Oct. 19, 2000
At halftime of this Saturday's Atlantic 10 Conference contest against the University of New Hampshire, the names of two more Wildcat football heroes will be permanently displayed on the Wall of Fame inside Villanova Stadium. Two former centers taking center stage together, Sam Gruneisen (#88) and Bryan Russo (#54) become the 14th and 15th members of the Wildcat football program to have their names forever recognized.
"This is obviously something to be proud of, " said Gruneisen. "But when you look back at all the great friends you made here, you realize that the school had a big impact on you, rather than you having a big impact on the school. I was proud to be a part of the growth of the football program at Villanova and to the team's success."
A Louisville, Ky., native, Gruneisen played for Villanova from 1958 through 1961 as both a tight end and outside linebacker. Not only was he a standout blocker, but he was also a sure handed receiver and fierce tackler.
Even when the times looked bleak after he injured his knee two games into his senior season in 1961, Gruneisen found a way to contribute. He served as the team's place kicker for the remainder of the year after his knee injury, and helped play a key role in the `Cats second-ever Bowl win. On Dec. 30, 1961, he kicked a 26-yard field goal as well as two extra points in a 17-9 Sun Bowl victory over Wichita.
Following his days at Villanova, Gruneisen spent 11 seasons in the NFL playing for the San Diego Chargers and the Houston Oilers. He began his career as a guard with the Chargers, but spent the majority of his career at the center position.
"I always pictured myself as a team player," said Gruneisen. "Being an offensive lineman in the pros, honors are hard to come by. It is an honor to be singled out here at Villanova, but football is a team game and if you can add to a team's success, it makes everything worthwhile. I am proud that Villanova let me come here and play."
Gruneisen entered the coaching profession at the high school level and just as he did during his playing days, he progressed quickly through the ranks. Following a stint at Grossmont Junior College, he earned his first paid coaching job at the University of California in 1982.
After serving as the offensive line coach of the USFL's LA Express and the Defensive Coordinator of San Jose State, he earned his first NFL coaching job as the linebacker coach of the Los Angeles Raiders where he remained for four seasons. He wound down his coaching career with four seasons as Defensive Coordinator at Eastern Michigan.
"When I wake up at night, it is the camaraderie that I remember about the game of football," Gruneisen noted. "I remember my time at Villanova and I remember great people like Jake Nevin. At Villanova, being a part of the community is a way of life."
One of the top offensive linemen in the school's illustrious football history, 1990 graduate Bryan Russo made Villanova football a household name during his four years with a combined 27-16-1 record. In 1989, he helped the Wildcats earn Co-Yankee Conference Champion status, as well as a spot in the NCAA Division I-AA Playoffs.
"Obviously it is a great honor to be on the Wall of Fame," said Russo. "It is something that I didn't think was going to happen to me. It is a very tremendous honor, especially at a great program like Villanova. As far as honor go, this one is at the very top."
A 6-2, 265 pound center, Russo came to Villanova from nearby King of Prussia in 1986. He left four seasons later as a four-year letterman and a three-year starter. His best season came in 1989, his senior campaign, when he led the Wildcats to an 8-4 record and a final national ranking of 16. Russo was rewarded for his efforts by being named an AFCA Kodak All-American. He was only the second Wildcat offensive lineman to ever earn All-America honors.
"Bryan Russo is the best offensive lineman that we have ever had at Villanova since I have been here," head coach Andy Talley said following Russo's senior season. "His consistency over the last two years has impressed every one of our opponents. In our opinion, he is the best offensive center in the county. He truly deserved All-America recognition."
"Compliments like that mean a great deal especially coming from a coach like Andy Talley," said Russo about Talley's comments. "I have a lot of respect for Coach Talley. I consider him a mentor and I give him a lot of the credit for the person I am today and the player I was at Villanova. He saw the potential I had, and he helped me to reach that potential."
Russo's career accolades read like a book: AFCA Kodak All-American (1989), two-time All-Yankee Conference first team (1988 & 1989), Sports Network second team All-America offense (1989), ECAC first team center (1989), and ECAC second team center (1988). Greater than all the honors and all the trophies, however, is the impact that Russo had on the Wildcat program and the success that Villanova attained during his career.
Much larger than their stature was the impact that Sam Gruneisen and Bryan Russo had on the history of Wildcat football. Gruneisen was one of the last "old-time" football players at Villanova, playing on both sides of the ball as a tight end on offense and as an outside linebacker on the defensive side of the ball. When he was physically unable to compete on offense or defense, Gruneisen was still on the field of play contributing to the Wildcat special teams with his kicking leg. This toughness helped Gruneisen to a long career as an NFL center, and to an even longer coaching career at the high school, college and professional ranks.
An epitome of toughness, Russo was not only one of the greatest offensive in Villanova history, but also one of the top performers in Yankee Conference history. His success can be best measured not solely through accolades, but by looking at the success that the Wildcats achieved thanks to the tremendous blocking of Russo. Saturday, the hard work and achievements of Gruneisen and Russo will be rewarded, as their numbers are raised to forever hang in Villanova Stadium.