It starts with Butch Barker, the JSU tight end whose play inspired Fuller’s decision to sign with the Gamecocks. There was All-America quarterback and road roommate Ed Lett, who regularly got him the ball, and then all the receivers who made it easy for Lett to spread the wealth.
“The truth is I would not be in the Hall of Fame if not for Lett. He was just a fantastic quarterback,” Fuller said. “I think the thing that was so great about him is we always had six or eight receivers who’d have 25 to 30 catches a year, which showed you he would spread it around and make it difficult to defend us.
“And those receivers, these guys made me and hopefully I took a little pressure off them. They all had a tremendous impact on me going into the Hall.”
Fuller will be enshrined with former football player and coach Joe Kines and basketball greats Wayne Wigley and Charles Burkette during ceremonies the weekend of Nov. 23.
An elbow injury suffered in a crab drill three days into his freshman camp delayed the start of Fuller’s JSU career.
But over the four seasons that followed he was part of two conference championship teams and became one of the school’s all-time leaders in catches (120), receiving yardage (1,404) and touchdowns (17). He caught eight passes for 132 yards and a touchdown in the 1981 NCAA playoffs at Southwest Texas.
“Rusty was probably the most intelligent player on the field,” Lett said. “He knew how to read coverages from the tight end position – not only his blocking assignment, but everybody else’s.
“We ran the West Coast offense before it had a name and he was probably way before his time in the fact he could do sight adjustments for his pass routes. He would settle into a hole and allow you to find him; he made it real easy for me.”
Fuller might not have been there had he not been impressed with the way another JSU tight end played the game.
Both came to college football at a time when the tight end — certainly in JSU’s scheme of things — was little more than an extra offensive tackle with good hands.
But that all changed through the foresight of then coach Jim Fuller (no relation), and the position became a viable offensive weapon.
“One of the reasons I wanted to go to Jax State was Butch Barker was the tight end two years before me when I was being recruited,” Fuller said. “I went to a homecoming game in 1978, and Butch broke the record for passes caught in a game. (Donald Young broke it later that season.)
“I thought to myself he’s a tight end, had great hands, ran great routes. I could see myself coming to this school and playing tight end. He kind of showcased the position then I came into it. I was probably more a true tight end than Butch; they split him out more than me. I just liked the way he played, the way he caught balls in his hands.”
Kines played on three conference championship teams at JSU and later coached with the Gamecocks, beginning a career in which he became one of the top defensive coaches in the game. He made stops at Clemson, Florida, Alabama (twice), Arkansas, Florida State and Texas A&M, as well as a brief stint in the NFL.
He was interim head coach at Arkansas in 1992 (behind former JSU coach Jack Crowe) and interim head coach in Alabama’s 2006 Independence Bowl game.
“It’s a tremendous honor going in with Coach Kines,” Fuller said. “I was coaching at Thompson High School with one of his teammates, Doug Wheeler. Doug was the head coach. Coach Kines, when he got to Alabama as a defensive coordinator under Ray Perkins, invited us to their offices and we were the only coaches up there touring the offices.
“Coach Fuller was there at the time. He invited me into his office and he had this remote screen where you could push a button to move it up and down to watch film. This was 1985. It was big technology.”
Wigley played on the last two of JSU’s five straight Alabama Collegiate Conference basketball titles under coach Tom Roberson after transferring from Snead State. As a senior, he shared setting the school’s single-season scoring record with junior teammate Danny Bryan.
Motivated by anyone’s suggestion he couldn’t achieve or didn’t belong, he became the first player in Alabama to be named MVP of the junior college and small college all-state teams. Prior to that, he was named MVP of his classification while playing at Douglas High.
“Coach Roberson was such a recruiter he knew the people who would fit his style of play and went after them, and it worked out for him,” Wigley said. “We had a lot of good players, not just some. We had a good team. We had bench players who would really get after people. Sometimes the second team would beat the first. We had depth and if needed they were there.
“I think that’s what made us successful. We got after each other. Everybody had a chance to challenge somebody if you wanted to. He made that clear.”
Burkette helped the Gamecocks win two Gulf South Conference titles and earn two trips to the Division II Elite Eight in 1990 and 1992.
His 1,317 career points (in three seasons) ranks 12th on the Gamecocks’ all-time scoring list. Jacksonville State went 72-13 in his three seasons.
He was the Gulf South Conference player of the year in 1992 while averaging 18.4 points and 10.0 rebounds a game, helping JSU go 28-2 and make the Elite Eight. As a junior in 1991, he finished second in the GSC with 19.1 points and 10.2 rebounds a game.
He put up 9.2 points and 7.0 rebounds a game as a sophomore, as he was the sixth man on JSU’s Elite Eight team.
After a pro career in Europe, he returned to the States and has coached successfully at Saks and Hoover.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.