Inside Maysville Barber Shop, time doesn't act its age. Small but tidy, the place has been at the same spot on Dublin Street in Mobile for decades, and there's little indication that it's a day beyond 1975. The air is thick with wintergreen, baby powder and testosterone. Above the soda machine that sells Cokes for 50 cents, a television is tuned to daytime fare you haven't seen in years. (Family Feud is still on the air?) The decor is mostly yellowed photos of local sports stars. There are only three hydraulic chairs inside the shop. But two benches along the walls accommodate at least a dozen people, the equivalent of church pews or ringside bleacher seats. At all hours of the day, men come to talk sports and sex and politics, swap jokes and conspiracy theories. There are only two dudes that control all the oil prices in the world. One dude wake up mad at the other, and I go from paying three bucks a gallon to four! They give each other grief and make each other laugh. They tell and retell stories, a disproportionate number of which turn on the phrase, But then I come to find out... .
There's another regular, originally from the neighborhood, who seldom rolls up in the same car twice in a row. On this Wednesday it's a tan SUV. He goes 6'6", maybe 280 pounds, wearing a Phillies cap, a gold tube of a necklace, a red T-shirt reading WITHOUT VICTORY THERE IS NO SURVIVAL. With a boyish, meaty face set off by a thin mustache, he looks both older and younger than his 26 years. JaMarcus Russell comes to Maysville three or four times a week, ostensibly to get his head shaved clean but also to get his ego stroked. The shop is where he's accepted, adored even, where he hangs comfortably. As the razor hums and the afternoon sun seeps through the blinds, he can express his mix of emotions—pride and embarrassment, contentment and hunger, defiance and remorse. And if it comes in a swirl of contradictions, here, somehow, it still makes sense.
In the spring of 2007, Russell, a junior at LSU, was considered the best quarterback prospect coming out of college. For the NFL draft, a television network set up cameras at Maysville to get the locals' reaction, and when the Raiders selected Russell with the No. 1 pick, the place erupted. His name hasn't prompted nearly the same enthusiasm since. Russell played three seasons, and won few fans and fewer games—just seven of the 25 he started—before Oakland released him in May 2010. No other team picked him up.
Russell's fall has been spectacular: He has replaced Ryan Leaf, by an order of magnitude, as the biggest washout in NFL history. And it has been accompanied by a level of glee that verges on creepy. If Michael Vick exposed the fans' capacity for forgiveness, the depth of their compassion, their love of a comeback story, Russell has inspired the opposite: To an unprecedented degree he has become a vessel for every disgruntled fan's bile. Call it regression to the mean.
October 30, 2011
It's been two autumns now since Russell last played a down of organized football. This fall, when capable quarterbacks have been in high demand and short supply, he's gotten no calls. The Raiders lost his successor, Jason Campbell, to a broken collarbone on Oct. 16, and last week they acquired 31-year-old Carson Palmer, who had chosen to retire rather than play for the Bengals. Oakland sent Cincinnati a first-round pick in 2012 and a conditional second-rounder in '13, and will pay him a guaranteed $7.5 million over the next two years. Yet Russell still counts himself among Mobile's legion of unemployed.
Trips to the barbershop notwithstanding, Russell has found security in obscurity. When it comes to his whereabouts, he even stiff-arms his closest friends and relatives. Uncles are mistaken about which state he calls home. In Baton Rouge—where Russell starred and, with his cartoonishly strong right arm, led the Tigers to a Sugar Bowl win as a junior—an athletic department official tweeted over the summer that he was returning to school to finish his degree. That turned out to be a false lead. A cousin asserted that Russell was opening a chicken-and-waffles restaurant in Mobile. More misinformation.
Russell has little use for media—mainstream, digital or social. He's unsure whom he despises more, the pundits who routinely rip him on the air or the bloggers who do the same anonymously. Going nowhere in particular, Russell often drives the interstates of the Gulf Coast, past fog-shrouded bayous, magnolias and gumbo shacks. Hidden by tinted windows, he lets his texts and voice mails backlog. "He can be a mystery man," says an uncle, Albert Russell, a chemistry professor at Tuskegee University. "He doesn't really like to talk about everything he's been through. You can understand it."
