by Jim Corbett, USA TODAY Sports
SAN DIEGO - In three NFL seasons with the Oakland Raiders, quarterback JaMarcus Russell went 7-18 as a starter, with 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.
His immaturity, and what Pro Bowl tutor Jeff Garcia calls "a negative Raiders ecosystem," led to Russell walking away from the game -- with $39 million from being the overall No. 1 pick of the 2007 NFL draft.
But Akili Smith knows what drove Russell, now 27, back from the depths of unmet expectations, self-inflicted wounds and forever being linked to epic failure on the internet.
Thirty minutes south of the high school where Russell works out alongside Garcia for a return to the NFL, Smith, 37, prepares for his second season as St. Augustine High quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator in San Diego. If he were still in his twenties, as Russell is, Smith insists he would embrace and respect the game -- and this time wouldn't toss away a career on nightlife.
The Cincinnati Bengals chose Smith with the third overall draft pick in 1999, benched him by 2000 and released him after the 2002 season. The numbers aren't pretty: 17 starts in four years, a 3-14 record, five touchdowns and 13 interceptions. When the Bengals sent him packing, no team would take a chance on him.
He was a bust.
"It burned at me for five, six years when people said I was a bust," Smith said. "It hurt that there's so many articles on Google about you when you've been the best since Pop Warner. Then, after 17 NFL games, you're one of the worst football players who ever walked this earth.
"I turned to partying to turn away from all the negativity, and the partying wound up costing me my career."
Type the words "NFL all-time busts" into a search engine, and the same names pop up -- Russell, Smith, quarterbacks Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Cade McNown and David Carr, wide receivers Charles Rogers and Mike Williams, defensive end Courtney Brown and others. The order changes, depending on who's ranking them. The label, once applied, sticks forever.
Thursday, 32 players will be chosen in the first round of the NFL draft. After months of workouts, private and public, and hundreds of hours of personal interviews, after digging into backgrounds and checking Facebook and Twitter accounts, teams will invest a first-round pick on the player they believe to be a sure-fire NFL star.
But it doesn't always work out. Sometimes, the scouts and NFL executives are dead wrong.
The Bengals were on Smith. The Raiders were on Russell. Smith knows what it's like to carry the label and roots hard for Russell to escape the despair that nearly swallowed Smith's life.
"Because I really wish I had a chance to play this game again," Smith said. "If I did, I would be watching film and training all day."
Joel Fish, who is director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia and has worked with pro athletes for 20 years, knows why the label hurts so much.
"I had a player once tell me that word 'bust,' and that reputation of being a bust, was a ball and chain that he was wearing around his neck," the sports psychologist said. "My whole work with him was just to help him find ways to remove that 'ball and chain.'
"We all have pride and want people to think well of us. ... That's why it takes such courage for these guys to put themselves out there -- because they're always one moment away from being labeled in a negative way. So then that challenge becomes how to get that ball and chain off their neck."
A weighty issue with Russell
Weight was always an issue with Russell, who just two months ago came in at roughly 315 pounds. Now, he says he's at 276.
His easy smile seems to demonstrate that if he hasn't taken all of the weight off, he has jettisoned some of the emotional baggage of a failed career.
Why was he a bust?
"I blame myself," Russell said. "I could have given football more. I could have done more as a professional. There just could have been more film room, more classroom. I could have kept my weight down to become an overall better player.
"There's a lot that comes with that No. 1 pick. No matter what, you have to be willing to take it. I wasn't putting out No. 1 results. This time around, I plan on coming back with a vengeance, showing what could have been."
Brian Martin, TEST Football Academy CEO, convinced Russell to attempt a comeback in San Diego, working with former NFL conditioning coach Jeff Hurd and Garcia, who spent the 2009 Raiders training camp with Russell.
Russell never came close to realizing late owner Al Davis' vision of John Elway in silver and black -- and the team unsuccessfully tried to sue Russell to reclaim some of the money paid to him.
His legacy? A rookie wage scale, implemented in 2011, that mitigates the financial damage for whiffing on a top draft pick. And in 2011, when rookie quarterback Terrelle Pryor asked to wear No. 2 -- Russell's former number -- the superstitious Raiders refused to allow it.
Hoping to escape a football-less prison of his own making, Russell has worked six days a week to become what he wasn't -- a fiery field general in the image of four-time Pro Bowler Garcia. Russell is grateful the aspiring quarterback guru threw him a lifeline.
"Now that I know what to do, I can bring a lot as a leader," Russell said. "It's about getting into the right situation with a coach who would love to teach me to be that quarterback. ... When I'm taught the correct way, I can really play at a high level. Being away from it, that's when you find out the love you really have for football."
Garcia ran twice weekly, training-camp intense throwing sessions for Russell and a dozen players. He hopes his urgent tempo and quest for every-snap perfection rubbed off. But, then again, Russell's raw talent was never an issue the first time around. His work ethic and appetite were, and teams appear wary that he has the discipline to keep his head in the playbook and out of the refrigerator.
"I definitely would vouch for him. JaMarcus doesn't want to be remembered as the bust," Garcia said. "Here's an opportunity to turn the whole perception around as to who he is. He's definitely transformed himself.
"There's a sense of embarrassment from a physical and emotional standpoint. Physically, he let himself get to a place where he should have never been. It's about how you rebound and turn your life around. If a team gives him a chance, he doesn't want to let them or himself down."
