Lafayette H. Russell
1905 - 1978
|The basis for this webpage were articles on Reb Russell that I authored in the early 1980s for several western film magazines. I have updated the text and provided more pictures and movie art. Special thanks to the Northwestern University Wildcat Sports Information Office, the University Archives at the Northwestern University Library, the Philadelphia Eagles professional football team, the Missouri Military Academy, and the East West Shrine Game organization for their help and assistance in the preparation of this biography.|
(Courtesy of Northwestern University
Wildcat Sports Information Office)
Born to Charles Franklin and Hattie Mae (Hummel) Russell on May 31, 1905, Lafayette H. Russell spent his baby years in Osawatomie, Kansas, but the family soon moved to Coffeyville, Kansas, which would be the stomping grounds for our hero during most of his life.
A top-knotch football and baseball player in public school, Russell became a All-State football player for two years at the Missouri Military Academy at Mexico, Missouri, and it was during this time that he was given the nickname of "Rebel", later shortened to "Reb". He graduated from the Missouri Military Academy, Class of 1924, and was among the charter inductees into the MMA Athletic Hall of Fame.
In 1928, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska where, as a running quarterback, he received honors as a member of the All Big Six Team.
Transferring to the Evanston, Illinois campus of the Northwestern Wildcats, Reb was ineligible to play in 1929 and several games at the beginning of the 1930 season. During the 1930 and 1931 seasons, "number 7" became an outstanding fullback with further honors including the Big-Ten scoring championship, All-Big Ten honors, All-American status (in 1930), and a six-yard-per-carry average. Even Notre Dame's fabled coach Knute Rockne added praise by saying that Reb "was the greatest plunging fullback I ever saw" (in reference to Reb's play in the 14-0 loss to Notre Dame in 1930, which was the year the Fighting Irish were undefeated and crowned National Champions).
In his book The Tale of the Wildcats, A Centennial History of Northwestern University Athletics (1951), Walter Paulison included some commentary about that 1930 Notre Dame game: "The victory was Notre Dame's, but the individual honors that day belonged to Russell, whose line-plunging against a foe of championship class was the talk of the nation."
During Reb's football days at Northwestern, the team was 7-1-0 (in 1930) and 7-1-1 (in 1931), they were Co-Big Ten champions for both years, and Northwestern's total points scored for the two seasons was 320 (vs. a total of 76 for their opposition).
The University Archives at the Northwestern University Library advise that comprehensive Northwestern football statistics dating back to the 1930s have not survived or, at least, are not among Athletic Department records held by the University Archives. They do have a scrapbook of newspaper clippings for the 1930 season, but nothing for 1931. Selected and abbreviated info from those clippings include the following mentions of Russell:
1930, NU vs. Centre: Russell at fullback, 16 carries, 147 total yards, 3 touchdowns
1930, NU vs. Minnesota: 19 carries for Russell, 57 total yards, 1 touchdown
1930, NU vs. Indiana: 2 touchdowns for Russell.
The Library Archives at Northwestern also provided info on Russell's All-American honors: Russell was a second team fullback on the Hearst Consensus All-America Team. He was the fullback on the team picked by the All-America Board of Football (which at that time, included Knute Rockne, Glenn S. 'Pop' Warner, T. A. D. Jones, W. A. Alexander and Christy Walsh). An unidentified clipping reports that the New York Evening Sun selected Russell as a candidate for All-American. Sportswriter Bill Corum (see footnote at bottom of this page) put Russell on his All-American team.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has the official records of college football All-Americans, and that information has been published in Football's Finest (NCAA, Indianapolis, Indiana, 2002). In the listing for First Team All-Americans, you'll find Fayette Russell, Northwestern, fullback, 1930. (Link to the book and player listing is at the end of the Russell webpages.)
Reb's last football game as a collegiate was on the East team at the 7th annual East-West Shrine game on New Years day, January 1, 1932. There were 45,000 fans at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, with the East winning 6-0. Clarke Hinkle of Bucknell and Russell were the alternating fullbacks and the halfback was Purdue's Jim Purvis who scored the only touchdown and points in the game.
Maxwell Stiles (footnote at bottom of this page) writes about the game in his book Football's Finest Hour, The Shrine East - West Game (Nashunal Publishing Company, Los Angeles, 1950). In the chapter titled 1932 ... OVERTURE TO IMMORTALITY, he notes that the game was played in "incessant rain", in "the ooze and the muck", on a "slippery field", and neither team could complete a forward pass because of the weather and field conditions. Listed as the outstanding players were Bill Hewitt of Michigan (later, a defensive end with the Chicago Bears), and Clarke Hinkle (fullback for the Green Bay Packers). Both Hewitt and Hinkle are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Stiles interweaves his own narrative with newspaper clippings and reports from various sportswriters. Following are some excerpts/quotes from Stiles' book relating to Reb Russell:
"The big eastern line held command at all times, and the power runners of the East - Hinkle, Reb Russell of Northwestern and Jim Purvis of Purdue - were able to smash through for gains that held the men of the West at bay."
