The Kansas City Star – April 22, 2011 – Kent Babb – Bobby Parrish remembers a skinny kid with his future unwritten, an athlete determined to prove that football could carry him out of southwest Alabama’s poverty and despair.
JaMarcus Russell was a freshman quarterback when Parrish took the head coaching job at Williamson High in Mobile, and Russell never missed a practice in four years. Parrish says Russell wanted to make something of himself, and even after he left Mobile and became a star at LSU, it was clear Russell was persistent — chasing a carrot that, if he reached it, would reward him with fame, riches and success.
All those financial struggles would be behind him, if he could only reach that carrot.
Then he did, becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft. The Oakland Raiders signed Russell to a contract that guaranteed him $32 million. He had made it. After that, Russell wasn’t the same.
“We try to say money don’t change you,” Parrish says now.
The skinny kid that Parrish remembers swelled to more than 300 pounds, and the work ethic that carried Russell through the amateur ranks was deflated. He went 7-18 as a starter before the Raiders released him last year. No team has re-signed Russell, and nearly four years after that draft, he is out of the NFL — known as one of the biggest busts in league history.
Russell’s story is common among kids who grew up poor. They spend years dreaming of that life-changing payday, when all the work and sacrifice will be rewarded. If only they can reach the NFL, everything will be different.
For some, though, they can never again match the motivation once fueled by the notion of financial security. Some see reaching the NFL as a finish line; after they cross it, sports psychologist John Murray says, it’s difficult to re-establish new goals. And these days, when rookie contracts set records each year, pro teams have a difficult responsibility: Who is not only worthy of perhaps $50 million in guaranteed money — but who won’t be satisfied by it?
“When they get their money,” Murray says of some players, “things change.”
Some of the reasons are geographic. Of the states among the top-10 per-capita producers of NFL players, five — Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and South Carolina — also are in the nation’s top 10 in highest poverty rate. Money is a motivator, but perhaps more so in places where a player’s friends, neighbors and relatives live below the poverty line.
Russell grew up in a place like that, and Parrish says the player’s family was on the lower end of Mobile’s financial spectrum.
“Your role is to get there,” Parrish says of the NFL. “You want to do everything you can: ‘I’m gonna bust my butt.’ Then once you get there, you receive that money. … Some people still have that motivation to keep going, to make even more money. And then there are some that are like, ‘Well, I’ve made it.’ ”
During the first four months of each year, NFL teams invest time, money and resources to try to separate the players who want to be great from those who only want to be rich. The Chiefs are among several teams that elevate character and background on a par with talent, and if there are signals that a prospect is interested only in money, some teams back off — regardless of that player’s upside.
Others, though, aren’t so willing to distance themselves.
“Sometimes talent wins out,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper says. “You talk yourself into liking this player.”
Players become busts for plenty of reasons: poor work habits, the inability to adjust to the NFL game, bad fits within a system. But none seem to foretell a collapse more than how that player reacts to his first taste of wealth. Players often take out huge loans before the draft to make their first major purchase: a car, a home or clothing — or all of it.
“If a guy pulls up to a predraft visit for a football team in … an S600 Mercedes with 21-inch rims and he’s got a $300,000 watch on,” Hall of Famer Howie Long says, “I’m checking him off my list.”
The challenge, of course, is finding players who want more than millions. The Chiefs have said often that they target players who desire greatness, regardless of how much money they make.
Former Chiefs player Bill Maas, who was the No. 5 overall pick in 1984, suggests that perhaps as few as five of each year’s 32 first-round picks are interested as much in fulfilling their potential as money. He says the Chiefs seemed to find one of those players last year, when they selected safety Eric Berry with the fifth pick. Berry signed a contract worth a guaranteed $34 million, but that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the team’s most well-known bargain hunters and, more than that, the Chiefs’ first rookie in more than two decades to reach the Pro Bowl.
“You’ve got to go figure out what kind of guy you’re getting,” Maas said. “If you’re going to spend that kind of money, you’ve got to find the right guy.”
Players such as Berry can help unite a locker room. Those such as Russell can divide it, and the Raiders are still trying to overcome that bad pick.
“If that guy is going to become a rich bum,” analyst Cris Collinsworth says, “then you’ve got problems. It’s going to permeate within the whole team.”
The problem is that there is no scientific way to predict who might react like Berry and who might respond like Russell. Parrish says teams in 2007 performed all the research; he was interviewed, along with Russell’s friends and family to try to properly vet the player before he was drafted and handed his millions. Parrish says he told teams that Russell was a hard worker with plenty left to prove. His fall, Parrish says, was as much a surprise to those close to him as the outsiders who watched a talented player become an example of what not to be.
“You think you know,” Kiper says. “You really don’t. … There’s no failsafe way.”
Another of Parrish’s former players, defensive tackle Nick Fairley of Auburn, is expected to be a top-10 pick in next week’s draft.
Parrish says Russell still comes around Mobile, attending Williamson basketball games and talking to players about their futures. The coach says Russell talks sometimes to the school’s current players, and occasionally, he has a message.
“We just try to show them,” Parrish says, “not everybody is going to make it.”
I hope you enjoyed this perspective of the NFL draft and also some sports psychology.