JaMarcus Russell Doesn’t Want Your Sympathy
9:56 | NFL
JaMarcus Russell Doesn’t Want Your Sympathy
Friday April 22nd, 2016

Remember JaMarcus Russell?

Not long ago, Russell was considered a can't-miss NFL prospect. But today, he is remembered by many as one of the biggest busts in NFL history. 

Russell struggled during three seasons with the Oakland Raiders, but a new SI Films documentary shows that Russell has found a new life since his football career ended.

It was a long journey for Russell to reach where he is now. Here’s how his career unfolded, beginning with his junior season at Louisiana State.

The junior season

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Russell was a solid college quarterback his first two years at LSU, but he reached new heights during his junior season. He threw for 28 touchdowns and only eight interceptions, and shot up NFL draft boards after passing for 332 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for another touchdown against Notre Dame in a 41–14 Sugar Bowl victory. Russell won the Manning Award, made first team all-SEC, and was a Sports Illustrated honorable mention All-American. 

By the end of the season, scouts were raving about Russell’s big body and strong arm.

“Has a well-built, strong and athletic frame with good overall muscle definition, long arms, large hands, high-cut with wide shoulders and thick thighs,” his draft profile read. “... He is a perfect prospect for a vertical passing attack.”

The draft...and holdout

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Russell’s performance at LSU steered him toward the NFL draft, where he beat out Brady Quinn as the first quarterback selected in 2007 when the Raiders picked him No. 1. But Russell soon entered a contentious contract negotiation, resulting in a holdout. 

Russell’s holdout made it through training camp and the preseason and spilled into Week 1 of the regular season, making him the longest holdout among No. 1 overall picks since Bo Jackson declined to sign with the Buccaneers in 1986. That September, Russell finally signed a then-rookie record contract for six years and $68 million, with $31.5 million guaranteed.

“Oh, it was worth the wait,” Zina Russell-Anderson, Russell’s mom, said when the deal was agreed upon. “It was well worth the wait. It's a great contract.”

But the holdout put Russell at a significant disadvantage heading into his rookie season.

“He's at a definite disadvantage,” then-Raiders coach Lane Kiffin said in September 2007. “You're talking about hundreds and hundreds of reps in preseason and being in games. We can't simulate what he missed. That's put him in a tough situation.”

The NFL debut

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Russell played sparingly during his rookie season, with the time missed during his holdout keeping him behind other quarterbacks on the roster. He made his debut on Dec. 2, 2007, throwing seven passes in relief of Josh McCown. Russell played off the bench in two more games before making his first start in Week 17 against the San Diego Chargers.

Russell flashed some talent in his first start, completing nearly 75% of his passes for 224 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers. But he also threw two picks and lost a fumble, and he ultimately left the game with an injury as the Raiders lost 30–17. 

After the game, Kiffin named Russell the starter for the 2008 season.

“This isn't going to happen again," Kiffin said. “We're not going to be 4–12. We're going to play better. This won't happen again and our locker room will understand that, as well as our whole building.”


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Russell showed improvement during his second season, throwing for more than 2,400 yards with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 15 games. But Russell also had 11 fumbles, and his 53.8% completion percentage left a lot to be desired. Kiffin was fired mid-season, and the team only improved by one game over its record from the previous year, finishing 5–11 under interim coach Tom Cable.

Russell had some highlights, such as a Week 7 comeback victory over the Jets and a 31–10 victory over the Broncos. He also had his fair share of lowlights, including an opening week 41–14 loss to Denver, and a 6–of–17 performance in an improbable win over the Chiefs.

In his third year, things went south. Russell was benched in November, and eventually found himself No. 3 on the quarterback depth chart. Russell finished the 2009 season with the lowest passer rating, lowest completion percentage, fewest passing touchdowns and fewest passing yards among all qualified NFL quarterbacks.

Soon after the season, it was clear the tide had turned against the former No. 1 pick.

“Cable, based on what he has said, left unsaid and tucked between the lines, views Russell as an underachiever lacking in preparation and work ethic,” Mercury News columnist Gary Peterson wrote in March 2010. “Russell remains a polarizing submediocrity until further notice, largely unsupported in the Raiders locker room and vilified by what's left of the fan base.”

On May 6, 2010, the Raiders released Russell.

In his three years with Oakland, Russell made $36.4 million. The team paid him another $3 million in July 2013 after the two sides filed grievances against each other over the guaranteed money in his rookie deal.

Arrest and first comeback attempt

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In July 2010, Russell was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance after police found codeine syrup in his home as part of an undercover narcotics investigation. Russell pleaded not guilty to the charge, which was a state felony. In October 2010, a grand jury declined to indict him.

Russell addressed the incident in an interview with SI’s Jon Wertheim in 2011.

As for the Mobile arrest, a friend of Russell's who was in the house at the time of the raid claimed the drink was his. The charge against Russell was dropped. "I don't have a drug problem," he says. "What I do have is police trailing every car I got like I'm some dope dealer."

Russell attempted to stay in the league in 2010, even working with life coach John Lucas to get his career back on track. But Russell reportedly showed up to workouts with the Redskins and Dolphins in poor shape, and was also dealing with the fallout of his July arrest.

“It’s such a waste of talent,” a source told Yahoo’s Jason Cole. “It’s hard to believe a guy with that much ability could let it just waste. It’s sad. … It’s like they say, you can’t coach desire.”

Second comeback attempt

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In January 2013, Russell started working toward a second comeback. He began losing weight, and with the guidance of former LSU receiver Mike Clayton, began training at the TEST football academy.

“The last few years, the things going through my life, football is my job and it is how it feeds my family,” Russell said at the time. “People would say [that] I didn’t love the game but that pisses me off. People don’t know the real you but I want people to know the real me and see what I can do. People are always saying that I’m a bust. I want show them I’m not. I’m committed to this now.”

In June 2013, Russell worked out for the Chicago Bears, reportedly putting on a “solid showing.” Still, the team didn’t sign Russell, and opted to sign Trent Edwards and Jordan Palmer later in the off-season.

The Bears workout was the last time Russell auditioned for an NFL team.

Not done yet?

Though Russell has been out of the league for a few years, he apparently isn't ready to give up on his NFL aspirations. Speaking to SI, he said that he would “play for free” if given a chance. 

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