Putting behind him youthful scrapes with police while growing up in St. Paul, Savannah Russell donned the Maroon and Gold as a Minnesota Gopher football player and then wrestled professionally before thousands of fans in stadiums and arenas around the country.
Russell, of Minneapolis, died Jan. 17 after a lengthy battle with cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure, his family said. He was 63.
Weighing in as a Gopher defensive back in 1969 and 1970 at no more than 180 pounds, Russell wrestled in the 1980s at a pumped-up 250 pounds and sometimes more under the professional moniker "Savannah Jack."
"It was just all muscle," said son Peyton Russell. "And it was no secret that he was 'juicin',' " the son said, using the euphemism for taking steroids. "I think that's what really led to his heart conditions."
For Peyton and his brother, Kai, having a dad as a professional wrestler was quite a kick, especially when the boys were brought along on one of his father's tours through the South.
"From Dallas to Pensacola, Florida, for two weeks," Peyton Russell recalled. "It was like being rock stars, me and my brother."
That time on the road, however, also revealed to the boys their Santa Claus moment, when they saw first-hand that the "sport" was indeed staged.
After one match, Savannah Jack and the boys were leaving town in a van after a match. They picked up his ring rival a mile or so down the road from the arena. The promoters didn't want the wrestlers seen together away from the ring to preserve the notion of them being mortal enemies.
"The guy he was just fighting would get in ... and they would start laughing, clapping hands, critiquing each other" and making suggestions on how to do things next time, Peyton Russell said.
Russell grew up in St. Paul's historic Rondo neighborhood. Barely in elementary school, he had seen a man shot to death outside a market. By high school, he had been in trouble himself for drug and assault crimes.
Despite his trouble with the law, he enrolled at the U and twice earned his way onto coach Murray Warmath's roster.
"He was definitely shining," Peyton Russell said of his father's football abilities. His dreams of playing professionally, however, ended when "he mistakenly started a family . . . and went into the workforce. He had to get a job."
After college, he drove an MTC bus and excelled in tae kown do until he was invited to put his athletic skills to use as a pro wrestler in the fledgling Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF).
The money in the 1980s for Savannah Jack was more than good, $5,000 a week, but the grueling schedule often had him traveling 300 miles a day for shows all around the Lower 48 and even in Alaska.
"I liked fighting," Russell, who studied under Minnesota pro wrestling legend Verne Gagne, said in a 2009 interview with City Pages. "And I was good at it."
Good enough that the entertainment script was written for him in 1986 to claim the UWF championship belt.
The venues were as varied as the UWF's cast of characters. He wowed an intimate-sized crowd at First Avenue in Minneapolis and about 60,000 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
But by 1987, nagging health problems caught up with him in Forth Worth, Texas, where he coughed up a blood clot shortly before he was to climb into the ring. Even the threat of not getting paid couldn't coax Russell into the spotlight that night.
He drove back to Minneapolis and was found to have cardiomyopathy, ending to his pro wrestling career.
As for fame passing so swiftly, Russell told City Pages: "That's life. It's what life dealt for me. I could be dead right now. I had the time of my life. I can say I'm the luckiest man."
He returned to relative obscurity only to find himself again serving the public, either driving a cab or as a blackjack dealer and pit boss at Mystic Lake Casino in Prior Lake.
"God was so present within him that he had a tremendous effect on others," Peyton Russell said. "That's why so many loved being with him -- he was real.
"Even the doctors and medical practitioners that treated him over the years shed tears at his bedside. That surprised me."
Russell is survived by Juli Grage, his partner of 21 years; sons, Peyton and Kai Russell; and sisters Portia Fowler and Svaha SriDhanyata. He is preceded in death by a brother, Kenneth Cook. Services are scheduled for 3 pm. Monday at the Cremation Society of Minnesota, 4343 Nicollet Av. S., Minneapolis. Memorials are preferred to the family.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482