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."