What we learned from JaMarcus Russell explaining his life as a bust in NFL
JaMarcus Russell is young enough at age 36 to still be starting in the NFL. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are older, and Matt Ryan was born three months before Russell.
But Russell's path took a different turn during a turbulent three years with the Oakland Raiders. The last time he was seen on an NFL field was January 2010, taking mop-up snaps in a season-ending blowout to the Baltimore Ravens.
Then Russell was just gone, quickly anointed one of the biggest busts in NFL draft history. No other NFL team signed him, despite workouts here and there. The No. 1 overall pick in the league three years earlier had no suitors. It was a stunning and quick fall.
Russell apparently blighted his reputation with the Raiders so badly that they later reportedly dissuaded Terrelle Pryor from switching jersey numbers to Russell's former No. 2 so as to avoid any comparisons between the two.
For years, Russell remained out of the spotlight. But he reemerged this week to tell The Players' Tribune his side of the story, which is titled "Y'all Don't Know a Damn Thing About JaMarcus Russell."
And yes, he discussed the elephant in the room — his early dependence on addictive cough syrup — and a few other tough stories from his ill-fated career and before. As a setup to what he thinks might one day be a "movie script," Russell writes:
Psshhh. Man, my story is so much deeper than some drank. It’s so much deeper than the Raiders, or the NFL, or football. I’ve endured 10-plus years of people slandering my name, and I’ve never said a word.
It’s my turn to speak on 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.
The first-person narrative does leave some gaps in Russell's story, but it does shed some light on what he went through — including his work ethic and weight issues — and why it fell apart so quickly.
Here are five interesting things we learned from reading Russell's story:
JaMarcus Russell first tried codeine at age 14
Russell begins his story with how he got hooked on cough syrup, which he says was a common recreational drug in his neighborhood of Mobile, Alabama. He was playing in the park with friends and some older kids when he was told to "grab something from the cooler."
Russell says he grabbed what he thought was just Pineapple Orange Faygo soda, but it apparently had been mixed with the cough syrup. He was almost immediately buzzed, concerned that his mother or grandmother would find out.
Shortly after that, Russell passed out. But clearly he liked the effect. Russell doesn't say it explicitly, but it appears he was hooked from then on, transitioning to a story of how he poured some in a cup before a 10 a.m. class at LSU — and how someone else found out and ratted out the star QB.
But the school kept the issue on the down-low, and Russell kept on keeping on. He says he preferred that brand of opioid to what team doctors at LSU and with the Raiders provided him.
"It ain't for fun, you feel me? I’m in pain, and that’s just how I knew to deal with it. I was honest with the coaches about what was going on, and they knew me as a person, so they handled it quietly. I did my punishment, which was not attending the bowl game, and we kept it movin’."
He clearly believes that there was a stigma against that method of self-medication but not enough of one against team doctors who hand out painkillers like Pez. Russell might be onto something there.
Russell also indicates that he wasn't using marijuana during his career, which was a common rumor back then. In fact, almost as an aside, he says he didn't smoke weed until after the Raiders had cut him.
Russell dealt with family heartache early in his NFL career
Russell paints a picture of a big, loving and supportive family as he rose to fame — first in high school, then in college and eventually as the first overall pick. It was something he appeared to be relatively naive about prior to an agent's runner planting the seed in Russell's head about how favorably the league viewed him as a prospect.
Closest to Russell, except for his parents, were a group of uncles who acted as his mentors. There was Uncle Ray Ray, a former Mobile disc jockey whom Russell considered like a second father. Uncle Mike worked at a paper company and would hook Russell up with school supplies, "the coolest guy in the world," Russell said. And finally, there was Uncle Marcus, Russell's namesake and the man who got him into football at age 4.
The day after Russell's legendary pro-day workout, which ESPN's Mel Kiper continues to say was one of the best he's ever seen from a quarterback, JaMarcus was alerted that his Uncle Marcus was non-responsive, presumably after a night of drinking. Marcus eventually awakened, but he had suffered an episode that involved screaming, kicking and invoking Satan.
