Success begins and ends at home for former first overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell

Considered one of the biggest NFL draft busts of all time, JaMarcus Russell has found success back where it all began.

JaMarcus Russell has been daubed with just about every derogatory accusation a football player can have slung at them. NFL draft bust. Lazy. Overweight. Drug addict. There’s worse, I’m sure. While it’s true that his NFL career never lived up to — or even remotely came close to — the expectations of a first overall pick, that doesn’t define the man behind the public image. Russell has had success and, in many ways, continues to taste it now.

JaMarcus Russell finds success against the solitude of NFL failings

The biggest draft bust of all time. A quarterback who was paid $31.5 million guaranteed to complete 52.1% of his NFL passes for 4,803 passing yards. A first overall pick who threw more interceptions and lost more fumbles than he threw touchdowns or won games. An athlete who reportedly weighed close to 300 pounds while working out for the Miami Dolphins. A player whose attempts at a return to the highest level of the game were hampered by drug allegations. By public perception, there is no success in Russell’s story.

Yet, his hometown of Mobile, Ala, and the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) tell a different side of the story. What defines success can often be difficult to grasp, difficult to judge. What breeds success is also difficult to understand. Environment is as important as skill to success. While he flamed out in the NFL, Russell has always thrived at home.

Russell’s successful impact on his hometown is perhaps more striking than his failings in the NFL. His sporting and philanthropic success possibly outweigh the public perception of his demise at the highest level of the nation’s favorite pastime. If the former Oakland Raiders quarterback is hurt by words, perhaps here is where he soothes those wounds.

To the outside world, Russell is the poster boy for sporting failure. In Mobile, he is akin to a hero. In the NFL record books, his 50.0 passer rating from his final season in 2009 is still one of the lowest in history. However, in the AHSAA records book, the much-maligned QB remains one of the sport’s brightest stars. It may come as no surprise that Russell has found success, and personal peace, back where it all began.

Russell’s ascension begins in Mobile

At 1567 E. Dublin Street, Mobile, sits L.B. Williamson High School. A small public school with an enrollment of less than 1,000, it was deemed to be failing academically in the early 2000s. The school’s sporting success was hardly significant either, with a small number of NBA and NFL players included in their notable alum. One alum is more notable than the rest.

At the start of the 2000 season, Russell was just a freshman at Williamson. However, head coach Bobby Parrish saw something special in the skinny kid who never missed a practice session. While parts of Mobile boast opulence, the area also features areas of abject poverty, and Russell believed he could combine hard work and talent to use football as a vessel for escape.

He wasn’t wrong. While his success stretched to javelin and basketball, Russell excelled on the football field at Williamson. Despite leading the school to a state championship game in that freshman season, he wasn’t satisfied. The young quarterback, growing in stature with every passing year, buried his head in the playbook to learn the nuances of the game that would elevate his play even further.

In four years at Williamson, Russell never missed a game or practice session. His play grew stronger with every passing season, as did his recruiting profile, with five-star recognition from the major recruiting sites. At the culmination of his high school career, the hometown hero had etched his name in the AHSAA records book with 10,774 passing yards. It’s a record that would still be standing on his return to Williamson HS 14 years later.

LSU career creates almost impossible levels of expectation

Russell took his talents to LSU. After redshirting in 2004, he helped the Tigers to a 10-1 record and an SEC West title. The talented young quarterback twice conjured up come-from-behind wins and famously defeated the previously unbeaten Alabama Crimson Tide with a 14-yard touchdown in overtime. Russell ended his sophomore campaign injured, but with 2,443 passing yards and 15 touchdowns.

As he had at Williamson, Russell continued to develop into his junior season after winning a quarterback competition against Matt Flynn. He impressed with more comeback wins and earned first-team All-SEC honors after throwing for 3,129 yards and 28 touchdowns with fewer interceptions than the year prior. A Sugar Bowl MVP performance where he tallied over 350 yards in a crushing win over Notre Dame secured his status as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation.

Russell was an alluring physical specimen for NFL talent evaluators, standing at 6’5 1/2″ and 265 pounds with a cannon for an arm. There were boasts that he could throw a ball 70 yards while on his knees, demonstrating his pure arm strength irrespective of using his lower body to generate velocity on his passes. Falling in love with the pure physical traits of the LSU quarterback would provide a cautionary tale for evaluators down the line.

