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1970s team captain Andy Russell, 82

He wasn't the biggest or the strongest, and he would be the first one to admit he wasn't close to being the fastest. But no one who knows anything about the sport and how it's supposed to be played would argue against Andy Russell being the smartest. And Steelers history always will remember him as one-of-five.

Andy Russell, 82, died on Friday, March 1.

Russell entered the NFL as a 16th-round pick in the 1963 NFL Draft, and when he retired after the 1976 season he had been voted to seven Pro Bowls by his peers around the league. By his teammates, he was voted Steelers MVP in 1971, and team captain for 10 seasons. By his community, he was named Big Brothers and Sisters Man of the Year in 1989.

And being that he was one-third of what is arguably the best three-man unit of linebackers in NFL history, Andy Russell could play, and more than just a little bit.

"We are saddened by the news of the passing of Andy Russell," said President Art Rooney II. "Andy was part of the foundation of the great Steelers teams of the 1970s. He was one of the few players kept by Coach Chuck Noll on the team after he became our head coach in 1969. Andy was the team captain and his leadership was a critical part of Coach Noll's development of the 1970s Steelers, which paved the way to 4 Super Bowl Championships. We were excited to induct Andy into our inaugural Steelers' Hall of Honor class in 2017.

"Andy went on to have a very successful career in business after his playing days and was a constant presence in the Pittsburgh Community. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Cindy, and the Russell Family."

When the Steelers first were able to line up with Jack Ham on the left, Jack Lambert in the middle, and Andy Russell on the right, their unit of linebackers presented a unique challenge for opponents as part of one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history. What was special about the Ham-Lambert-Russell partnership was in the flair for difference-making plays.

Those three linebackers played in 40 of the 42 games during the three seasons (1974-76) they made up a starting unit, and in those 40 games they combined for 32 takeaways – 16 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries. That's a lot of takeaways from linebackers during an era where offenses weren't anywhere near as high-flying as today, and those difference-making plays were on top of the havoc created by a defensive line that mauled opponents backed up by a ball-hawking secondary that was perpetually physical.

"When I came in as a rookie (in 1971), he had already been here a while," said Ham. "Back then I don't think veterans and rookies even talked to each other. He took time with me as a linebacker. Since he was playing the other outside linebacker spot, we were kind of mirror images of each other. He gave me such insight into how to mentally play the game at outside linebacker. It was so instrumental in my pro career to start off with those lessons from him in game situations. It put my career on fast-forward because of lessons from him … He was captain of the team."

Yes, Andy Russell was able to be the captain during the 1970s only because he had been one-of-five in 1969.

By the time Chuck Noll was hired on Jan. 27, 1969, Russell had gone from a 16th-round draft pick from Missouri, to an NFL starter as a rookie, to an officer in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany to fulfill military obligations as part of his ROTC status, to the only Pro Bowl selection on a team that finished 2-11-1.

Russell often told the story of sitting in the room later in 1969 when Chuck Noll addressed the Steelers as their new head coach. Noll's message was something like: We are going to win a Super Bowl, but most of you aren't good enough to be here when we do.

Another story he told was about his first one-on-one with the new coach. That narrative started with Russell admitting to feeling pretty good about himself as he walked into Noll's office. Coming off a Pro Bowl season. Best player on defense without question, and arguably the best player on the team. Chuck Noll proceeded to pick apart his "star's" game. But it was done in a matter-of-fact manner, top to bottom, with no theatrics, no yelling. The fact Noll was pointing out minutiae like foot placement and hand usage convinced Russell the new coach was a teacher and one who had studied before delivering his critique.

Russell took those teachings and found that when he implemented them on the field, he in fact was a better player. Five years later, in late summer, when Chuck Noll cut the roster to the players who would open the 1974 NFL season and form the team that would leave the Tulane Stadium locker room the following January as Super Bowl IX Champions, Andy Russell was one-of-five. Russell had been in the meeting when the new coach had laid down the gauntlet about winning the Super Bowl but most of those players not being good enough to be still standing when it happened. And there he was, still standing in the Tulane Stadium locker room when Commissioner Pete Rozelle handed that silver football to Art Rooney Sr. Also standing were Rocky Bleier, Sam Davis, Ray Mansfield, and Bobby Walden. That's it. Only five.

"Andy was our captain, a leader," said Gerry Mullins, a No. 4 pick in 1971 and a starting offensive lineman on those four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s. "He was around prior to the Chuck Noll era, a person who survived the old times to the new times. He could relate back to the bad days and then relate to how successful we became by getting the talent we needed. Andy and Ray Mansfield were two of the players who were able to stick around."

Andy Russell did more than just stick around. He was a starter, voted to 5 straight Pro Bowls after Noll was hired. When the Steelers won a championship for the first time in franchise history, Andy Russell was the captain. A captain who always found a way to do the right thing at the right time. In this specific setting, the right time was inside the Steelers locker room at Tulane Stadium after Super Bowl IX.

"I remember when Andy presented the game ball to 'The Chief' after Super Bowl IX," said Rocky Bleier, another of the one-of-5. "That was my first experience of going through something like that. There was the question, 'Who gets the game ball?' Andy was the captain, and rightly so, he didn't forget 'The Chief.' Without Mr. Rooney, none of that would have happened. Andy felt it was important to honor Mr. Rooney with the game ball because we wouldn't have gotten there without him. It was the right thing to do. And Andy knew that because that was Andy."

Andy Russell knew a lot about a lot, and he did a lot about it. Graduated from the University of Missouri with both a BA and an MBA in Economics. Authored three books: "A Steeler Odyssey" in 1988; "An Odd Steelers Journey" in 2002; and "Beyond the Goalpost" in 2010. Successful in business, Andy gave as good as he got. He was an insightful, patient, well-spoken interview. Always generous with his time, he created the Andy Russell Foundation in 1999 that supported: Children's Hospital Free Care Fund, The Ronald McDonald House, Leukemia Society, The Cancer Society, Economics PA, Cystic Fibrosis, Mothers Hope, Juvenile Diabetes, SIDS, and Pittsburgh Vision Services.

"He was a great leader on the field and off the field, and then after his playing days, he was a pillar in the community with his golf outing," said Mullins. "Andy would have his teammates come to the golf outing and bring in players from other teams. It wasn't like it is now. You didn't know players from other teams back then, you weren't friends with them like players are today. It was a different era. We got to know a lot of guys who played on different teams through that. And we would all see each other, get to be around each other. We have lifetime friendships because he did that. It's family."

All things considered, it's accurate to refer to Andy Russell as one-of-five. But a more apt description of the man would be one-of-a-kind.

(Quotes compiled by Teresa Varley)