They are four years apart in age and 10 million miles apart in career outlooks. Yet the differences between JaMarcus Russell, apparently one of the greatest busts in NFL history, and Jason Heyward, apparently one of the greatest prospects in major league history, can be whittled down to a singular factor: sanity.
Or, really, insanity. Beginning with the day he was selected first overall by the Oakland Raiders in the 2007 NFL Draft, Russell has been surrounded by a cast of characters slightly less stable than an Absinthe-bathed emu.
His first coach, Lane Kiffin, was underage and underqualified, a fist-pumping, chest-puffing wanna-be Mike Ditka who lacked the experience and knowledge to pull it off. His second coach, Tom "TKO" Cable, allegedly punched an assistant during training camp, fracturing his jaw in the process. On the bright side, he kept his job. On the down side, ESPN followed up the incident by reporting that Cable had been accused of physical violence by two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend. (Hey, nobody's perfect.)
Learning under the wings of such men would be hard enough, were the Raiders not owned and operated by someone who still thinks Jimmy Carter is president, Santa Claus is real and Daryle Lamonica was the Peyton Manning of his day. Not that Al Davis is necessarily senile. It's possible that, at age 80, he's just really, really awful at his job.
But I digress. At age 20, Heyward is one of the majors' youngest players, a heavily hyped, insanely skilled outfielder who brings to mind a raw Darryl Stawberry. After selecting him 14th overall in 2007, Atlanta assigned Heyward to the Gulf Coast League, then promoted him to the Appalachian League. The following year, his first full season, he played 127 Class-A games and hit .316 with 11 home runs. Last season, he stormed through the system, rising to Triple A and being named the Minor League Player of the Year by both USA Today and Baseball America.
In other words, the Braves took their time. They knew what they had; knew he was special; knew young athletes need to be nurtured and educated and shown that the line between Ken Griffey Jr. (No. 1 pick in the 1987 amateur draft) and Mark Merchant (No. 2 pick in the 1987 amateur draft) is as thin as a shoelace.
Though he began this year as the Braves' Opening Day right fielder, Heyward was never alone. On the bench he has Bobby Cox, one of the best guardians of talent the game has seen. In the clubhouse he can confide in Chipper Jones. And Billy Wagner. And Derek Lowe. And Tim Hudson. And Eric Hinske. If he struggles, there will be consoling words and extra cage time. If he surges, Jones will surely remind him to stay humble and inevitably expect a dry spell. Maybe, should his average continue to linger in the .230s, Atlanta will return him to Triple A for more seasoning. Maybe not. Either way, the Braves are the perfect organization for the seemingly perfect prospect.
In Oakland, Russell has been dismissed as the 2010 Ryan Leaf. Analysts and scouts mock his weight and his work ethic. They say he's a bum who'll wind up pumping gas or running a McDonald's.
But, really, what were the odds against such a fate? Upon being drafted, he was handed a six-year, $68 million contract -- with a whopping $31.5 million guaranteed. He had no real mentors his first two seasons, and when Oakland finally wised up and signed Jeff Garcia as a backup/tutor for 2009, well, it rewarded the veteran's wisdom by inexplicably releasing him before the opening game. As long as Davis is running things, the Raiders' offensive philosophy will be a simple (and inane) one: Throw hard, throw long. So as Russell's young contemporaries, like Baltimore's Joe Flacco and the Jets' Mark Sanchez, complemented their strengths by learning touch and precision, Russell majored in Steve Bartkowski: 101. As anyone who has watched Oakland will tell you, the same quarterback who can launch a majestic 70-yard spiral can't toss a competent halfback screen.
So how does this end for both youngsters? Difficult to say. A betting man would place Heyward in the All Star Game and Russell in the AFL (now starting, for your Bossier-Shreveport BattleWings ...). Sports, however, have a way of surprising us. Twenty-seven years ago, another young, can't-miss outfielder made his major league debut for the Braves. His manager was Joe Torre, his teammates included good guys like Dale Murphy and Claudell Washington. His nickname: The Phenom. What eventually happened? Over eight up-and-down seasons, Brad Komminsk batted .218 with 23 home runs and 105 RBIs.
Forty years ago, another young, can't-miss quarterback made his NFL debut for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had been the No. 1 pick in the draft, but finished his first season with six touchdown passes and 24 interceptions. The ensuing three years were little better. What eventually happened?
Terry Bradshaw is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.