As a redshirt freshman wide receiver who stood eighth on the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive depth chart in 1987, Lamonde Russell had a decision to make.
Ken Walker, an assistant on first-year head coach Bill Curry’s staff, had coached against Russell as he made his name on the football fields of Oneonta (Alabama) High School and eventually earned Class 3A Offensive Player of the Year honors as a senior in 1985 at time when Alabama only broke down its schools into four classifications. As the head coach at Pinson Valley High School, Walker had prepared his teams to play against Russell and knew how versatile he could be between the lines. So Walker made Russell an offer.
“He said he thought I could get on the field quicker if I would move to tight end, and that’s all I needed to hear,” Russell said. “I really didn’t think about my size or my lack of size or being a tight end and not being a receiver anymore. I was just like, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Just like that, the 6-foot-1, 196-pound Russell moved to tight end and went on to prove Walker correct, eventually leading the Crimson Tide in receptions as a both a junior and senior in 1989 and 1990. Walker had looked at the 1987-88 Alabama roster and down the road and had seen that, behind Howard Cross, a human bulldozer of a blocker who would be a senior in 1988, the Tide had no tight end depth. So he didn’t hesitate to ask the spindly—at least by college football standards—Russell to fill the void. He just didn’t ask him to block.
“Howard Cross would block his man 5 to 10 yards down field, but they didn’t expect me to do that,” Russell said with a chuckle “They just wanted me to get a stalemate and just not let my guy come across to our side of the line of scrimmage. If I could do that, they were happy.”
They did ask him to catch the ball, however, and Russell did it, posting a career total of 108 receptions for 1,332 yards and 6 touchdowns. Included in that were a team-high 622 yards and 5 TDs in 1989—totals that stood as single-season records for Bama tight ends until Irv Smith Jr. put up 710 yards and 7 touchdowns last season. Amazingly, Russell also topped Bama’s receiving chart with 28 catches for 306 yards in 1990.
He didn’t have any touchdown grabs that year, but then Tide starting QB Gary Hollingsworth only threw four all season as Bama adjusted to its third head coach and fourth offensive coordinator in five seasons.
“We never really got a lot of continuity on offense during my time there,” said Russell, who was recruited by Ray Perkins, played two seasons under Bill Curry and one under Gene Stallings. “With all that turnover you were constantly learning a new offense.”
Still there were plenty of highlights for Russell to recall and share with his family, friends, acquaintances and clients. After graduation, Russell worked as a financial planner for nine years before going becoming a pharmaceutical sales rep and then a specialized sales rep for Kroger Specialty Pharmacy, visiting rheumatologists, dermatologists and gastroenterologists across Alabama and Georgia.
He’s covered the same territory for awhile now so he doesn’t get asked for his autograph as much as he used to, but he is still asked frequently to share his thoughts on the current Tide squad or some of his favorite experiences as a player. Here are a few:
– His first scoring play, a two-point conversion catch—his only reception of the season—in a 24-13 road win over Penn State on September 12, 1987 was one of those. On a wet field, Bobby Humphrey ran for 220 yards, the fourth-highest total in Crimson Tide history at the time, and scored a touchdown. And Russell found the end zone for the first time.
“On the two-point play we ran a reverse,” Russell said. “We tossed the ball out to Bobby, and he handed off to Clay Whitehurst. Right before he got tackled he just kind of flipped the ball over his shoulder, and that was me that caught it. That was a big thrill.”
– His first career TD reception didn’t come until the ninth game of his sophomore season in 1988 when he hauled in a 16-yarder from David Smith for the Tide’s only TD in a 17-0 win over Southwestern Louisiana. That game on November 12, 1988, was also memorable for Russell because it was played in Legion Field.
“Having grown up going to Alabama games when I was a kid, it was always a treat to play in Legion Field,” Russell said.
He also played in the game that saw the greatest turning of the Tide in school history, a 62-27 shellacking of Ole Miss on October 7, 1989, in Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Mississippi. Less than 7 minutes into the game, the Tide found itself down 21-0 and dazed. But then Hollingsworth went to work, and Bama scored 62 straight before the Rebels added a band-aid touchdown with 16 seconds to play.
“I didn’t play a big part in that game offensively, but I remember running out there on the kickoff return team after their third touchdown thinking, ‘what in the world is going on?’” Russell said. “But after that it seemed like every pass that Gary threw was a touchdown.”
Alabama climbed to 10-0 before losing to Auburn 30-20 in the first Iron Bowl ever played in Jordan-Hare Stadium. It then fell 33-25 to Miami in the Sugar Bowl, a loss that hastened Curry’s departure to Kentucky and ushered in the Stallings era. Things started rocky for Stallings as he lost his first three games only to rebound and win seven of the last nine for a 7-5 mark in a transition season.
“We definitely had some ups and downs while I was there,” Russell said. “Now it seems like it’s national championship or bust every year.”
Russell, who signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles as a wide receiver but didn’t make the NFL, got into officiating after college and reached the SEC and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) level. But he gave it up so he and his wife, Alexis, could enjoy their children’s blossoming athletic careers.
His son, Gabriel, was a two-time all-state linebacker at Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham and is now a freshman at Alabama on a Presidential Scholarship. His daughter, Haley, is an eighth-grader at Berry Middle School and next year will move to Spain Park High School as she pursues what she hopes will someday be a WNBA career.
These days, Russell’s family and his life are great sources of fulfillment. Likewise his job which allows him to make a difference for many who often desperately need the services he provides for their own well-being. And his time at Alabama is very fulfilling as well.
“I’ve never had any regrets about changing positions and playing tight end,” Russell said. “I did what I had to do to help the team and get on the field and play. It ended up being a great move for my career at Alabama.”
And a great move for the Crimson Tide as well. H&A
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