyan star Tim Beebe. Until a few years ago, he stayed connected with NU football by working Big Red camps for Bo Pelini and Bill Callahan.
When he attended a Tom Osborne retirement function last winter, he made sure to thank the former NU coach and his staff for seeing his potential four decades ago.
“I just told him at that banquet that I appreciated what he did for me,” Gary said. “He took a chance on a 165-pound, inner-city kid and gave him the opportunity to become a man and helped guide him.”
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