Every man, though, has a breaking point. Russell has stood by as his name has become a punch line. As followers have flocked to the obligatory mock Twitter account. (@FakeFatJamarcus: I like food, draaank, rims, Madden 12, jewelry, chillin', da club, and football. In that order.) As what he perceives to be lies and half-truths have hardened into accepted fact.
But now it's a few days after the death of Al Davis, the Raiders' idiosyncratic owner, the man who drafted Russell and conferred on him tens of millions of dollars. Russell has decided he's in the mood to talk. It's time, he reckons, to give his side of the story.
His massive torso covered by a leopard-print cutting cape, Russell settles into the first chair at Maysville. Gray-haired proprietor Moses Packer, known to all as Black Sheep, is ready to work. Russell orders the blinds pulled. He tells the gallery they're welcome to stay, and they all do. But no one else can enter. The vertical bars on the door are fastened, the closed sign unfurled. "I'm warning y'all," says Russell, smiling, "there's gonna be some cursing." The gallery whoops. And with that, in a rumbling drawl, JaMarcus Russell begins his defense of the outstanding charges.
Russell has become the poster dude for lethargy, a condition waiting to be clinically approved.
—San Francisco Chronicle
During his time in Oakland, Russell's work ethic was considerably less than exemplary. Most damning were reports that he fell asleep during team meetings. "In the NFL, my first year, I had to be there at 6:30 before practice and be on the treadmill for an hour," he says. "Then meetings come, I sit down, eat my fruit. We watch film, and maybe I got tired. Coach Flip [quarterback coach John DeFilippo] pulled me aside and said, 'What are you doing for night life?' I said, 'Coach, I'm just chilling.' He said, 'I need to get you checked out.' I did the sleep test, and they said I had apnea."
JaMarcus Russell is so fat he eats out of a satellite dish. He sweats gravy.
—comment at National Football Post
During Russell's time with the Raiders his weight fluctuated, not least when he returned to the Gulf Coast in the off-season and indulged in various deep-fried specialties. "I put weight on easy, and I can take it off easy. Do I look fat now?" If Russell were a steak, you might say he's heavily marbled. But fat? No. He's not in NFL shape, but he's doesn't look far off.
JaMarcus Russell: Purple Drank Connoisseur
Over the long Fourth of July weekend in 2010, Mobile police, acting on a tip, raided Russell's mansion near Mobile Bay. Next to Russell's bed they found a cup containing a codeine-laced liquid—allegedly an orange-colored version of Purple Drank, a.k.a. "syzzurp," a recreational drug that has especially found favor in hip-hop circles in the South. Russell, who did not have a prescription, was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. His slim chance of returning to the NFL diminished even further after this episode.
Though Russell admits he failed a drug test for codeine while he was in the NFL, he says he was taking cough syrup at the time to combat his sleep apnea. 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."
JaMarcus Russell is broke.
Claims that Russell is in dire financial straits circulated over the summer when TMZ reported that his Oakland Hills mansion had fallen into foreclosure after he failed to make past-due mortgage payments amounting to close to $200,000. Not so, Russell says. He just sold the house. "Football isn't paying me now," he says. "You make $1 million a game and you can do whatever. It's not like that anymore; I need to put myself in a place where those zeroes in the bank last for a long time. But I'm not broke. Far from it."
JaMarcus Russell fired by 'life coach,' John Lucas.
—The Huffington Post
Earlier this year Russell surfaced in Houston, working with former NBA player and coach John Lucas, a longtime guru to troubled athletes trying to revive their careers. In April, Lucas reportedly fired Russell, still more evidence that he was an irredeemable slug. Except both men say it never happened. "I felt like I was overtraining, running my body into the ground, so I left Houston," Russell says. "But fired? Me and Coach Lucas, we're cool. We still talk. I texted him just the other day." (Says Lucas, "I don't know where that [report] came from. JaMarcus is a good kid, I'm telling you, who just needs to find his motivation. But we still talk. Have him tell you about his sleep apnea. A lot [of his issues] come from that. And no one knows it.")
As Black Sheep shaves the back of Russell's neck, Russell stops talking. Blue, seated on the bench wearing Russell's number 2 Raiders jersey, fills the void: "It's like this. Someone says there's fish swimming on the floor of Black Sheep's barbershop. But it goes here and there, people passing it on, but missing the facts. By the time it gets to you, you hear it as: 'Someone dropped a fillet-o-fish sandwich on the floor of the barbershop.'"
