Coached at Pacelli after playing at Central and Bama
By LARRY GIERER
Grizzly bear or teddy bear?
Former Pacelli High football player Keith Jackson said Nathan Rustin, who will be inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame Saturday, was a little of both.
“Although, I didn’t really see the teddy bear side until I married his daughter Kim,” he said, laughing.
One day during Rustin’s first year as head football coach at Pacelli, the team’s star player, running back Marvin Sims, came to Rustin. He told the coach some players were thinking about quitting because of the new intensity at practice. Sims said to Rustin, “it’s not as much fun as it used to be.”
Rustin turned to Sims, who years later would play in the National Football League, and growled, “Marvin, I only need 11.”
“He brought a new attitude to Pacelli,” said former assistant David Taylor. “It was hard work.”
That was Rustin’s grizzly bear side.
Each Christmas, Rustin and two brothers would dress like Santa Claus. They would go into areas locally where people were in need. They would bring gifts and money. It was never publicized.
One afternoon, while doing so, Rustin decided to stop by the home of assistant coach and close friend Pete Ingersoll.
Ingersoll’s young son Armmon answered the door. “Where are the reindeer?” he asked Rustin. “Watering up at the Chattahoochee,” Rustin replied. After spending time at the house, Rustin headed back out to make the holidays better for strangers at his own expense.
“Nathan cared about people,” Ingersoll said. “He felt he’d been fortunate in life and always wanted to give back.”
That was Rustin’s teddy bear side.
When Rustin, who died at 57 in 2002, is inducted Saturday, it will be mentioned how he was a three-sport all-star at Central High in Phenix City, how he was a terrific tackle on Southeastern Conference and national championship teams at the University of Alabama and how he spent 27 years at Pacelli coaching football and wrestling. Speakers will talk about the state champion wrestlers he produced and how he was responsible for keeping the sport alive in the city.
People close to the coach know the gravel-voiced Rustin, born at Fort Benning and raised in Phenix City, was special for another reason.
“Nathan’s legacy won’t be a number of wins on a field or a mat but the people he helped,” Ingersoll said.
Jackson agreed. “He’ll probably be the first coach to go into a hall of fame where his record is never mentioned.”
And Rustin’s wife of 36 years, Helen Rustin, said that would have suited the coach.
“Nathan was always looking after ones who didn’t have enough,” she said. “Nathan wanted to be successful as a coach, but it was more important for him to be successful as a man. He achieved that.”
Playing for the Bear
Rustin was the son of Nathan Rustin Sr., a retired Army warrant officer, and Gaynelle Rustin, a civil service worker. He had three brothers, John, Robert and Wayne.
Rustin was planning to go into the Army but got a football scholarship offer from Paul “Bear” Bryant and accepted it. That was in 1963.
Richard Cole was an All-American defensive tackle at the University of Alabama and was Rustin’s best friend on the team. He often went head-to-head with Rustin at practice, something he said wasn’t much fun. He is now a retired elementary school principal living in Albertville, Ala.
“We had a couple of physical education classes together and would have a long walk across campus to get back to the dorm,” Cole said “We’d talk about just how bad practice was going to be that day.”
Rustin was known for one particiular attribute.
“He was super strong,” Cole said.
Helen and Nathan Rustin started dating in high school. They married in 1966, the same year Rustin played a key role on the offensive line in an undefeated Crimson Tide season making life easier for players such as Ken Stabler and Ray Perkins.
“Coach Bryant didn’t like married players,” she recalled. “He was angry when Nathan told him he was getting married. Coach asked him, ‘How do you like Vietnam? Do you still want to get married?’ Nathan did.”
Taylor, who became head coach at Shaw High, had his first coaching job under Rustin. It was 1975 and Rustin’s first year as a head football coach. Rustin came to Pacelli after a year as an assistant at LaGrange High. He also had been head wrestling coach at Baker in Columbus.
Now retired after 34 years in education, Taylor used the word “dynamic” to describe Rustin. “Just a genuine person. What you saw was what you got.”
And Rustin was protective of his players, once punching out a drunken man who was bothering one of Rustin’s athletes in a restaurant.
Ingersoll recalled that Rustin was very competitive. “We’d get beat on some play, and Nathan would look over at me and shout, ‘Coach, did we work on that at practice?’ I’d assure him we did.”
Rustin’s wife said, win or lose, he would stay up all night with sheets of paper spread out and filled with X’s and O’s.
“He was always coming up with a trick play,” Jackson said. “He was famous for that. They worked most of the time. We had some bad seasons, but we never had the number of players or talent other folks had. I do think he relished the idea of being the underdog.”
He added that Rustin worked his players hard so they could compete against bigger teams and expected everyone to give their best effort.
“I don’t know if he heard this while at Alabama or what,” Jackson said, “but he used to tell us that how tall you are or how fast you are, you can thank the Lord and your mama and daddy for that. How hard you work is what you can lay claim to.”
Rustin’s wife feels that part of her husband’s compassion came because his brother Wayne was paralyzed from the chest down when as a teen he was injured diving into a creek. Rustin helped care for Wayne the rest of his life.
“I never heard Nathan knock a kid,” Helen Rustin said. “Or a parent.”
Taylor said Rustin was what “a coach should be.”
“He took a real interest in what students were doing in the classroom. He made everyone feel important,” said Taylor.
Rustin cared for those who didn’t play sports, as well.
He would invite special education children and their parents to his lake in Buena Vista, Ga., and let them go fishing.
It was the same lake that Rustin would go to for solitude.
“He always had the kids at heart,” said Ingersoll, “Nothing mattered more.”
It was that attitude, Jackson said, that made players want to win for him.
Taylor recalled former Baker players would come assist Rustin at Pacelli just because of the respect they had for him.
“There are students who would come back years later and say they had named a child after Nathan,” said Helen, a co-owner of Westaff in Columbus.
Too much to bear
Rustin had big plans for the day he died. Naturally, it involved doing stuff for others. It was May 11.
He told his wife, “I’m going to cut my mother’s grass, watch my grandchildren play ball, then build a tool shed for my brother. I’ll see you whenever.”
He was cutting his mother’s grass, and neighbors said he was in a good mood. He got indigestion went inside and took an Alka-Seltzer. Rustin, who had heart problems, put his shoes to the side of a recliner and sat down. His son, Ty, came in and headed to the kitchen. “We don’t want to be late for the game,” he called out. Soon after, he found his father dead in the chair.
“It came quick and peacefully,” Helen said. “In all the years, I never knew him to complain.
“He was a spirit who marched to his own tune and loved life.”