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JaMarcus Russell Describes His Journey to Becoming the NFL's Biggest Draft Bust and it is a Wild Story

Sporting News Archive. Getty Images.

That headline is not hyperbole. Whenever you see a list of Biggest NFL Draft Busts, invariably you'll see Ryan Leaf at the top. Or Akili Smith. Tony Mandarich or Brian Bosworth, just to pick a non-quarterback. But none of them can hold a flickering candle to Russell's status. I'm not saying that to be unnecessarily cruel or kick a man when he's down. (Not that I'm above that.) It's simply objective fact. 

Russell was the No. 1 overall pick in 2007. Which puts him forever in that sweet spot between the time top draft picks started collecting serious money - typically becoming some of the highest paid players in the game before they ever took a snap - and the implementation of a rookie salary cap. So the Raiders paid $32 million (out of a six-year, $61 million deal) for this career: 

Seasons: 3

Games: 31

Starts: 25 

Record: 7-18

Passing stats: 354-for-680, 52.1%, 131 yards per game, 18 TDs, 23 INTs, 65.2 passer rating

Whatever else the other worthy candidates can claim, not one of them can say he cost his team $4.4 million per win and $1.7 million per touchdown over his career. 

And so it was with great interest that I came upon the man telling his story in his own words in the Player's Tribune with, "Y'all Don't Know a Damn Thing About JaMarcus Russell." Personally speaking, pretty much everything I read about every subject could have a title that starts the same way. But I can honestly say I didn't know anything more about Russell than I remember from watching him be bad at quarterbacking. For sure I didn't know any of this. And it is revealing as all hell. 

As you'd figure, it's long. Pretty much all of the Player's Tribune's articles are. And anytime a guy is explaining his entire life to you, a lengthy tome is to be expected. But here are some of the highlights:

Russell started hitting the bottle at a young age. The Drank bottle.

He was just 14 when a friend told him to grab one out of a cooler:

[A] couple minutes later, this Pineapple Orange Faygo got me faded. And then my boy — I’m not going to say his name — he realizes what’s going on and he starts panicking. He’s like, “Yo, don’t tell nobody in your family about this. You’re gonna be straight, but you better go lie down for a minute. 

His family was strict, so sucking back on Grandpa's Ol' Cough Medicine remained his substance of choice:

He knew my momma would’ve tore his ass up if she found out. My uncles, my daddy — everybody would’ve been looking for him. Man, I never even smoked weed growing up, because I was so scared of coming back home to a house full of my aunts and uncles smelling some loud on me. They’d have taken turns whupping my ass. The first time I smoked weed was when I got released by the Raiders. My family had me locked in. …

That was my first time drinking syrup. Wasn’t the last time. A lot of people up North — even Black folks at that time — they didn’t really understand it. It was just different down here. Some syrup, for us, that’s like you might drink some wine or something. I’m not glorifying it, but back then, that was the cheapest way for them boys to sip on something. You grow up in poverty, you’re going to figure out a way to cope with it, you feel me?

It's how he self-medicated for pain relief when he got injured at LSU. And got ratted out. 

 I never liked painkillers. In college and the NFL, they were handing that shit out like Skittles. But I didn’t like the way they made me feel. So I handled it my way. When I was at LSU and I dislocated my shoulder against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, I still had to go to my classes. I actually had shredded ligaments in my throwing hand, too. So I’m sitting in them hard-ass school chairs, and I can’t even concentrate. I was in so much pain that one morning I just said fuck it and took some drank with me to class. Had my little Styrofoam cup and everything. Looked just like a soda from the cafeteria. I don’t know how the hell the teacher even found out, but somebody in class snitched on me.  

You know what’s crazy to me? If I had three or four pills in my pocket, nobody would’ve batted an eye. 

When he was a kid, an opposing coach gave him a friendly slap on the head, and he and his mom went full Will Smith on everyone:

Mannnn, I reached up, nine years old, and slapped the SHIT outta this man.  …

I’m on the ground and my momma is tearing my ass UP, boy. She stripped me by my football pants. “Pull them pants down!!! You think you can act up???”

She’s whupping my ass in front of everybody, man.

My daddy comes running. 

Heyyy!!! Zina!!!! You saw what the coach did to him. What was he supposed to do?”

My momma jumps up and starts going at my daddy now.

“Excuse me? Excuse me?? You got something to say? Well FUCK YOU TOO THEN.”

There was an old man standing there with a cane, and my momma snatched the cane and started going at my daddy with it.