This is met with laughs from the other regulars. "What you trying to say?" someone shouts. "That don't make sense!"
"Sure it does," Blue says. "Truth gets twisted. That's what happened to JaMarcus."
Okay, fine, truth gets twisted. So how did the top pick in an NFL draft, with no physical injury, find himself out of the league at 24? How did a player so coveted become so unwanted so quickly? Analyze Russell's downfall and you get an algorithm for bad luck, bad advice and bad decisions.
Start with the Raiders. The team may share a venue with the A's, the franchise that gave us Moneyball, but drafting Russell was a classic case of overvaluing a player based on intuition and misleading data. While few doubted his abilities in the run-up to the draft—"I can't remember being in such awe of a quarterback in my decade of attending combines and pro days," said ESPN's Todd McShay—some voiced concern over less quantifiable aspects of Russell's game, in particular his maturity. Was his laid-back nature a reflection of poise or apathy? "The only thing that's going to keep [Russell] from being great is him," NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock said at the time. "You've got to figure out whether or not this kid wants to be the best quarterback in football... . If I had the first, second, third ... pick in that draft, I would be tearing apart his personal life, trying to figure out whether or not I could trust this kid with $10 million."
"Basically, Al Davis fell in love with [Russell], and if anyone had doubts, he didn't want to hear it," says a former Raiders executive. "You could justify JaMarcus, but it was based mostly on his arm strength. Great, but how many times a game does a guy throw 60 yards on the run?"
A congenitally dysfunctional organization, the Raiders could scarcely have been a worse fit. They surrounded Russell with mediocre talent: Justin Fargas was no Marcus Allen, Ronald Curry no Tim Brown, Lane Kiffin no John Madden. The front office and coaching staff were crippled by in-fighting. The specter of Davis's wrath and eccentricity loomed over each decision. Putting Russell—whose physical prowess was offset by his lack of savvy—in an atmosphere charged with office politics, two time zones and a million cultural miles from his Gulf Coast comfort zone, spelled trouble. "There was no mentoring," laments Russell's aunt, Terry Green. Russell agrees, "Look at [Jets starter] Mark Sanchez and [veteran backup] Mark Brunell. Mark Brunell knows goddam well he ain't going to come in the game. He's there to help. I wish I'd had someone to do that."
During his time in Oakland, Russell says 11 of his family members or friends died, including his uncle Ray Ray Russell, a father figure. "I went through so much no one knew about," he says. "Go to a funeral on Saturday, fly into the game on Sunday. Then I hear, 'He doesn't lead by example.' Really?"
The wounds still clearly raw, Russell can recall, word for word, entire passages of dialogue with Raiders teammates and staff. The coaches who complimented Russell (or blamed his linemen) to his face, and then ripped him behind his back. The teammates who complained of his leadership but didn't accept his offer to come to Mobile, all expenses paid, and work out with him in the off-season. "Things weren't going right, and it felt sometimes like everything fell back on me," he says. "I take some responsibility, but I was one guy... . I may have missed a throw, but I didn't give up 42 points, I didn't miss a block."
He feels particularly betrayed by Tom Cable, who replaced Kiffin as coach five games into the 2008 season. Russell says that at first the two men had daily, meaningful conversations, sometimes crying while talking about lost relatives. "All of a sudden," says Russell, "he flipped the script. I stuck my neck out for him. Didn't complain when he benched me as the starter. Didn't complain when he called the same plays five damn times. Didn't [badmouth] him to other coaches. When the [media] asks me, I say, 'He's a good coach, a good guy.' Then I hear he says I was the worst thing ever happened to the Raiders, if it weren't for him we'd be in the playoffs? ... It just got to where the game wasn't fun for me." (Cable did not respond to requests for comment left with the Seahawks, where he is now the offensive line coach.)
Russell, of course, bears plenty of responsibility himself. As a rookie he held out through training camp before signing a six-year, $61 million deal on Sept. 12, 2007, with $32 million guaranteed. That contract would become Exhibit A when the NFL owners argued for a rookie wage scale this past off-season, one of the key elements in the new collective bargaining agreement. The outsized contract created outsized expectations. "With that kind of money," says Albert Russell, "there were negative judgments before he threw his first pass."
