Napa's all-time Spartan gets his due

  • March 1, 2011

By Marty James
Register Staff Writer

Robert L. (Bobby) Russell was one of the fastest people in Vallejo in the early ’60s.

He proved it as a sprinter on the Hogan High School track and field team, running the 100-yard dash and 220 and qualifying for the California State Meet as a senior in June of 1964 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

He proved it as a running back on the Hogan football team, as he was awarded All-North Bay League, All-City, All-County and All-Northern California honors.

Al Vidaurreta and Dick Biama, two of his coaches at Hogan, gave him three different nicknames to reflect the blazing speed that Russell brought to the football field and track.

There was “Rocket Russell.”

Another was “Bullet Bob.”

Yet another was “Rapid Robert.”

“My claim to fame was my speed,” said Russell, a Napa resident, who worked at Silverado Junior High/Middle School for 30 years as a history and P.E. teacher while also coaching football and track.

“The speed thing … I was born with that.

“I think my accomplishments in track were just as impressive to me, as I look back and realize how hard it was to get to the state track meet. It’s a huge accomplishment for any high school athlete. If you can make it to state, I don’t care what the sport is — that’s saying something.”

It also says something about an athlete when you’re in a Hall of Fame.

Russell entered the Hogan Hall of Fame in 2006. On Saturday, he will be enshrined into the 2011 Vallejo Sports Hall of Fame.

Hosted by the Greater Vallejo Recreation District, the annual awards ceremony will take place at the Dan Foley Cultural Center in Vallejo, from 4 to 9:30 p.m.

Other inductees include the 1962-63 Hogan High football team, which won the NBL title; the 1998-99 Vallejo High track team; Al Manfredi and Mike Minahen (coaches); Lou Sanders (special achievement); Sonny Hatsme (historical sports figure); and Jay Bozeman, T.R. Buchanan, Michelle Domagas, Larr Everingham, Katie Layne, Dave Marshall, Roger Sturgeon and Joe Tavalero (athletes).

Russell, actually, will be honored twice on Saturday. He will be recognized for basketball and track, as well as football.

“It means a lot to me to go into the Hall of Fame,” said Russell, 65, who will be joined by family and friends at the eighth annual induction program. “It’s very humbling. You realize that I’m going to go in as an individual, but I played a team sport. I was a very lucky guy to be in the right place at the right time.

“I know there are some excellent athletes that are in that Hall of Fame. To be included in that group is humbling.”

Russell was a three-sport athlete and also made All-NBL in basketball. His best time in the 100 was 9.6 seconds.

He went to Vallejo High as a sophomore, winning a Northern California title in the 440 relay and a section championship in the 180 hurdles as a member of the “B” track team. But he went to Hogan when it opened as a high school.

Russell has Vidaurreta, a former Napa High head football coach, NHS principal and longtime employee of the Napa Valley Unified School District, to thank for all the work that he put in as Hogan’s track coach.

He credits Vidaurreta, who passed away in 2005, for teaching him the proper form and technique as a runner.

“I’d have to say Al Vidaurreta was by far a very important man in my life,” said Russell. “Besides my father (Ed Russell), he was the most important man in my life. He really showed me how to use form and strength. Every motion I made was to get to the finish line. There wasn’t any wasted motion there. He was a really wonderful man.”

Russell was one of 30 athletes who qualified for the state meet in the 100. There were three heats with 10 runners in each heat, with the top three in each, plus the next fastest time, moving on to the finals.

Russell was fourth in his heat and did not advance.

“That was quite an experience,” Russell said Sunday. “It was overpowering when I walked in. That one end of the stadium they have all those arches. We warmed up outside the stadium and then they called you all together in your event, then they marched you in there. I’ll never forget that — the place was packed.

“It was impressive and mind boggling to some extent.”

James Hines of McClymonds-Oakland won the title that year and was followed by Phillips Reaves, Edison; Fre Kuller, Santiago; Fred Banks, Jefferson; Roger Cox, Redlands; and Harold Busby, Muir.

Russell played both ways in football for Hogan, also starting at cornerback. Additionally, he returned punts and kicks.

“As a cornerback, you’re a man on an island out there all by yourself,” he said. “If a guy beats you with a pattern and he’s two or three yards away from you, to be able to close very quickly because you’re fast, that’s huge on defense.”

Russell played one year of football at Vallejo Junior College and three years at Cal State Hayward. He was twice chosen to the All-Far Western Conference team as a cornerback and made All-America in the 440 relay for Hayward in track. He set a school record, returning a kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown against Occidental College.

“My thing was speed,” he said. “It wasn’t anything about trying to run over people. I was trying to get out of everybody’s way. I learned in college not to try to run over guys, to try to go around them, try to be a little shiftier, to use your head.”

A Napa resident since 1970, Russell graduated from Cal State Hayward (P.E. major) and got his state teaching credential there.

He also coached in the Napa and Vintage high school football programs for a few years.

It was football and track, said Russell, a native of Columbus, Ohio, that opened a lot of doors for him.

He retired from the NVUSD in 2000.

“At the time, you don’t realize how important it is until you look back and you realize it made your life for you,” he said.

“Vallejo was fabulous to me. I have a lot of great memories.”

Tickets to the Hall of Fame program are $45 and are available at the Greater Vallejo Recreation District office, 395 Amador St.

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