“Say something. I’m fixin’ to get your ass, too!!!”

He became a celebrity at the age of 13 when his high school coach named him the starting quarterback.

 All of a sudden, my name starts ringing out. I was somebody, at least in the neighborhood.  

After my freshman year, I remember grandma sitting me down in the den and saying, “You need to be careful, JaMarcus. Because the way I see it, you’re gonna be as big as Michael Jackson. They’re gonna be following you everywhere.”

I had my little Kobe Bryant Afro back then, and I remember people around Mobile starting to show up to games rocking their Afro wigs for me. (Shout-out to the Fence Clique.) We had that stadium packed out, every weekend. I had dope boys coming up to me, making sure I was straight. I never was in the streets, because I never had to be. … 

By 10th grade, I was getting so many letters, man — LSU, Florida State, Florida, Alabama, USC, everybody. I had a scholarship waiting from every college there was, for real. And the cool part about it was that I had Bobby Bowden, Nick Saban, all these big-time coaches, coming down to Mobile.

He had no idea how good a pro prospect he was.

This is how fast life came at me when I was at LSU: My redshirt junior season, I’m chilling with my boy Dwayne Bowe — D-Bowe. We’re about to play Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, and I’m killing it. D-Bowe was on the phone with somebody, and I didn’t know who it was. I found out later it was a runner for an agent. …

“Man, listen, you need to call your family right now and give them my number. You’re ranked grade A.”

“What that mean?”

“You’re the No. 1 or 2 QB in the nation right now.”

On the best night of his life, the uncle he was named after had a psychotic episode and was never the same.

 Damn, you about to make a n**** cry with this part.  

It was the day after my pro day. We were all in New Orleans. My whole family. I was there to get the Manning Award. Night before, we’re planning to go out and chill. My Uncle Marcus had been having some problems with alcohol, but we thought he had everything under control. … 

I run into his room, and he just slumped on the floor. He looked like he was gone, for real. Momma crying, Grandma crying, aunties crying. All of a sudden, my uncle starts to move. He stands up, and he’s just staring into the distance. His hands are trembling, like he’s trying to cast a spell on somebody. Then he just starts screaming out, “I rebuke you, Satan!!!! I rebuke you, Satan!!!! In the name of Jesus!!!!”  

We found out later he was having some kind of breakdown. It’s like he didn’t even recognize us. He’s screaming, “You won’t take me, Satan!!!! You ain’t gonna get me like that!!! Noooooooooooooo!!!!”

And neither was Russell.

I carried that hurt with me for a long time. Even my Draft Night wasn’t a happy moment, to be honest. If you look at pictures from that night, I wasn’t cheesin’. I don’t think I smiled one time, not even when the commissioner called my name. 

It was over between him and the Raiders coaches before it even began.

None of those coaches wanted me in the first place. Only Al Davis wanted me. That’s on record. …We’re sitting in the QB room one day going over film after a loss, and my quarterback coach starts up. He’s motherfucking me, calling me a son of a bitch and whatnot.  

“Look at this motherfucker.”

And that "motherfucker" was the end of the line for Russell.

After explaining to the coach he'd never been talked to like that, how he hated the losing as much as anyone and how the can "motherfuck" each other all day or just get to work, things calmed down. And they went back to going over game film:

You could’ve heard a pin drop in there. Then, I don’t know why, but I couldn’t take it anymore. Everybody got a breaking point. I stood straight up and —

I hit that gotdamn table like Tyson or some shit.

Like a bomb went off.

I pointed at him, and I said, “Now, bitch, that’s how you talk to me from now on.”

I haven’t started a football game since.

I know that's long, but I'm leaving out a lot. Deaths in the family. The Raiders giving him Ambien for sleep apnea and him having to hit the practice field at 6:30 a.m. on zero sleep. Just a lot to unpack. And all of it humanizes a guy who seemed like he had everything in the world going for him. But was just dealing with shit in his personal and professional life that no one not in his life could've possibly understood because we didn't live it. 

That doesn't change his No. 1 Bust status. But it certainly explains a lot. And helps humanize an enigmatic guy who's been pretty much forgotten by the world, except when we're making that list every draft season. I'd say I'd love for someone to do a 30 for 30 about him, but after reading this, I'm voting for a multipart documentary series, like the Michael Jordan one. As Russell himself puts it:

If you wanna judge me, then judge me. But at least know where I come from first.

I got some stories that’ll make your head spin.