JaMarcus Russell: The most maligned figure in football tells his side of the story

From a chair in Maysville Barber Shop in Mobile—where he goes to have his head shaved three or four times a week—JaMarcus Russell tells senior writer L. Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) his side of the story. Russell says that few people are aware of the factors that worked against him during his time with the Oakland Raiders, including:

  • The death of 11 family members or friends, including uncle and father figure Ray Ray: “I went through so much no one knew about. Go to a funeral on Saturday, fly into the game on Sunday. Then I hear, ‘He doesn’t lead by example.’ Really?”
  • What Russell regards as being betrayed by then coach Tom Cable: “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.”
  • The lack of support from his teammates: “Things weren’t going right, and it felt sometimes like everything fell back on me. 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.”

Unbeknownst to many, Russell has given generously to his hometown of Mobile. He’s paid for turkeys at Thanksgiving food drives, bought supplies and library books for local schools and uniforms for local sports teams, underwritten the renovation for his church, built ramps for wheelchair-bound residents and rewarded kids with straight A’s with bikes, MP3 players and GoPhones. Russell says: “If I do go broke, it’s going to be from providing for my neighborhood and my family.” So why isn’t his charitable work better known? “My business is my business. That’s how I prefer it. I gotta look up to God. I don’t gotta look out to no damn news cameras!”

Russell’s reputation as a “Santa Claus” of Mobile (in the words of a barbershop denizen at Maysville) contrasts sharply with the rumors that dogged him in Oakland. Russell also addressed those with Wertheim:

  • On reports that he slept during team meetings: “In the NFL, my first year, I had to be there at 6:30 [a.m.] before practice and be on the treadmill for an hour. 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.”
  • Life coach John Lucas, responding to reports that he “fired” Russell as a client: “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.”
  • Addressing rumors that he’s broke: “Football isn’t paying me now. 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.”

Russell sums up the current state of his life—and his football prospects—thusly: “I’ll keep moving, man. 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.”


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