But perhaps the reason Coach Erk Russell is most famous is the rattlesnake story. This story earned him entrance in the New York Times and Reader’s Digest as well as use in sermon illustrations. Here is the story directly as told to me this past week by Ross. (I’ve seen this in many sermon illustrations but never heard it as detailed as Ross’ account.)
One day at the beginning of the season the players walked into a cramped room with several tables in the middle. On these tables were various items of drug paraphernalia.
Pot, crack, steroids, syringes, pipes, you name it—it was there.
The players milled around looking at things in curiosity and cracking jokes. DEA men who were coming around from the NCAA discussed the dangers of drug use and informed the players of random drug testing. They warned them to stay away from drugs. The players listened indifferently. And as the men droned on, most tuned out. Abruptly, the DEA men concluded and exited the room but left behind their “stuff.”
The players had noticed a big man milling around by the door with a big box and wondered what the Coach had up his sleeve this time. Well, after the DEA men left, this unremarkable box started making some pretty remarkable noises.
Suddenly, the scary, sickening sound of a snake resounded in the small, cement space. The players retreated to the edges of the room in fear.
Coach Russell said, “Bring the box in here.” The big man, from a local town with an annual rattlesnake roundup, brought the box in gingerly and set it down in the middle of the room. The snake didn’t like being jostled and really began to hiss and rattle – there was a rattlesnake in that box!
Receiving a nod from Coach Russell, the assistant coaches closed and locked the door. The players glanced at one another in disbelief thinking their coach was now certifiable.
Coach Russell commanded the man in his booming voice, “Get the snake out of the box.”
The man looked at him incredulously and refused. He respected the snake and knew that snake was irritated and ready to interject that annoyance at the first man who came within striking distance. He wasn’t opening the box.
“Hand me the stick.” Said Coach Russell.
The man stood quietly as the escalating hissing noise came from the box.
“Hand me the stick!”
No one ever refused Coach Russell.
By this time the hulking monstrosities of men were hugging the walls wondering if the coach had lost it. And wondering who was going to the emergency room today. Jostling for the back was increasing. Elbows were thrown.
The coach took the handling stick from the frightened man and extracted a six foot diamondback rattlesnake out of that box and deposited it on the floor. Using the stick, he allowed that snake to strike and hiss in the middle of the room while the boys panicked, acting very unlike the powerful men they appeared to be. The Coach kept the snake from doing damage to his team with the handling stick.
The handler implored him to put the snake back in the container.
Russell growled, “Its OK, my point is made. You can have him back now.”
The handler carefully dropped the cantankerous monster back into his cage. He locked the lid and retreated hurriedly before the Coach decided he wanted another, less successful look at the serpent.
As the boys breathed a sigh of relief into the perspiration infected room, the Coach said,
“Men, when you saw these drugs on this table you were curious. You gathered around and looked. You made jokes. But I want you to remember the rattlesnake. If you react to drugs like you reacted to that snake, you’ll never have a drug problem.”
Ross said he will never forget that experience.