By TREY WILLIAMS
Longtime Jonesborough resident Johnny Russaw will be honored Saturday during East Tennessee State’s football game against Wofford for becoming ETSU’s first African-American scholarship football player.
Russaw will be recognized along with former ETSU basketball player Tommy Woods as the inaugural recipients of the Woods-Russaw Trailblazer Award, which has been created to annually recognize the historical accomplishments of an ETSU athletics alum.
Russaw, a standout football and basketball player at Johnson City’s Langston High School, played receiver and punted for Star Wood and John Robert Bell at ETSU (class of ’68), where he endured plenty of hatred directed at him because of his ethnicity.
Russaw said he appreciated ETSU for the distinction, noting that athletics director Scott Carter has been especially engaged during the creation of the award.
“I’m happy they’ve done it,” Russaw said. “It’s been 50-some years and now I’m finally being recognized. I’m 76 years old. You know, give me my flowers while I’m still here.”
Russaw could’ve attended Tennessee State (Tennessee A&I) or North Carolina A&T in Greensboro.
“Really, that’s where I wanted to go – to a Black school,” he said. “I knew nothing about white schools, but watching them on TV. Back in the day, you couldn’t hardly even go to a Science
Hill game. You couldn’t get in those games until later on just like you couldn’t go to nothing
else – the movie theaters. The Tennessee Theater. You was upstairs and they was downstairs.”
But Russaw endured verbal abuse and a dash of physical abuse to help integrate the sport in the South. He had a beverage thrown in his face entering the stadium his freshman year at The Citadel.
“I think the whole thing was I hadn’t played with white guys and white guys hadn’t played with me,” Russaw said. “Plus, some of the guys were from Georgia and all that. I think I got blasted more over at The Citadel than at my school, you know, cursing me out, calling me names to
my face. … And the coaches didn’t say anything.”
Russaw played well as a freshman. He had 85 all-purpose yards in the Blue-Gold scrimmage and tallied a team high 291 receiving yards. His 14 receptions were six less than the program’s single-season record at the time.
His playing time at receiver diminished his final two seasons after John Robert Bell
replaced Star Wood as head coach. But Russaw remained an All-Ohio Valley Conference
Russaw will proudly tell you his son, Shea Wilkerson, was a Pioneer, too. Wilkerson played
basketball for Mike Poe at David Crockett, becoming the all-time leading scorer while helping the Pioneers to their first sectional berth in the early ‘90s.
They offered Science Hill about as much resistance as anyone during the Hilltoppers’ state championship run in 1990.
“They were up on Science Hill in that first quarter (in the postseason),” Russaw said. “That’s when Shane Williams and all of them were there. Big B (Brian Griffith), every time Gilbert Charles would come, Brian would throw that ball back out (blocked shot). And they had Randy Bowman that’d transferred down from Science Hill. He was a good little guard.
“Science Hill wore ‘em down. I looked at Shea one time and his eyes were red as a beet. (Science Hill coach) George Pitts was putting five in and five out – just steady rolling. But Crockett was playing four quarters with basically five or six players.
“They got beat by Oak Ridge down there at Cleveland State (in the Sweet 16). They should’ve won that game.”
Wilkerson played at Walters State. Russaw won a car at one of Wilkerson’s games by making a layup, a free throw, a 3-pointer and a half-court shot.
Walters State coach Bill Carlyle, a former ETSU assistant, said Russaw was the first to achieve the feat.
It was just par for the course of Russaw, who’d been becoming a local legend since helping Paul Christman’s Langston Golden Tigers basketball and football teams pile up the lopsided victories.
“I had the distinct pleasure – no honor – that Johnny Russaw was my father,” said Wilkerson, who is coming in to attend this week’s events, as are his sisters, Andrea and Keisha. “I’ve never seen people treat one man with so much love. As a kid I used to be so engulfed in looking at his trophies, reading his clippings and hearing the stories of his career.
“The most intriguing story that stuck with me was he was the first black to desegregate ETSU. I didn’t know what it meant earlier on, but as I grew it made me proud to be his son.
“I too wanted to be a great athlete just like my father. As I began my career as a kid my father saw I had major talent. So, he cultivated it, and was the first to put me in football at the age of five. He said even though you are talented two things you need to manage are your fear and work hard.
“I did just that and became Crockett’s all-time leading scorer.”
Wilkerson was freshman of the year in the TJCAA and had multiple Division I suitors.
He eventually enlisted in the Navy.
“No matter how my career went,” Wilkerson said, “a huge driving force was my father – and wanting to be like him. The most significant thing I learned from my father was not how to be a superb athlete, but how to be the best man I could be.”