Then, when JaMarcus did throw one, too often it fell to the ground. He completed just 52.1% of his passes, threw more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (18) and lost 15 fumbles. Russell's 65.2 career passer rating is anorexic, but it was in keeping with his approval rating among fans. A few wayward passes or sacks or ill-considered decisions and the Black Hole would break out in spontaneous chants: JaMarcus sucks! JaMarcus sucks!
At first the Raiders stuck by Russell. Some did, anyway. In 2007, when Kiffin complained about his rookie quarterback, Davis responded with a letter to the coach that read in part, "He is a great player. Get over it and coach this team on the field." But as Russell committed acts of general knuckleheadedness (he says he was once fined $5,000 by the team for wearing the wrong color socks), missed team meetings and put on pounds, patience eroded. A benching during the 2009 season, designed to galvanize Russell, only seemed to blunt his motivation, and he tumbled down the depth chart. "The Raiders tried to get him to work hard—with all they had at stake, they wanted it to work more than anyone," says Michael Lombardi, an Oakland executive from 1999 to 2007 and now an NFL Network analyst. "JaMarcus was indifferent. And that's the worst thing to be. You didn't get a sense he cared about doing well."
Finally in the spring of 2010, after the team had acquired Campbell from the Redskins, Davis called Russell in and told him the Raiders were releasing him. They had already paid him $36.4 million and would owe him another $3 million. Of the meeting with Davis, Russell recalls, "He wished me the best and apologized that it came out this way. He said, 'I'm getting older, and things are getting out of my hands. I know you're going to go to another team and make me look like an ass.'"
Russell's response? "What could I say? I told him, 'Thanks for the opportunity. You blessed me, my family and a lot of other people you don't even know about.'"
Abutting the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile is the oldest city in Alabama, founded by French colonists. It's the hometown of Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige. There is exceptional wealth, streets lined with stately mansions. There is also exceptional poverty, streets lined with houses for sale for $10,000. (As Russell spoke at Maysville, that same afternoon, not far away, a man was murdered in the middle of the street.) Russell grew up on Marine Street in the Oakdale section of Mobile, raised by a single mom, Zina, who held a variety of minimum-wage jobs. Unlike some friends and neighbors, Russell didn't go hungry. And he always had a seersucker suit to wear to church. But the family was not rich. Says Russell, "Put it this way: I got free lunch."
When Russell signed his NFL contract, he became unfathomably wealthy overnight. "And you know what?" says Terry Green, his aunt. "He spent it like any other 21-year-old kid would." Yes and no. True, he bought items that had once seemed abstractions: jewelry, a fleet of cars and a gated waterfront estate that looks like something out of Gone with the Wind. For this Russell is unapologetic. "What am I supposed to do?" he says. "Not get nicer clothes to wear and nicer cars to drive?"
But Russell also spread considerable wealth around Mobile. If you live in town and have eaten Thanksgiving turkey through a food drive these past few years, there's a good chance Russell paid for it. He's bought supplies and library books for local schools and uniforms for local sports teams. When he heard about a family that had lost its home in a fire, he says he drove up, handed the mother $10,000 in cash and drove off. He underwrote the renovation of his church, Sure Word Outreach Ministries. New pews, new pulpit, new sound system, new carpet.
Russell recently noticed that an alarming number of his old Mobile neighbors were confined to wheelchairs. Sometimes it was diabetes. Sometimes, as in the case of a boyhood friend, Ralph Wiggins, it was because of a paralyzing gunshot wound. Russell bought supplies, and he and his cousin Daryl Davis built ramps at many of their homes. Last year Russell hosted a party at the park where, growing up, he spent countless hours playing sports. At the party he fed hundreds, and if kids could show him a report card of straight A's, Russell bought them bikes, MP3 players and GoPhones.
"Like Santa Claus!" interjects one of the Maysville congregants.
"If I do go broke," says Russell, who is unmarried and has no children, "it's going to be from providing for my neighborhood and my family."
Even Russell's harshest critics have to concede his loyalty. But why had so little of what he's done in his hometown been publicized, especially when it would have helped him counter his unflattering image? Russell scowls. "My business is my business," he says. "That's how I prefer it. I gotta look up to God. I don't gotta look out to no damn news cameras!"
He also tends to avert his gaze when the NFL is on television. Too many times he's settled in to watch a game, heard someone trash him and felt the sting the rest of the day. Even in 2011 the criticism—some fair, some vicious—keeps coming. Russell is not without sin, not the least sloth. But the popular perception is that he sabotaged himself, that he wasted a level of native talent and, in turn, a career that millions would have killed for, a felony according to the penal code of sports.
