Dave Wyman remembers what made Rusty Tillman, former Seahawks assistant coach, ‘larger than life’

Mar 21, 2021, 10:18 AM
Seahawks Rusty Tillman...
Rusty Tillman, who was an assistant coach with the Seahawks for 16 years, is shown here coaching against Seattle in 2005 while on ex-Seahawks player Mike Tice's Vikings staff. (Getty)

This past week, former NFL player and Seattle Seahawks assistant coach Rusty Tillman passed away at the age of 75. Reflecting on his life since the news, I realized that Rusty really was larger than life. He lived life to the extreme. Everything he did, he did at 100 mph with his hair on fire.

I met Rusty in the winter of 1987, just before the NFL Draft. I was a prospective NFL linebacker and he was special teams coach for the Seahawks, and he flew to Stanford to work me out. Everyone in the NFL was intimidating to me, but Rusty was especially intimidating. The way he carried himself, expressed himself, looked you in the eye – you just knew he was someone you needed to respect.

After the Seahawks drafted me, I began to hear stories that because of my workout at Stanford, Rusty “jumped up on the table” to emphasize the need to pick me in the second round. It’s just an expression, but the more I got to know Rusty, the more I became convinced that he did actually jump up on the table in the draft room for me. Again, everything he did was to the extreme.

Rusty was the only coach I ever had that I thought that I just might end up in a fist fight with. Rusty would challenge you as a player and as a man. We had a “come together” moment on a bus ride in New England where we exchanged *bleep* yous. From that point forward, we were all good. As I said, Rusty would test you as a person. I passed that test.

“The King” Rusty Tillman

Rusty made his biggest impression as an NFL defensive coordinator (including with the Seahawks from 1992-94) and special teams coach in the NFL, but he was also a great special teams player and earned the nickname “The King” with Washington because of his mastery of special teams play. Rusty was named one of Washington’s 70 greatest players of all-time in 2002, the 70th year of the NFL franchise.

How to fight in the NFL

Rusty once made our entire linebacker meeting about just one play. Linebacker Marcus Cotton had knocked out Andy Heck, our first-round offensive tackle from Notre Dame, with just one punch out on the practice field. So instead of watching our daily practice, we watched a fight that was caught on tape.

Cotton pulled Heck’s face mask out and away from his head with one hand and delivered an upper cut to the chin with the other. It brought Heck to his knees. Rusty expertly coached us up on every move – his footwork, his hand placement. After 15 minutes of intense coaching, he closed with, “That is how you fight in the NFL. That’s it. Have a good night.”

“Dash for Cash”

Listen here to analyst Paul Moyer, who both played for and coached with Rusty with the Seahawks and now can be heard weekly on 710 ESPN Seattle’s Wyman and Bob, explain “Dash for Cash” (the discussion about Tillman starts at the 15:35 mark):

The backflip

In 1989, we had a player named Elroy Harris who returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the preseason. After he scored, he executed a backflip that would’ve made Mary Lou Retton proud. Somehow Rusty, at age 43, felt compelled to challenge Harris to a backflip contest. He lost and exited the contest with a severely sprained neck. Everything to the extreme.

The horizontal mambo

This means different things to different people, but to Rusty it was a mythical technique to take out an entire four-man kickoff return wedge.

In the old days, kickoff return formations sometimes had three or four players all holding hands and within two feet of each other, and they would plow a path for the returner. Rusty claimed that he had taken out an entire wedge by flinging his body, horizontally and about four feet off the ground, sending all four players down.

One player of ours attempted it, and it did not turn out well.

Kick him… where?

Holding is legal in the NFL. Anyone who has played defense or covered a punt or a kickoff knows this. Because Rusty viewed this as unfair, he suggested to us in a special teams meeting, “If someone holds you, kick him right in the…” (You can guess what the final word of the sentence was.) After a few laughs, he said, “No, I’m serious. That guy is trying to take your job and your ability to make a living in this league! Kick him in the…”

A few weeks later during a game in San Diego, Joe Cain, a linebacker on our punt coverage team, took Rusty seriously. That led to the funniest film session I was ever a part of.

“A few weeks ago I told you guys that if somebody holds you, kick him in the…” Rusty reminded us. “Well, watch this!”

Cain was clearly being held, so he squared his shoulders, set his feet, and kicked. Perfect technique. From the end zone view (every play is filmed from the sideline view and the end zone view), the player holding Cain had his back to the camera and you could see Joe’s big ol’ size 13 shoe come up between the player’s legs. The laughter went from loud to hysterical.

It got even funnier when the Chargers player tried to kick back at Cain’s groin area. Joe’s counter to that was to flip his hips and block the kick. This went on for a few moments until multiple flags came flying in. That’s right, this kicking contest broke out during a football game. Rusty played it five or six times with a proud smile watching what he had suggested come to fruition.

RIP Rusty Tillman. He lived life to the extreme.

Dave Wyman is a former NFL linebacker who played under Rusty Tillman with the Seattle Seahawks from 1987 to 1992. He now co-hosts 710 ESPN Seattle’s Wyman and Bob, is the color commentator on the Seahawks Radio Network, and is a Seahawks analyst for Q13 FOX. He does not have Twitter.

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Dave Wyman remembers what made Rusty Tillman, former Seahawks assistant coach, ‘larger than life’