Situations change, but Russell never does

The enormity of it all has yet to sink in, and those who've known him since he was old enough to grip a football aren't a bit surprised.

But, hey, that's vintage JaMarcus Russell.

Down two touchdowns or up two touchdowns, he's the same quarterback. Sitting in the pocket with all kinds of time or throwing with guys hanging all over him, he is convinced that his next play will be his best play. Soaking up a record-setting day or suffering through a forgettable day, he still wants the ball at the end.

"I've always believed that you measure a quarterback on his bad days, not his good days," said Jimbo Fisher, who was Russell's offensive coordinator at LSU (Fisher left to take the same position at Florida State following the 2006 season). "When you're not having your best day, how do you respond? Can you stay into it and manage the game? JaMarcus knew he was a great player with great ability -- and he also knew, if something went wrong or if he messed something up, that he would usually get another chance.

"If he got that ball at the end of the game, he was going to beat your tail -- and he knew it."

Similarly, Russell doesn't flinch at the thought of being the No. 1 overall pick in April's NFL draft. The Oakland Raiders are eyeing him closely with that first selection. Russell has been in Arizona training with some of the best receivers in the draft, including former teammate Dwayne Bowe, Tennessee's Robert Meachem and Southern Cal's Dwayne Jarrett.

His take on the whole process?

"I'm just going to chill," said Russell, whose cool demeanor has been mistaken for nonchalance more than a few times during his career.

Never a big talker, Russell really doesn't need to. His teammates say there is a quiet confidence about him that is infectious.

"You just learn to trust that he's going to make big plays," said Bowe, who jokes that his hands are still swollen from catching 95 mph fastballs from the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Russell. "He never talked a whole lot about it. He just went out there and did it. That's why so many respected him. When he's out there, there's no doubt in your mind that we were going to win the game."

Russell, 25-4 as a starter at LSU, engineered eight comeback victories in the fourth quarter during his career. He capped a scintillating close to the 2006 season by outplaying Brady Quinn and passing for a career-high 332 yards in a 41-14 drubbing of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.

Suddenly, Russell was the most coveted quarterback out there, and the questions about his decision-making and his tendency to rely on his big right arm had been reduced to a murmur.

"The only thing that happened is that I finally learned that I didn't have to be Superman on every play," Russell said. "That's what you have other teammates for, and I learned to rely on them and what they could do. I wasn't going it alone."

Still, Russell admits that it's all happened pretty fast.

Heading into last season, LSU head coach Les Miles was noncommittal publicly about whom his starting quarterback would be. The whole thing had quarterback controversy written all over it. Matt Flynn was the hero of LSU's Peach Bowl rout of Miami after stepping in for the injured Russell, and prep phenom Ryan Perrilloux was also on campus. The Internet message boards and radio talk shows in Louisiana were buzzing about whether Russell should be the man, and that's despite his leading the Tigers to the SEC Championship Game the year before.

"I look back at all the things I could have gotten into and thank God for where I am today and where I could have been had it not been for my family."
JaMarcus Russell

"I take it one day at a time and let things happen the way they're supposed to," said Russell, who played through torn ligaments in his throwing wrist during the 2005 season and then separated his shoulder in the SEC Championship Game. "Everything happens for a reason, and if things are meant to be, they're meant to be.

"It's always been my dream to go high in the draft. But to be the first pick in the draft, that's crazy. I still won't believe it until it happens."

Russell learned a long time ago about the importance of keeping things in perspective.

Raised by his mother, Zina Russell-Anderson, and grandmother, Bernice Russell, in the Oakdale community of Mobile, Ala., Russell knew the rules and rarely bucked them.

They all lived in the same house until he was 11, and the entire Russell family took turns keeping tabs on Russell. His uncle, Ray Ray Russell, stepped in as his surrogate father, and to this day, they share an unbreakable bond.

Ray Ray discovered he had cardiomyopathy -- inflammation of the heart -- and would need a transplant in the spring of 2005. He's currently on a heart transplant list, and JaMarcus wears a bracelet that says: Donate Life.

"JaMarcus grew up with a lot of kids that were never going to see what the world has to offer," said Ray Ray, a morning disc jockey on a hip-hop and rhythm and blues radio station in Mobile. "He saw some bad things daily. The part of town we come from is not super-duper rough, but it's rough enough.

"We preached to him daily that not everybody was given the shot he was. He was lucky enough to have a shot, so don't mess it up. He knew that if he dropped the ball one time, he was going to be stuck here with everybody else."

Russell is still a frequent visitor to where it all began for him. About the only trouble he ever got into was sneaking off to the park by himself or tromping through mud puddles with his new sneakers.

When he returns home these days, he can't help but think about all those kids he grew up with who didn't make it out of the neighborhood unscathed.

"I had a lot of friends that were very capable of doing certain things, but they didn't really have that push and that guidance behind them to get there," Russell said. "I look back at all the things I could have gotten into and thank God for where I am today and where I could have been had it not been for my family."

It's always been about family with JaMarcus. He was tagging along with his grandmother to Williamson High School games (in Mobile) from the time he was 2. Bernice helped sell tickets on Friday nights, and JaMarcus was always right by her side while his mother worked.

On Saturday mornings, they were fixtures in church, as his grandmother is a Seventh-day Adventist.

Bernice raised eight children, and her husband died in a military accident when her youngest child was still a toddler. Russell knew better than to cross his grandmother -- and rarely did.

"She's a very special lady, the kind of person you want on your side," Russell said. "Growing up and watching my mom work the way she did and my grandmother and all the things she went through, it just stayed with me.

"Whether things are going good or bad, you find a way to get it done."

Russell started at Williamson High from the time he was a freshman. He was about 6-foot-1 and maybe 180 pounds when he took his first varsity snap. He led Williamson to the Alabama 5A state championship game that year before losing to running back Carnell Williams' team in the title game (Williams is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

Russell's growth spurt came that summer, and he shot up to 6-4 and 220 pounds. All over Mobile, people were talking about the big kid at Williamson with an even bigger arm.

His legend only grew, and by the time he left Williamson he had passed for career totals of 10,744 yards and 84 touchdowns.

"His expression was always the same," said Bobby Parrish, who coached JaMarcus at Williamson. "I never saw him get rattled. I honestly didn't know what to think when we started him as a freshman. But even that young, he had a presence about him when he stepped onto that field."

Fisher told everybody on LSU's staff that Russell had the ability to be the first pick in the draft when the Tigers signed him. And while most marvel about Russell's arm strength, Fisher said it was his hand motion that set him apart.

"Yeah, he could throw it 80 yards, but he didn't need the arm," Fisher said. "He had the ability to flick his wrist and throw it 30 or 40 yards. His motion for a tall guy was short and compact. It wasn't elongated, and that's something we worked on."

As the draft nears, Russell knows he'll be picked apart by all the scouts and analysts. He's ready for it and almost invites it.

"I'll deal with it the same way I do everything else," said Russell, who will show off his skills to the NFL again at LSU's Pro Day on Wednesday. "You don't let those things get to you. On the field or off the field, it's about staying calm and having the confidence to do what you've got to do.

"I've always had a sense of urgency. It's just that some people didn't always see it."

As Russell himself says with a faint laugh, "That's just me being JaMarcus."

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.