Hope is a tricky thing. So is the future. Blank canvasses mean possibility. Not all projects turn out as expected. With NFL teams taking to war rooms to select their new players in the draft, it’s worth remembering one of the biggest busts in the modern era: JaMarcus Russell, the LSU quarterback selected first overall in 2007 by the Oakland Raiders.
He was a high school star with legendary lore, including whispers he could throw 70 yards from his knees. As a Tiger, he dominated, earning All-SEC honors his junior year and putting on a show in the Sugar Bowl. With nothing left to prove, he opted to forego his senior year to go pro.
Russell stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 265 pounds. He was the apple of so many draft room eyes, though Raiders coach Lane Kiffin preferred Calvin Johnson and was overruled by Al Davis.
Dreams of a franchise quarterback quickly dissipated. In three seasons, Russell played 31 games. He threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, averaging 131.7 yards/game. His failure cost the Raiders nearly $40 million and the chance at several winning seasons.
In the years that passed, stories about Russell’s lackluster commitment to the game emerged, painting the picture of a guy who didn’t really care. He served as a butt of jokes and the cautionary tale. It’s a legacy he’ll never really be able to escape, fair or not.
It’s important, as always, to remember there’s a human being behind this story and the path has not been easy for Russell.
In 2010, he was arrested and charged with possession of codeine syrup without a prescription. A grand jury ruled there was not enough evidence for an indictment.
His post-playing activities have been a source of great interest but also shrouded in secrecy and misinformation. From a 2016 Sports Illustrated piece:
hat fall of 2011, Russell was a cipher. One cousin claimed, mistakenly, that he had opened a chicken and waffles restaurant in Atlanta. A childhood friend was under the false impression that Russell was still living in Oakland. The LSU sports information department insisted that Russell was returning to campus to re-enroll in school and train for a comeback. Not so.
Attempts to get in shape and come back in 2013 and 2016 failed to drum up any interest.
Russell started helping out in his hometown area of Maystown, Alabama, four or five years ago. Last year he began working with the high school’s quarterbacks.
“I never thought I would want to do this, but it just came to my heart,” he said. “There comes a time in your life when you have done so many things, and you just want to give back. Right now, the best thing for me is to continue to help my community thrive in any way I can.”
Russell will be remembered for one thing, but he’s writing new chapters. It’s not flippant to say, considering all that was at play, things could have turned out worse. His name will be forever linked to draft busts but it’s worth a footnote saying there’s something on the other side of failure.