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Flashback: Tillman a Special Teams Guru


He was the ultimate of wedge busters, a player who repeatedly sacrificed his body when motoring downfield to cover kickoffs and punts.

Rusty Tillman was fearless.

A 6-2, 230-pound linebacker, Tillman saw action on every special teams unit in eight seasons (1970-77) with the Redskins.

He enjoyed punt and kickoff coverage the most, and remembers using the age-old strategy of hard work to outperform his opponents.

"I always felt that I was an average guy athletically as far as how fast I was and how strong I was," Tillman said. "But by giving 110 percent on special teams, I was able to beat the other guy a lot of times.

"As soon as I realized that fact, that's probably when I started getting pretty good on special teams. I realized if you work harder, you try harder, and you give 110 percent all the time, you can be successful."

The mid-1970s was the nascent era of special teams, and Tillman says many of his opponents failed to take special teams seriously.

"You watch them on film, you can see they weren't running 100 percent, they weren't blocking 100 percent," he said. "You realized that all you had to do was give your best."

Tillman, who was named to the Redskins' 70 Greatest team in honor of the franchise's 70th anniversary in 2002, says wedge busters had to have a cavalier mentality as they smash through blockers and zero in on the ball-carrier.

But he takes exception to the term kamikaze to describe someone who disregards his body on kick coverage for the good of the team.

He says the kamikaze-suicide squad idea came from the era when players could block below the knees, a legal move in his first few seasons before being outlawed.

"It was brutal," he said. "Every game, somebody was being carried off on a stretcher. Imagine, you're running 40-60 yards, and here comes a guy--and he's got a 20-yard head start on you, and he throws at your legs. That's how the term suicide squad got its name. The kamikazes played on the suicide squad.

"I'm saying this because I don't think it's any more dangerous playing special teams today, with the rules of no blocking below the waist, then it is on offense or defense."

After his playing days, Tillman caught on as an assistant coach. He had stints with the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders and Indianapolis Colts. Most recently, he was a special teams coach for the Minnesota Vikings from 2003-05.

Tillman played his college ball at Northern Arizona. He was not picked in the 1970 NFL Draft, but says some teams were interested in signing him as a free agent, including St. Louis, Dallas and the Redskins.

He says he picked the Redskins because he wanted to play for legendary head coach Vince Lombardi, who was about to enter his second season in Washington.

Tillman, a Wisconsin native, followed the Packers closely during their glory years in the 1960s under Lombardi.

Lombardi died of cancer just before the start of the season, though.

After Tillman's rookie year, along came a new coach who, in addition to being a winner, placed a huge emphasis on special teams: George Allen.

Allen, when coaching the Los Angeles Rams, had hired the first known special teams coach in 1969 in Dick Vermeil, then signed Marv Levy for the assignment in Washington in 1971.

As Tillman tells it, Allen expected a lot from him.

"He used to come and talk to me before games, and we'd sit in the back of the locker room and share thoughts," he said. "When we were done, I just felt like I had to win the game, it was all up to me. It wasn't until I quit playing and started talking to some of the other guys that I learned it happened to everybody. He had a way of making every guy feel like they were the most important guy on the team."

Tillman contributed to Redskins teams that, under Allen, reached the playoffs five times, including Super Bowl VII in the 1972 season.

He says his most memorable moment was when the Redskins beat the Cowboys 26-3 on New Year's Eve in the 1972 NFC Championship game to qualify for Super Bowl VII.

"I remember after the game, [fellow special teams standout] Bobby Brunet and I and our wives went to Duke Zeibert's restaurant in Washington, D.C.," Tillman said. "We walked in and got a standing ovation. It was pretty incredible."

Tillman never established himself as a linebacker in the NFL, but his desire on special teams never wavered and he became a model of durability.

Michael Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia, a 432-page book that spans the 75-year history of the storied franchise. His web site is ***.*

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