The police restrained Marcus and took him for help. Russell said his uncle wasn't even able to attend the draft a few months later, still recovering from the incident that Russell described as a "breakdown." He says his uncle was never the same after that.
Then in 2009, prior to Russell's third NFL season, tragedy struck twice. Ray Ray and Mike both died that offseason in a three-month span of heart-related ailments. Mike was buried three days before Russell was set to leave for training camp. Marcus, "still going through his thing" at the time, Russell said, couldn't even attend either funeral.
This is where Russell said things really went off the rails for his own well-being.
"My heart was hurting so damn bad, bro. Felt like everybody was leaving me."
The Raiders' QB coach called out Russell in front of the other quarterbacks
In that 2009 season that Russell called "a mess," he said the team's quarterback coach cursed him out after a tough loss in the QB room during a film session.
Russell doesn't name the assistant, but that season Paul Hackett was the Raiders' QB coach. Russell said the coach used a profanity-laced tirade directed at Russell, although the quarterback believes that not many people in that building were fans of his.
"None of those coaches wanted me in the first place. Only Al Davis wanted me. That’s on record. Those coaches didn’t give a damn about me — not as a player, and damn sure not as a person."
As Russell tells it, he responded by calmly explaining to Hackett by indicating not even his parents used that kind of language toward him. Hackett apparently settled down and spoke more professionally — that is until a few minutes later, when Russell broke the tension by slamming a table (like Mike Tyson, he says) and yelling straight back at Hackett:
“Now, b****, that’s how you talk to me from now on.”
Russell would never start another game from that point on.
(Our best guess is that this alleged incident occurred the week after Russell was benched in a 16-10 loss to the Chiefs after completing 8 of 23 passes for 64 yards.)
The negative media coverage ate at Russell
Not surprisingly, all the attention Russell got after a certain point — almost all of it bad — put him in an even darker place.
One such event was Stephen A. Smith calling Russell "a fat slob on national television." Another was when Russell took his father to an NBA game. When the cameras pointed their way, an unnamed TNT announcer apparently said: “JaMarcus Russell. God. Look at those necklaces. If he spent as much time in the film room as he did in the jewelry store, he’d be a much better quarterback.”
Russell wondered what his grandma thought when she heard that. To this day, it apparently still hurts, as Russell said he expressed hesitation telling this story now because of how worthless he felt after all the national ribbing.
When you’re down, it’s like everybody wants to pile on. Honestly, it just got to the point where I felt alone in the world. Like every time I went out on the field, I was by myself. Me vs. everybody. The whole stadium. The whole world. Even me telling my story now, I almost didn’t do it, because I kept asking myself, “Why the hell would anybody want to hear from me?”
Despite his failed NFL career, Russell still considers himself a 'king'
The story turns toward a more bright side by the end, as Russell retells a story of gambling in Vegas when Jay-Z and Beyoncé walked by Russell's table. Jay-Z recognized Russell and stopped to talk. (Beyoncé, sadly, kept going.)
But it reaffirmed to Russell that though he's viewed by others as a career bust, the fact is he made it to a place where few people have before. His NFL days were not long or distinguished, but Russell appears to be at some measure of peace with where he's at now, more than a decade removed from his last NFL snap.
"Maybe you look at me and you see a failure. That’s cool. I see something a hell of a lot different.
"I’m from Mobile, Alabama. My daddy was a project n****. My momma worked at the shipyard. She worked every kind of job. All around us — nothing but poverty.
"I wasn’t supposed to be s***. Man, I wasn’t even supposed to be here. I’m talking here here. I shattered every expectation for my life.
"I was Mr. Football for the whole state of Alabama.
"I brought Nick Saban to the neighborhood.
"I got millions to wear some Nike shoes. And to play the game I love.
"I was the second Black quarterback to go No. 1, after Mike Vick.
"I ain’t no failure.
"I’m a King.