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THE MAN WHO ISN'T THERE
L. JON WERTHEIM
October 31, 2011
The No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft should be out on the field commanding an NFL team this Sunday. JaMarcus Russell, though, is home in Mobile, absorbing shots to his character and resting on what's left of his $39 million. The most maligned figure in football tells his side
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October 31, 2011

The Man Who Isn't There

The No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft should be out on the field commanding an NFL team this Sunday. JaMarcus Russell, though, is home in Mobile, absorbing shots to his character and resting on what's left of his $39 million. The most maligned figure in football tells his side

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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.

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.

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