But there are other questions, too: Russell was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance, a drink containing codeine syrup, when Mobile, Ala., police raided his home in July 2010. A grand jury declined to indict Russell, who pleaded not guilty. A friend, Marcus Stevenson, was charged after Stevenson testified the codeine-laced drink was his.
"That's over and done with, in the past," Russell said.
But for Russell, nothing will be in the past until he creates a new present.
Second chances can work
Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes sat in the otherwise empty Cathedral Catholic High bleachers alongside his son, Tate, an eighth-grade quarterback mesmerized by Russell's impressive mock pro day. Russell roped freakish, zip-line spirals, flicking a couple of effortless, 65-yard touchdown strikes.
"Unbelievable. I've never seen anyone throw a football like that," said Haynes, who spent the latter half of his 14-year NFL career with the Raiders. "Maybe he's ready now. If I were a team, I'd give him a shot."
But second chances are rare once a player has been labeled a bust, especially for a lack of discipline and commitment.
Quarterback Kerry Collins, who retired after the 2011 season, was the fifth overall pick in the 1995 draft. He lasted 17 years and played with six teams. But his career almost ended after four seasons.
Collins used a racial slur, he claimed in jest, with black Carolina Panthers teammates during a night of drinking during training camp in 1997. He was later accused of quitting on his team when he requested a trade.
New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi took a shot on Collins and signed him to a four-year, $17 million contract. Critics thought Accorsi had lost his mind by investing in a drunken, racist, emotionally fragile bust.
"When we gave Kerry Collins a second chance in 1999, no one else would touch him," former Giants head coach Jim Fassel said.
Fassel helped Collins turn his life around, and Collins repaid the Giants' faith by leading them to Super Bowl XXXV (ending in a championship for the Baltimore Ravens). Collins' career far exceeded what anyone would have predicted when he checked himself into alcohol rehabilitation in 1999.
"I gave Kerry 100 chances to blame others," Fassel said. "He took full accountability. I'm as proud of Kerry as any player I've coached. Guys can change. It's up to them."
Must set aside personal problems
Russell lost his father figure, uncle Ray Russell, in 2009. His grandmother, Bernice Russell, was diagnosed in 2011 with breast cancer.
"I tried to come back in 2010, but couldn't lose the weight," Russell said. "There were life situations I had to deal with before I could put everything into working out and getting better."
Bernice Russell, 71, has been in remission more than a year, inspiring a grandson committed to recasting himself.
"He's come a long way," Martin said. "He's made a commitment, not just to football but life. His self-confidence is way up from two months ago. We're hoping a team will bring him in soon and capitalize."
Will someone gamble given a draft lacking a sure-fire quarterback?
"He'll get another shot," Ravens assistant GM Eric DeCosta said. "The guy throws the ball better than most quarterbacks. He played at a high level in college. Guys have had second shots and really benefited. If he works hard and rededicates himself, his future is very bright."
Smith knows what Russell needs in what's likely to be his last chance. He won't be able to completely shed the bust label, but he might get an opportunity to add a positive footnote or two.
"JaMarcus has to go to a strong organization where veteran leaders will put him in a headlock and say, 'You've got another opportunity. We're not going to let you blow it,' " Smith said. "JaMarcus fell into the same stuff I did. He wants to rectify and prove he's worthy of the first overall pick."
When told about Smith's comments, Russell nodded.
"I'm almost there," he said. "I've got to keep fighting. This time, I want to leave a better mark on this game."
And if he doesn't get the chance, Fish holds out hope that Russell and Smith -- and past and future draft busts -- won't wallow in their shortcomings or allow bloggers to dictate their self-worth.
"To me, it's how much of the player's identity is wrapped up in being the athlete," Fish said. "That, to me, is a crucial factor that determines how devastating being labeled as a failure or a bust will ultimately be."
Some of the more prominent draft "busts" over the last 15 years:
QB Ryan Leaf -- Was the second overall pick of the 1998 draft, by the San Diego Chargers. Played from 1998-2001. Had 14 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions, going 4-17 as a starter. He played for two teams, his last year with the Dallas Cowboys.
QB Tim Couch -- Was the first overall pick of the 1999 draft, by the Cleveland browns. Played from 1999-2003. Had 64 touchdown passes and 65 interceptions, going 22-37 as a starter. His career was all with the Browns.
QB Cade McNown -- Was the 12th overall pick of the 1999 draft, by the Chicago Bears. Played from 1999-2000. Had 16 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions, going 3-12 as a starter. His career was all with the Bears.
QB David Carr -- Was the first overall pick of the 2002 draft. Played from 2002-2012. Had 65 touchdown passes and 71 interceptions, going 23-56 as a starter. He played for four teams, his last year with the New York Giants.
WR Charles Rogers -- Was the 2nd overall pick of the 2003 draft, by the Detroit Lions. Played from 2003-2005. Had 36 receptions, with four touchdowns. His career was all with the Lions.
WR Mike Williams -- Was the 10th overall pick of the 2005 draft, by the Detroit Lions. Played from 2005-2011. Had 127 receptions, with five touchdowns. He played for four teams, his last with the Seattle Seahawks.
DE Courtney Brown -- Was the first overall pick of the 2000 draft, by the Cleveland Browns. Played from 2000-2005. Had 156 tackles, with 19 sacks. He played for two teams, his last year with the Denver Broncos.
By Rachel Shuster, USA TODAY Sports