Jeff Rutledge was throwing a big-time temper tantrum.
At age 7, the future Alabama and Super Bowl quarterback was begging his father to play Pop Warner football. Rutledge, now 54 and the head football coach at Pope John Paul II School in Hendersonville, recently looked back on his first encounter with football 47 years ago in Birmingham, Ala. He fell in love with the sport early on and let his father know — in no uncertain terms — that he wanted to start playing.
“Finally, my dad relented and let me play,” Rutledge said.
But it started out badly. At the young end of his age set, Rutledge got banged around by much bigger, stronger boys.
“I went home and asked my father if I could quit, and he said, ‘Absolutely not. I’ve paid the $10 entry fee, and it’s not refundable. You’re playing.’ ”
Thus began a career in which Rutledge, as a quarterback, had a lot of good days. In fact, he celebrated titles in high school (two state championships), college (three SEC championships, a national title) and the NFL (two Super Bowl victories).
Next month, Rutledge is being honored for his football achievements. He recently was selected for induction into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, set for May 21 at his hometown of Birmingham. There he will be enshrined alongside the likes of Hank Aaron, Charles Barkley and Bo Jackson.
“One of my most vivid memories is my high school coach Shorty White at Frazier Banks High in Birmingham,” Rutledge said. “He instilled in each of us the value of hard work, and those were traits we carried all through life. I loved playing in high school, the interaction with teammates, learning how to carry yourself in victory and defeat.”
Rutledge became the starting quarterback midway through his freshman year.
“Coach White said he was going to play me some against Phillips High that Friday and told me to be ready,” Rutledge said. “We were down 14-0 at the half, I came in and we rallied to win the game 15-14. The headline in the paper said, ‘Banks Whiz Kid leads win.’ The next week, we won 28-7, and I was on my way.”
After three straight state championship games, the opportunity came to play for legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama.
“I was considering LSU,” Rutledge said. “Coach Bryant happened to be speaking at a downtown touchdown club the same time I was there. He came up to me, and in that gravelly voice of his, he said, ‘Son, I hear you’re considering going to LSU.’ I told him, yes, sir, I was thinking about that. Then he said, ‘If you want to win a national championship, then you need to come to Alabama.’ … And coach Bryant was right, we won the national championship.”
With Rutledge at the helm, the Tide went 3-0 in New Year’s Day bowl games, one of them for the national championship. That was during his senior year, following the 1978 season, when the Tide beat Penn State 14-7 in the Sugar Bowl. Perhaps just as important for Tide fans was his 3-0 record against Auburn.
Then pro football beckoned. Several scouts told Rutledge he would be drafted early. Instead, the Los Angeles Rams got him in the ninth round, but he played 14 years in the NFL with the Rams (1979-82), Giants (1983-89) and Redskins (1990-92).
He was a backup quarterback in Super Bowl XIV for the Rams. He played in Super Bowl XXI for the Giants when he won a ring. He was a backup for the Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI.
Following his playing career, Rutledge became quarterbacks coach at Vanderbilt under Rod Dowhower, who was fired after two seasons. Rutledge remained with the Commodores another five years but never forgot Dowhower’s suggestion that he consider coaching high schools.
“I never even considered it until Coach Dowhower mentioned it to me, and I’m grateful he did as I look back,” Rutledge said.
He became head coach at MBA in 2002 and guided the Big Red to state DII championships his first two seasons. The 2003 team went 11-1, beat Brentwood Academy in the finals and finished with a No. 15 final ranking in the USA Today Super 25 poll.
That second title came just months after a horrific auto accident outside of Memphis on Interstate 40 as he was returning to Nashville from the state sports Spring Fling event. He totaled his car, and by his own admission, he was fortunate to live.
“I broke every bone in my face, I lost some teeth, and ultimately lost 25-30 pounds,” he said. “I had two years of rehab and had extensive work on my teeth. Even to this day, there is some numbness at the bottom of my face, which I notice while I’m shaving. Something like that really puts things in perspective, and makes you appreciate life so much more.”
He guided MBA to a 41-17 record in five seasons then left to become quarterbacks coach for the Arizona Cardinals. There he made another Super Bowl trip, a 27-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in January 2009.
Following a year in the United Football League, Rutledge returned to Middle Tennessee and found his current position.
“For me, playing at the high school level was the most fun for me, and I know full well how much work these guys put in, and how much they love the game,” he said. “I feel blessed to have won a championship at every level.”