The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif., Lowell Cohn column
Feb 14, 2013 (The Press Democrat - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
This is either the saddest story or the happiest story ever told. No one knows yet. No one knows until there's an ending. And the ending hasn't happened.
It is the JaMarcus Russell Story, the story of his comeback, to be precise. If there is a comeback. He is 27 years old, and hasn't played in the NFL since the 2009 season when he was the worst starting quarterback in the league.
Before he left the NFL and after he left, he was a joke. Or if that seems cruel, just say he was a shooting star. He was the first player taken in the 2007 draft and then he flamed out. He was the player who signed for $61 million, the player who had no business playing football with serious men, who had no business posing as an athlete.
Many consider him the biggest bust in the long history of the NFL's big busts. Can you name someone bigger
You can catch up on Russell's story. Go to Bleacher Report on the Internet. You'll see a video, fascinating for sure, of Russell getting into football shape -- well, attempting to -- of Russell trying to remake himself, of Russell trying not to be a joke. Not anymore. Is it too late
As you watch him run wind sprints and practice proper footwork for passing, you pull for him. You can't help but pull for him. You pull for anyone in that situation, someone making an honest effort, someone overcoming public failure -- trying to.
And you remember he was nice. He really was. You always liked him because he was so easy to like.
So, you pull for him because his story grabs your heart and because, most of all, you see yourself in Russell. Yes, you do. Every one of us has gone down for the count, failed, acted like a fool, carelessly wasted days and months and years. Russell stands for you and me. Look at him. Look at us.
The video shows him on his first day at TEST Football Academy in San Diego. There really is such a place -- a football "academy." TEST is the Stanford/Cal/Harvard of football institutions of higher learning. And Russell is a mere freshman. You watch him practice passing with Jeff Garcia, once his teammate on the Raiders, Garcia encouraging him, but also correcting him, teaching Russell stuff he already should know. You watch Russell try so hard with his innocent, hopeful face and it is the saddest or the happiest movie you ever saw. You hear him say he wants to, "just show the coaches out there JaMarcus Russell has changed as a person."
And you remember what he was like when he came to the Raiders. He had a child's smile, probably because he still was a child. He had baby fat around his middle, and that was unexpected on a world-class athlete. He had almost nothing to say but he quickly bought gold jewels and furs and would wear them to postgame news conferences, even after losses. He looked like a reveler straight out of "The Great Gatsby."
He could throw the football a mile, but he didn't know the nuances of quarterbacking, the things grown men practice. He was unsure of the playbook and -- this was the worst condemnation -- his teammates did not believe in him.
Why would they When Russell still was the Raiders' starting quarterback, one former Raider told me Russell's problems stemmed from his problems as a "man." That is the worst condemnation.
And then there were the rumors -- sadly, I believe them -- that he was a connoisseur of "purple drank," an addictive, codeine-based drink that blots out the world and makes problems seem small and renders the drinker a non-contributor in life.
The talk of purple drank surely made other teams avoid Russell after the Raiders released him. He tried out for backup quarterback jobs with the Dolphins and Redskins, but neither team wanted him.
Russell arrived at TEST weighing 310 pounds. That made him 40 pounds overweight. It is never good to come to school unprepared. It makes you wonder how serious Russell is and if he is determined, or merely hopeful in a fantasy sort of way -- like a child.
He has so much to overcome -- his age, his bad history, his passive nature, his lack of drive and, perhaps, an addiction. You wonder what kind of people he hangs with. It seems so hopeless.
And yet, there he is on film sweating and working hard and then working even harder. And as you watch, you want him to overcome what he needs to overcome, and you want him to grab hold of his life while there's time.
I'll tell you this. If Russell succeeds, makes it back to the NFL and spits in the eye of critics like me -- if he earns that right -- I'll stand up and cheer.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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