By ALEX PELLEGRINO
Less than a year after Erk Russell unexpectedly died on the eve of Georgia Southern’s 2006 football season, the GSU and Statesboro communities are still coming to grips with what the icon meant to this town.
In an effort to put the story of Russell’s tremendous impact on stage, the Averitt Center for the Arts has broken ground on a year-and-a-half-long community-based performance project detailing the life of the father of Eagle football.
Organizers are hoping to stage the play in the fall of 2008 – the fifth anniversary of the Averitt Center. It will be written by former Statesboro Herald sports editor Scott Garner and co-directed by Garner and Dr. Rebecca Kennerly, a Georgia Southern Communication Arts professor.
“This project is in its infancy,” Garner said during a staged reading Thursday night at the Emma Kelly Theater. “It has no definite title – I just call it ‘The Erk Play’ – no script, no staging and no cast. What we do have, as most of you know, is a very compelling main character, a story about building grandeur from nothing, and the best part is every word of the story is true.”
After 17 years of coordinating the University of Georgia’s renowned “Junkyard Dogs” defense, Russell came to Statesboro in 1981 to resurrect a Georgia Southern football program that had been dormant since the World War II era.
With minimal financial support, the bald-headed Russell used his natural charisma to transform a group of walk-ons into national champions in a few short years, laying the foundation for the most successful program in the history of Division I-AA. He coached the Eagles to their first three national titles - 1985, ’86 and ’89.
Russell inspired, motivated and impacted the lives of thousands throughout his 80-year life, which ended on Sept. 8, 2006 after a likely stroke.
Tim Chapman, the executive director for the Averitt Center, said there’s been talk of a play highlighting Russell’s life and legacy for several years. It became reality after Russell’s death and picked up speed in January when the Georgia Council of the Arts approved a grant which will spearhead the project.
“We felt the timing was right, and this story had to be told,” Chapman said. “This project is about change. We wanted to tell a story of how Erk Russell’s impact on the community changed the entire fabric of Statesboro.”
The project has the blessing of the Russell family, which gathered at the staged reading Thursday night.
“It’s exciting to see,” said Russell’s wife, Jean. “I think he’d be highly flattered that they are doing this and putting so much time into it.”
The final production will be created using a unique process, a gathering of oral histories. The performers will double as researchers and interview the people they are playing. Those first-hand accounts will be used to construct the script, and the result will be somewhat of a documentary on stage.
“I think the performance of oral history in any venue is a powerful way to open conversations,” Kennerly said. “It gives voice to stories and history that otherwise we would never hear, stories that are sometimes lost or erased.”
Open auditions will be held Sunday, July 15 from 2-4 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. at the Emma Kelly Theater. Another open audition will be held after GSU’s fall semester begins. For more information contact Chapman at (912) 212-2787.
Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.