Fred Russell (August 27, 1906–January 26, 2003) is one of the most decorated and influential sportswriters in American history. He was a lifelong resident of Nashville, Tennessee and is considered one of the most influential southern sportswriters of the 20th century. Russell had a significant impact on journalism and on the sports world during the 20th Century.
Russell was known for his dedication, fairness and positive writing style. He was also known for his unprejudiced coverage of all people regardless of race, creed or religion. Russell and his wife Kathryn Early Russell were married for 63 years, until her passing in 1996. They have four children, all daughters, and eleven grandchildren. Russell worked past the age of 90 and lived until the age of 96.
He was contracted by the United States Government during World War II to write entertainment books for the American troops. He was on the forefront of progressive, visionary journalism promoting African-American minorities in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, especially during the Civil Rights Era. He covered these important people and figures when many other journalists would not.
Russell is mentioned prominently in the 2008 David Maraniss' book Rome 1960. Russell was one of the primary journalists who covered the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles track team in their amazing success in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. Russell and TSU coach Ed Temple remained friends throughout their lives. Wilma Rudolph, who is originally from the town of Clarksville near Nashville, was one of the heroes of the 1960 Olympics.
An influential figure in the Golden Age of sports, Russell was sports editor of the Nashville Banner for 68 years, from 1930-1998. In an era when newspapers were the primary form of information to the public, well before television was popular, Freddie Russell was a local legend in middle Tennessee and was well known in the sports world throughout the nation.
He was well known and popular as a writer, however he was also a charismatic public speaker, Russell was widely regarded throughout the South as one of the foremost authorities on the world of sports. Noted for his humor and occasional practical jokes, he was a classic storyteller who could hold any size audience captive.
Russell had a positive and optimistic writing style, always focused on the good side of the story, person and group. He was respected as a gentleman, always promoting and recognizing the dignity of all people. According to one longtime colleague, he had the uncanny ability of making others feel more important than himself.
Russell was the favored sports scribe in Nashville for nearly 70 years. Originally from Wartrace, Tennessee, outside of Nashville, the Russell parents and their two sons moved to Nashville when the young Fred was six years old. Russell attended the prestigious Duncan Preparatory School in Nashville and then Vanderbilt University Class of 1927 in Nashville. At Vanderbilt, Russell was a good student, a member of the Kappa Chapter of Kappa Sigma Fraternity, and a varsity baseball player. He later attended Vanderbilt Law School.
In 1929, Russell was hired for the police beat by the Nashville Banner. The following year, Russell became the Sports Editor of the Banner, replacing Ralph McGill. Russell would be a member of the Banner staff until the paper closed in 1998. Over the next 68 years, Russell wrote over 12,000 columns, mostly in a column named Sidelines.
Russell covered the major sports in America for over 65 years. His heyday was the Golden Age of sports—the 1930s to the 1950s—when newspapers were the principal form of media and news, before television and money became the central emphasis of modern sports. While Russell was always focused on covering Tennessee and southern athletics first, he nonetheless was well-known nationally and had a unique insight into the growth and expansion of athletics in the nation.
The sports and events he annually and regularly covered and contributed to were: college football; amateur and pro baseball; the Masters Golf Tournament; the Kentucky Derby; championship boxing; college football bowl games, including The Sugar Bowl and The Rose Bowl; and The Olympic Games (1960-1976).
Russell gained national notoriety in the 1940s and 1950s for writing one of the most popular annual college football previews, the Pigskin Preview, for The Saturday Evening Post, one of the most popular magazines of that day. He covered the major Bowl Games throughout the decades. Russell was one of the principle journalists involved in the growth and popularity college football, the Southeastern Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Russell's memorabilia, including his personal items, photographs, awards, honors, are in several locations in Nashville. These locations include The Nashville Downtown Public Library Nashville Banner History Room and Exhibit; the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame; and The Brentwood Academy exhibit room in Brentwood, Tennessee.
