By Marlys Kruger
Although he played high school football way back in the 1950s for the Colfax Vikings before moving on to the college level, Russel (Russ) Knutson is still being remembered for his talents on the gridiron after being inducted into the University of Eau Claire Athletic Hall of Fame Oct. 13.
For those of you who read and paid attention to my story last year that chronicled the history of Colfax football, you may remember seeing Russel’s name several times during the years of 1952-53. According to information from past Messengers and from Russ, those years were pretty successful ones.
“We were the conference champs my junior year (1952) and were undefeated,” Russ told me. “That was the first conference championship for our school since back in the 1930s and we were highly ranked in the state. And playing in the Middle Border, we played some good teams. We had about 40 guys on our team and they were really an exceptional group. Most of our backup players would have started for any of the other teams in the conference. We had a lot of big farm boys and we really beat the heck out of those other teams. Our defense gave up only one touchdown the whole season and we beat Spring Valley 7-0 in the last game of the year for the championship. And in my senior year (1953), we finished 6-1-1 with a tie against Hudson and a loss to River Falls.I remember in the Hudson game, I fumbled on the seven yard line and kicked the ball when I tried to pick it up and Vern Kressin fell on it in the endzone for a touchdown for us,” he said with a laugh.
Russ remembers when he was in sixth grade, Ken Poppy was the head coach for Colfax and he gave Russel and his friends some of the old leather football helmets to use.
“We just put them on and played for fun against each other,” he said. “We pounded each other pretty hard and never worried about getting hurt. I couldn’t wait to play high school football after that.”
The first time he carried the ball as a junior, Russ ran for a 70 yard touchdown and he continued to show off his speed for the next two years. In one game he ran for 170 yards on 10 carries – in the first half—and coach Bob Batchelder set him on the bench along with the rest of the starters the second half. In his senior year he scored four touchdowns in a 53-0 win over Glenwood City and ended the season with over 1,000 yards in just eight games.
“I thought I was the fastest guy on the team but when I looked on either side of me I saw Steve Close and Leo Pecore, and both of those guys were just as fast. That shows what kind of talent we had in those years,”he said.
Russ decided he would like to try football at the college level so coach Batchelder took him to La Crosse for a visit. Weighing around 160 pounds, the coach there told him he was too small to play at that level. He then checked out River Falls and their coach said maybe if he put on some weight he could play his junior year. So, Elmer Winters, a social studies teacher at Colfax brought him to meet Ade Olson, head coach of the Blugolds.
“He knew right away who I was and said he had seen me play and would love to have me play for him,” Russ said. “So, that’s where I went.”
Russ’ football career was a little different than most, as he played the 1954 year for Eau Claire, then decided he needed a job and departed for the military.
“I was from a family of 12 kids and my parents tried to help me with college costs but it was a big expense. So I went into the Air Force for four years.”
While in the Air Force, Russ took courses at Syracuse University in the Russian language and became a Russian interpreter of underground information. After his stint, he returned to Eau Claire for the 1959-61 seasons to play for a new head coach, Jim Rice, and made quite a name for himself. He led the conference in rushing in 1961 and was named the team’s MVP. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry in his last three seasons which is the second best average in school history.
He was a four year letter winner, was an All Conference selection in 1960 and 1961 and scored 12 touchdowns in those two seasons. He was one of 12 players selected to the All State team and was the team captain his senior year. Russ currently ranks 14th all time for the Blugolds in career rushing with 1, 657 yards and is tied for 13th all time for the longest rushing touchdown which was 71 yards against Milwaukee in 1961. He also set a single game record, rushing for 198 yards in 17 carries against Milwaukee, and in a game against Superior in 1960, Russ returned a punt for a 73 yard TD and a kickoff for 58 yards.
“I’ll never forget the game we played against La Crosse,” Russ said. “The coach who didn’t think I could play for him came up to me after the game and said the biggest coaching mistake he ever made was not recruiting me for his team. I thought that was really a nice thing for him to say to me.”
Russ was nominated for the Hall of Fame by former teammate Jim Kouba, now of Bloomer. He received a call from Tim Pederman of UW-EC about five months ago informing him of the nomination.
“Jim and I played together for the Blugolds and since we had both been in the service and came back to play afterwards, we were considered the old guys on the team,” Russ said. “I was married and had a child so I took things pretty serious. I had a great time playing in high school and college and I was lucky because I had only one injury in all my eight years of playing. That was a concussion after being clotheslined across the face mask during a college game. I was on the ground 10-15 seconds and was unresponsive, but I came out of it. I was on the sideline the rest of that game but I came back to play in the next one.”
The Washington Redskins and the Canadian Football League showed some interest in Russ, but he decided to continue with his education and stayed involved in football through coaching. He was an assistant coach for the Blugolds for two years, and after earning a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from UW-Stout in 1967 he held jobs in several school districts including Spring Valley, Independence and Sauk City before settling in Park Falls where he spent 28 years. His son Kirk was an All Conference football player and a team captain for the Park Falls team. Kirk ended up taking a job at Grantsburg and was the head football coach and enlisted his dad into helping him out.
“I was retired but I was still interested in coaching so I helped him out as an assistant coach for two years,” Russ said. “But it got to the point where it was hard to plan my schedule around getting to practice everyday and my wife Ann and I have always been busy people. So I just had to give it up.”
Russ and Ann are spending their retirement years in Chetek, and they manage to see some of his old teammates and relatives around when they visit the area.
“I had 11 brothers and sisters and my four brothers all played football for Colfax too,” he said. “Norm, Rich, Dave (Buck) and Larry were all pretty good players, but they all went to work after graduation. I had a great opportunity to play at the college level and things just fell into place for me,” he concluded.