"One lone touchdown, counted as Jim Purvis, hard driving Purdue halfback, shot into the end zone on a beautiful off tackle from two yards out late in the first quarter of play, marked up the winning digits, but it was the heavy hitting of Reb Russell, and the equally hard smashing of the not quite so big Clark Hinkle, which kept the West on defense throughout the entire afternoon."
"It was Russell who motored the scoring drive through the mud ..."
"But the crowd will remember Russell and Hinkle, who hit 33 times between them for almost 100 yards, Hinkle collecting 62 in 21 attempts, and Russell 37 in 11."
"... the terrific smashing of the backfield, notably Hinkle, Russell, Purvis, Morton and McEver."
"Our fullbacks were a stand-off, Hinkle being the faster, but with no more power than Russell, who was smoother. They provided the main ball carrying impetus, of course, though Purvis was almost as strong and the three made up a trio each man of whom had the ability to fight for extra yards."
(Courtesy of Patricia Bishop) | |(Courtesy of Patricia Bishop)
Patricia Bishop's father attended Missouri Military Academy and was friends with Reb Russell. Her father was also from Coffeyville, Kansas. The above photos of Reb in civilian attire and his Missouri Military Academy football uniform are circa 1923.
(Courtesy of the East West Shrine Game)
(Courtesy of the East West Shrine Game)
The above cover and photo of Reb Russell are from the 1932 East West Shrine Game souvenir program, and are used with permission of the East West Shrine Game. All rights reserved. The East West Shrine Game website is at: http://www.shrinegame.com/
There's been lots of discussion about Reb's football prowess, but not much on his curriculum and studies - Russell was a physical education major hopeful of a college coaching assignment.
With a dozen or so other football stars, Reb headed West during the Summer of 1932 to do a bit part in Universal's THE ALL-AMERICAN, a football yarn starring Richard Arlen. The story goes that Russell became close with the legendary Tom Mix, who was on the Universal lot filming his fine sound series of 1932-1933 which included THE RIDER OF DEATH VALLEY (1932), DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (JUSTICE RIDES AGAIN) (1932) and MY PAL, THE KING (1932). Reb wound up attending football outings and other sporting events as well as meeting filmdom's elite, all courtesy of new-found buddy and sponsor Tom Mix.
Sol Lesser (1890-1980)
Reb was approached about doing some film work by producer Sol Lesser.
During the silent era, Sol Lesser owned a California theater chain and was involved in both film distribution and production. During the 1930s, he produced a variety of films including the Bela Lugosi CHANDU and Buster Crabbe TARZAN THE FEARLESS serials. His western series included early Buck Jones features released through Columbia, George O'Brien oaters for Fox, and the brief 20th Century Fox "singing cowboy" group which starred singer and band leader Smith Ballew. Lesser was also the production boss on higher budget films such as OUR TOWN (1940), THE TUTTLES OF TAHITI (1942) and STAGE DOOR CANTEEN (1943), and from about 1943-1958, he was in charge of the Tarzan jungle adventures.
Lesser was about to initiate a series of B westerns with the opener to be WHEN A MAN'S A MAN, based on the novel by Harold Bell Wright. And Reb was being considered for the lead in the new series. To give the newcomer some experience, Lesser cast Reb in a supporting role as a mailman in the mediocre doggie-adventure FIGHTING TO LIVE (Principal, 1934), a non-western starring Marion Shilling, a German shepherd named Captain and another pooch named Lady. No great shakes with dialogue, Reb must have impressed Lesser with his muscular physique and down-home manners. But some legal shenanigans forced postponement of the series, as Lesser and novelist Wright became embroiled in a lawsuit over rights to the story.
In the middle of all of this, Reb played briefly with two professional football teams, the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, and his statistics were:
|1933 Philadelphia Eagles
||32 rushes for 96 yards; 2 pass receptions for 32 yards
|1933 New York Giants
||16 rushes for 68 yards
Maxwell Stiles was a noted sports columnist and during his lengthy career, he wrote for the Los Angeles Mirror-News, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Oakland Tribune, the Los Angeles Examiner, more. His specialty was Track and Field, but he covered all sporting events, and authored/collaborated on several books, including The Rose Bowl: A Complete Action and Pictorial Exposition of Rose Bowl Football. In the 1940s, Stiles was Public Relations Director for the Los Angeles Rams professional football team.
Bill Corum was a graduate of the University of Missouri and Columbia University journalism school and did military service in World War I. He joined the New York Times newspaper in 1920 and moved to the New York Journal in 1925 and the Detroit Evening Times in 1935. He was a columnist for the New York Journal-American at the time of his death in 1958. Well liked and respected among writers, he was named president of Churchill Downs (Kentucky Derby) race track in 1949, and continued in that role until his 1958 passing. Corum's newspaper columns included some memorable moments: in a 1925 column about the Kentucky Derby, he coined the phrase "Run For The Roses"; and he may have been the newspaper writer who suggested that Babe Ruth "called" his home run by pointing to the outfield in the October 1, 1932 Yankees vs. Cubs World Series game. Corum was also the color commentator, often with announcer Don Dunphy, on many boxing matches.