In 1998, the Banner folded and it was assumed that the 92-year-old Russell would retire. Instead he was hired to write a weekly column for The Tennessean. He completed his 70th year as a journalist in 1999, then retired. Russell penned his last sports column for the multi-author book Nashville: An American Self-Portrait in 2001. His byline thus appeared in nine different decades.
Grantland Rice has long been considered the dean of American sportswriters. Rice and Russell were longtime colleagues and shared many similarities. They were both fellow Tennesseans and graduates of Vanderbilt University, and the two had similar styles as writers and people. Rice was originally from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and he worked as a sportswriter in Nashville before joining the New York Herald (later Herald Tribune) from 1911-1930.
Many in the world of sports and sports journalism consider Russell to be another one of the deans and pioneers of American sportswriters. Always possessing the qualities of a gentleman, Russell was focused on the craft of writing and reporting and his legacy of promoting the people, groups and teams that he covered.
In football, Russell was a contemporary and friend of Gen. Bob Neyland, Coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant, Red Sanders and many others. Russell actually helped Bryant get one of his first assistant coaching jobs at Vanderbilt. The two remained lifelong friends. Red Sanders was the Head Football Coach at Vanderbilt before going to UCLA, and both were also lifelong friends.
He covered the inaugural and then over 40 Masters golf tournaments in nearby Augusta, Georgia, all the while remaining friends with Bobby Jones and the other golf pioneers of the day. He covered major championship boxing and was a friend and contemporary of Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey.
At the 25th Anniversary of Russell’s career at the Nashville Banner, many paid tribute to Russell. The 1955 celebration included stars such as football greats Red Grange and Bear Bryant, Bobby Jones and Jack Dempsey, as well as writer Red Smith from New York, all attending to honor their friend Freddie Russell.
In 1954, the Grantland Rice Scholarship at Vanderbilt was begun in honor of Rice. Endowed by the Thoroughbred Racing Association (TRA), the scholarship is awarded annually to an incoming first-year student with an interest in sportswriting. Russell was from the beginning involved in the administration and selection process of the scholarship. Later, in 1984, the TRA and its president, Charles Cella, endowed the scholarship in honor of Russell, making it the Fred Russell-Grantland Rice Sportswriting Scholarship. The scholarship is an annual award of $10,000 toward tuition at Vanderbilt.
Russell was elected to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 1988 and into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1974. At the time, he was only living sportswriter to receive the honor. He became a Charter Member of the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 2005.
Russell received the Distinguished American Award in 1980 given by the National Football Foundation (NFF). The award is given for excellence in exhibiting superior qualities of scholarship, citizenship and leadership. Two of the previous winners of the award were Vince Lombardi and Bob Hope.
He was the Honor's Court Chairman of the College Football Foundation and Hall of Fame for 29 years. Russell is a past President of the Football Writers of America. He was also a member of the Heisman Trophy Committee for 46 years and was the Southern chairman of the Heisman Trophy Committee for 30 years. Many members of the College Football Hall of Fame credit Russell with their election to the Hall.
Russell received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award in 1981 from the American Football Coaches Association, that same year he was awarded the Bert McGrane Award from the Football Writers of America. In 1983, The National Turf Writers Association (horse-racing) awarded Russell the Walter Haight Award for Excellence in Turf Writing, he received the Red Smith Award for his contributions to journalism in 1984.
In 1957, Russell received the inaugural Grantland Rice Memorial Award. The award was presented by the Sportsmanship Brotherhood of New York to the "sportswriter in the United States who in his writing most nearly approaches the Rice tradition." Russell was named to the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class. Russell was awarded the Distinguished Journalism Award by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1976.
Russell's book I'll Go Quietly in 1944 was published primarily for members of the United States military during World War II to have for reading and entertainment during their time of service. Before the era of television and widespread radio, the book was a popular entertainment publication for the public and for members of the military.