Dec. 30, 2006
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -JaMarcus Russell - all 6-foot-6, 257 pounds of him - was hunched over in a shaky-looking chair, his legs squeezed awkwardly under the table, when a pain began shooting through his left thigh.
"I'm getting a cramp," he announced Saturday to anyone willing to listen.
LSU's behemoth of a quarterback struggled to his feet, hunched over to grab the back of his leg and began looking around for someone to fetch him some water. His teammates looked on with uncaring bemusement, chuckling at Russell's animated pleas.
"They've got me in these little bitty chairs," he said. "I need the cameras off me. I can't stand up."
After a few minutes, the pain subsided. Russell was able to sit back down, the whole incident a somewhat fitting metaphor for his up-and-down career with the Tigers.
Sometimes, it seems that Russell gets more kudos from around the country than he does in his own backyard. Just listen to Notre Dame, which will be facing this quarterback trapped in a linebacker's body in Wednesday night's Sugar Bowl.
"I was watching film of the Tennessee game," linebacker Travis Thomas mused. "Their defensive end hit Russell at full speed and he didn't even move. That really opened our eyes to how big he is."
The numbers show just how good he is. Russell has a brilliant season for the fourth-ranked Tigers: 2,797 yards passing, 26 touchdowns, only seven interceptions, an astonishing 68.5 percent completion rate.
Still, there's a perception among the LSU faithful that Russell can't win the crucial games and - more delicately - that he's not smart enough to run the offense.
The first of those charges is baffling to coach Les Miles. Didn't Russell throw a touchdown pass in overtime to knock off unbeaten Alabama last season? Didn't he rally the Tigers to a last-second victory at Tennessee this year?
"Who says he can't win the big games?" Miles asked. "I can't imagine someone saying that about him."
The other issue is even more contentious. Russell is a man of few words, especially around the media, which created a perception that he's not intelligent. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who predicts that his junior quarterback will score highly on mental tests whenever he makes the jump to the NFL.
Then there's the color of Russell's skin, which just happens to be black. Undoubtedly, there are still those clinging to the racist notion that whites are better suited to handle the complexities of playing quarterback, who are quicker to criticize when someone black makes an ill-timed throw or fails to pick up a blitzing safety.
When Russell couldn't play in last season's Peach Bowl because of injuries to his wrist and shoulder, Matt Flynn (who is white) led the Tigers to a 40-3 rout of Miami. That only intensified the Bayou debate over who should be the No. 1 quarterback.
Fisher never had any doubts that Russell was the right choice.
"You can tell him something one time and you never have to tell him again," the coordinator said. "But sometimes people stereotype based on their first impression. JaMarcus is media-shy. He doesn't go out seeking attention. He doesn't go around seeking glory."
In some ways, Russell's immense talents have worked against him. There are times when he believes he can make any throw, when he's convinced he can escape any defender. He's had to learn to use all those talented players around him, not try to do it all himself.
"I don't have to be Superman," he said. "Well, sometimes it takes Superman to make certain plays, but not always. You just have to do what it takes to win."
Russell has done plenty of winning during his career, going 24-4 as a starter (10-2 this season), and his size is downright intimidating. He's taller than any of Notre Dame's defensive starters, and easily outweighs everyone in the linebacking corps and secondary.
"You've got to wrap him up and hope the other guys rally around to help you out," said Thomas, who checks in at just 218 pounds. "That's your best shot at bringing him down. A kill shot? I don't think that's going to happen."
As for those who disparage, Russell insisted over and over that he doesn't let it get to him. If people want to focus on the three interceptions he threw in Knoxville and not the 4-yard TD pass to Early Doucet with nine seconds remaining that bailed out the Tigers, so be it.
"My momma always taught me, 'What doesn't kill you will make you stronger,"' Russell said. "Well, I'm still here."
How much longer he will be in Baton Rouge remains to be seen.
After the Sugar Bowl, Russell will talk with his family and consult with Fisher on his NFL options. He certainly would go in the first round if he decides to turn pro. Then again, he would probably go into 2007 as the Heisman favorite on a national championship contender should he return for his senior season.
"Sometimes it goes through my mind," Russell said. "But my main focus is on this game."
While Fisher said one game is unlikely to have any impact on his quarterback's plans for next season, it's clear that Russell wants to make a big splash in the Sugar Bowl. The Fighting Irish have Brady Quinn, a more beloved quarterback with equally dazzling numbers.
"JaMarcus wants to go out and show the world how good he is," LSU receiver Dwayne Bowe said. "He's going to have a great game. He's really on the money in practice. You can see that he wants to outdo Brady Quinn."
Maybe that would be enough to silence Russell's critics.