The existence of the sports journalist can approximate the existence of the pool hustler. You slink into town, discharge your duties, have a few drinks and meals at the local joints, and then head off to the next backwater in search of the next score.
While the pool hustler knows never to return to the same outpost, the sports journalist is often pulled back. There are stories that stay with you. There are curiosities that persist and push you to revisit the subject, catch up on the latest contortions of the plot.
In the fall of 2011, I headed to the soft, swampy southern part of Alabama in search of JaMarcus Russell. At the time, Russell was, of course, the embodiment of the sports bust. As a quarterback at LSU, he played capably, not least in the 2006 Sugar Bowl when he threw for 350 yards in a defeat of Notre Dame. Russell announced that he was skipping his final year and impressed the NFL draft contingent. In a stat as well-trafficked as it was meaningless, he was known to have thrown a football 65 yards from his knees. Based largely on this measure of athleticism—and a body to rival that of a linebacker—he was the first pick in the 2007 draft, lavished with more money than Peyton Manning, who’d just won the Super Bowl.
Suffice to say that in his three misbegotten seasons in Oakland—incalculable cultural miles from his home—Russell did not fulfill expectations. There was plenty of blame to dispense. Russell held out from camp and arrived in miserable shape and missed meetings and generally failed to comport himself like a professional. The Raiders, as dysfunctional a franchise as you could then find in sports, hardly provided a nurturing environment. Russell won only seven of his 25 starts, threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and was released in 2010.
At a time when quarterbacks were in such short supply that NFL teams were hiring math teachers in their 40s to take snaps, Russell was not picked up. His enduring legacy: on account of his swollen $39 million contract, the league instituted a rookie salary scale.
That 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.
On a grey Wednesday, Russell was luxuriating in a chair at the Maysville barbershop in Mobile, walking distance from his boyhood home. Ostensibly, he was there for a trim. But surrounded by old friends and familiar figures, he was there for comfort and company, too.
He was not morbidly overweight, as had been written. He wasn’t drugged out, a well-publicized arrest owing to knuckleheaded decision making but not addiction. He was not broke. And clearly, he was still “processing,” as the clinician would say. A smear of emotions, he was, by turns, outgoing and moody, embarrassed and proud, bitter and indifferent. He blamed himself only to level a slate of grievances against the Raiders, the media and the local police.
After an hour or so, he arrived at this conclusion: “I’ll keep moving, man,” he said. “But what if I don’t make it back to the NFL? I’ll be O.K. Being a competitor, I feel like I have unfinished business. Like, ‘It can’t end like this.’ But want to know the truth? I know that the game don’t owe me a damn thing.”
For all his millions and his muscles, ultimately, he cut the figure of another young adult in his mid-20s, trying to crack these existential riddles.
In the fall of 2015, Russell was less difficult to track down. Various family members—one more delightful than the next, including an uncle who’s a college chemistry professor—had sent me periodic updates through the years. Russell is 30 now, single and not far from his playing weight of 270 lbs. He still has his wealth, living as he does on a plantation-style mansion hard by Mobile Bay. He still has his health—if he’s not in NFL shape, he’s not far off it. He still has his ambivalence about football, slipping between the past and present tense when he talks about the sport. Last year he even sent letters to select NFL teams, offering his services with a no-risk money-back guarantee.
Russell fills part of his days as a youth football coach in Mobile, pacing around with more energy and animation and conviction than he often showed as an NFL quarterback. He doesn't spend much time on-line but he’s aware of his reputation. He knows that with each NFL draft, his name is trotted out as a cautionary tale. And this triggers a deep laugh. He doesn't want the world’s ridicule; but he doesn’t want the world’s sympathy either. No injuries. No head trauma. No financial stresses. None of the unhappiness and complications that came from fame he never wanted. “What,” he asks himself, “do I have to be unhappy about?”
The answers are slow in coming.