We haven’t heard much from JaMarcus Russell since his failed Raiders tenure ended in 2009, cementing his status as arguably the biggest draft bust in NFL history. That changed Tuesday with Russell telling his side of the story in a riveting retrospective for The Players’ Tribune, discussing his unlikely path to the NFL and some of the self-destructive tendencies that led to his downfall, flaming out after three tumultuous seasons in Oakland.
Born to a 20-year-old mother who worked multiple jobs to put food on the table (overwhelmed by the prospect of raising a child while still attending school, she visited an abortion clinic but couldn’t go through with it), Russell grew up poor in Mobile, Alabama, where the only white people he saw were a “couple of teachers.” Russell got his first starting opportunity as a freshman at Williamson High School, taking the reins at quarterback because so many of his varsity teammates got “locked up for street s---” over the summer.
That was also around the time Russell tried cough syrup for the first time, getting high by accident after grabbing a refreshment from a cooler at a local park. Russell’s lean habit continued throughout his pro and college careers, using codeine to self-medicate as family problems (two of his uncles died within a three-month span in 2009 while another suffered a mental breakdown) and persistent pain conspired to turn his world upside down.
“I never liked painkillers. In college and the NFL, they were handing that s--- out like Skittles. But I didn’t like the way it made me feel. So I handled it my way,” said Russell, who recalls being suspended for LSU’s bowl game in 2005 (he was already injured at the time after dislocating his shoulder weeks earlier in the Tigers’ SEC Championship loss to Georgia) for getting caught drinking syrup in class. “You know what’s crazy to me? If I had three or four pills in my pocket, nobody would have batted an eye.”
Russell takes responsibility for his failures as a pro, acknowledging staying out too late and numbing himself with alcohol after his uncle’s passing. “I gotta’ own my part,” wrote Russell, whose conditioning and work ethic were frequent criticisms throughout his short-lived NFL career. “I shouldn’t have been sippin’ like that in the NFL. I should have been in better shape. I should have been more of a student of the game. I got to live with my mistakes.”
Feeling the weight of his community back home in Mobile (a DJ on local radio, his uncle Ray Ray quit his job on air after Russell decided to forego his senior season at LSU to enter the NFL Draft), Russell was literally crying for help, but none of his coaches and teammates seemed to care.
“I remember getting to training camp and warming up out on the field before practice and just crying and crying. Tears just falling out of my face, like goddamn man. In front of everybody,” said Russell, who arrived at Raiders camp with a heavy heart after burying his uncle three days prior. “Anybody come to check on me? Anybody ask if I was okay?”
Crumbling under the weight of expectations, Russell finally reached his breaking point during a team meeting, lashing out after being mistreated by an assistant coach. He never started another game for the Raiders after his outburst. “Those coaches didn’t give a damn about me—not as a player and damn sure not as a person,” said Russell, now 36. “All they cared about was winning. And I wasn’t winning.”
Amid his struggles, Russell felt a racial component in how the media covered him, portraying him as a “thug” unfit to be an NFL franchise quarterback. Russell couldn’t believe what transpired after he was spotted sitting courtside with his father at an NBA game, with TNT’s announcing crew skewering him for his expensive jewelry. “They saw all the jewelry, the way I talked, the way I dressed, my grammar—and they only saw one thing,” laments Russell. “To them, I was always just a n----.”
While most would consider Russell a cautionary tale, squandering an opportunity most athletes would kill for, the former first overall pick doesn’t see it that way. “The only thing I ever wanted to do was throw the football and get that paper for my family,” says Russell, who pocketed almost $40 million in career earnings, not including endorsement deals with Nike and other brands. “I went to LSU. I went No. 1. I got paper. I had coaches coming down here, eating my grandma’s cooking. I changed my family’s circumstances forever. Everything else is gravy.”
Humbled by failure, Russell’s NFL career obviously didn’t turn out how he had hoped, but he seems to be at peace with that part of his life, appreciating his rags-to-riches story for what it was. “I shattered every expectation for my life,” insists Russell. “I ain’t no failure, I’m a king.”