While Russell was an alluring specimen for the NFL, the NFL was an enticing conduit for the LSU quarterback’s desire that had burned brightly in Mobile. Forgoing his final season in Baton Rouge, Russell entered the 2007 NFL Draft. The expectation was that he would become the first overall selection for the Raiders. While that expectation proved correct, its weight would ultimately destroy him.
JaMarcus Russell
JaMarcus Russell #2 of the Oakland Raiders walks off the field against the Baltimore Ravens during an NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on January 3, 2010. Credit: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Russell’s NFL downfall

From the start to the ignominious finish of Russell’s NFL career, there is no mistaking that he never lived up to expectations. This isn’t a story about how the Raiders’ quarterback actually had a low-key brilliant NFL career. Playing three seasons in the league (25 starts) while throwing only 18 touchdowns is undeniably below expectations. The why, however, is something slightly more challenging to comprehend and somewhat tangled.

The contract dispute that meant Russell missed his entire first offseason didn’t help. Even then, head coach Lane Kiffin tried to ease their new “star” quarterback into the offense, attempting to learn from the disaster that was David Carr’s NFL career. Many believed that the contract itself — a $61 million dollar deal with $31.5 million guaranteed — was to blame. Awash with cash, Russell no longer had the desire to work his way out of poverty.

Overweight. Sleeping in team meetings. Yawning his way through workouts. Many believed that Russell had simply become lazy with his newfound wealth. The work ethic, the drive that had made him a success, had vanished. Arriving in the NFL at 265 pounds, he was described as being “annually and incredibly overweight” by NBC Sports ahead of his final preseason camp in 2010.

He was cut by the Raiders in May 2010. His attempts at continuing in the sport were hampered by a July 2010 arrest for being in possession of a controlled substance — codeine syrup — without a prescription. While he denied the charges and was acquitted, Russell would later admit to ESPN that he’d tested positive for usage prior to the 2009 NFL Draft. Despite training hard to get back to his pre-draft shape, three years and a tryout with the Chicago Bears later, Russell would give up on his dreams of a return to the NFL.

Russell finds peace in philanthropy and a return to Williamson

Bust. Lazy. Overweight. Drug addict. Those are the reasons offered up to explain Russell’s downfall in the NFL. However, understanding that fall from grace is almost as difficult as the expectation was impossible for him to live up to. There are always two sides to the story, and as a private, almost mysterious figure, there isn’t much in the way of personal retort to public perception.

In a 2011 article with Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim, Russell offered up some retort from the comfort of a Mobile barbershop. He detailed his battles with grief following the loss of two uncles during what would ultimately be his final season in the NFL. While he was being accused of a lack of leadership publicly, a private battle raged inside.

“I went through so much no one knew about,” Russell stated in the article. “Go to a funeral on Saturday, fly into the game on Sunday. Then I hear, ‘He doesn’t lead by example.’ Really?”

For every public perception, there is a private retort. The sleeping in meetings or yawning on the practice field? An issue with sleep apnea that Russell alleges the team was aware of. The “annually and incredibly overweight” allegations? Russell laughs it off as the ability to gain and lose weight at the drop of a hat.

The much-maligned QB gives back to Mobile

Many believe that Russell is broke, destitute, having flittered away his NFL fortunes on fast cars and fine clothes. Yes, like any 21-year-old suddenly equipped with riches beyond their dreams, he splurged. But as of 2021, he reportedly is worth $4 million. Furthermore, the money he has spent has gone to help give back to the area that made him. Russell leaned on football to get him out of poverty.

The proceeds of his success are attempting to help others do the same.

Russell has provided Thanksgiving turkeys for Mobile residents. The former Raiders quarterback has purchased books for local schools. He’s also furnished local sports teams with new uniforms. He’s built home ramps for wheelchair-bound residents. The much-maligned QB has fed children, helped rebuild houses, and helped refurnish churches. Even when he didn’t have wealth, he aided in placing New Orleans residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But it’s in Mobile, the place that made him, where Russell has sought private success in the aftermath of public failure. When no NFL team would have him, the former star quarterback returned and helped with youth football in the Mayville community. Where is he now? He’s back where it all started. Where his records still stand. Where nearly 20 years and a world of experiences separate his roles of high school quarterback and QB coach.

“Williamson is a special place,” Russell told al.com. “When you wear that Williamson jersey, you aren’t just representing you, you are representing everyone who came before you. It was the same way when I was playing here. Williamson means a lot to a lot of people.”

Oliver Hodgkinson is an NFL Draft and College Football Analyst for Pro Football Network. Check out the rest of his work here, and you can find him on Twitter: @ojhodgkinson.

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