That he was paid a CEO's salary only compounds matters. And if you think race isn't a factor, check out various blogs and online comment sections and note the heavy rotation of words like thug and ghetto, as well as the tired, shabby charge that African-Americans are unfit to play quarterback. Swaying between indifference and rage, Russell is still trying to figure out what to make of it all. In one breath he says, "I could give a f--- what people who don't know me think." In the next he says, "You don't know me, and you're [smearing] my family's name? That's just wrong."
So he's a casual football fan. He follows former LSU teammates now in the league. He loves Peyton Manning but worries about him. ("I can't tell a man what to do, and I know he loves the game," says Russell, "but he takes a hit and his neck could be f----- up for good. I'd hate that.") He's a fan of Aaron Rodgers and of the nearby Saints. He likes Drew Brees (though Russell says he throws off his back foot too much) and Calvin Johnson. Does he follow the Raiders? "No. They took a lot out of me."
As Black Sheep finishes his handiwork, Russell ponders his future. "Right now I'm enjoying being me. I'm in a good place. Sometimes being a professional athlete, you feel like you can't live. You're under a microscope. Anything you do is on Twitter, Facebook—"
"They call that paparazzi!" someone interjects.
Russell ignores this one. "I'm a human being first. So now, I'm at peace."
The gallery cheers.
But he is also incomplete. "There's a part of me that wants to play football till I can't walk," Russell says, his voice going slack. "I miss it, yeah."
He recently discussed that feeling with his uncle Albert. "I know you still love football," Albert said. "But do you respect the game?"
"More than I respect life," said JaMarcus.
"Well," said Albert, "what are you gonna do about that? It's not going to fall into your lap. You need to prove yourself to the people who saw you implode. How are you going to rectify that?"
As for getting back, it's a bit of a Hail Mary. "He's only 26, and we all know the NFL's appetite for quarterbacks," says Lombardi, "but he needs to play, to go to Canada and show he can win, show his skills. He needs to take responsibility, say, 'I [messed] up, and I'm interested in returning.' If he wants to come back, it's crazy he hasn't done that."
Fair point. Why did Russell dismiss offers from teams in the UFL and the Canadian league? "Name one kid in the world who says, 'I can't wait to play in the CFL!' That s--- don't work." How's he going to get back into shape? "I'm going to work out at LSU in the spring, take classes and hopefully get [invited] to a camp this summer... . Also, I'm building a 50-yard turf field on my property." What about the sleep apnea? "I got it under control, man." Does he have regrets? "I live life without regret. I can wish it had gone different. But my momma told me as long as I'm living and breathing, I got nothing to complain about."
An awkward silence descends. But here comes Blue with another parable.
"What's the most fierce s--- in the water?"
"An alligator?" comes a voice.
"No!" says Blue. "In the deep blue sea."
"Right. A shark. But here's the thing about a shark. It moves around, swaying back and forth. But as soon as it stops moving, it drowns!"
The barbershop goes nuts. "What?!" the crowd cries out, laughing and slapping fives.
"That's JaMarcus," says Blue. "He gotta keep moving."
Russell sits and shakes his head. His haircut has been done for almost an hour now, but he's still in the chair, his throne. As the men keep laughing, Russell waves them quiet.
"I'll keep moving, man," he says. "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.'"
The gallery nods, ignoring the apparent contradictions. Russell leans in, practically whispering. "But want to know the truth?" he says. "I know that the game don't owe me a damn thing."
IF MICHAEL VICK EXPOSED OUR CAPACITY FOR FORGIVENESS, OUR LOVE OF A COMEBACK STORY, RUSSELL HAS INSPIRED THE OPPOSITE. HE HAS BECOME A VESSEL FOR EVERY DISGRUNTLED FAN'S BILE.
REPUTATION ASIDE, RUSSELL SAYS, "THERE'S A PART OF ME THAT WANTS TO PLAY FOOTBALL UNTIL I CAN'T WALK. YEAH, I MISS IT."
"I'M ENJOYING BEING ME. I'M IN A GOOD PLACE. I CAN WISH IT HAD GONE DIFFERENT, BUT AS LONG AS I'M LIVING AND BREATHING, I'VE GOT NOTHING TO COMPLAIN ABOUT."