Commentary

Russell inspires ill will in Oakland

Updated: May 2, 2010, 5:04 PM ET
By Mark Fainaru-Wada | ESPN

It's the parking lot of the Oakland Coliseum, and the Raiders have lost again. Badly. A 23-3 home loss to the hated Denver Broncos on an unseasonably warm, late September afternoon. Raider Nation is trudging out of the stadium in a too-familiar scene, and one player's performance overshadows all others.

The fans have just witnessed quarterback JaMarcus Russell pass for 61 yards, throw two interceptions and tally a meager 22.6 passer rating. So, in the aftermath, one Raiders devotee unburdens himself of his No. 2 Russell jersey, douses it with lighter fluid and burns it in effigy. Soon, 25 to 30 fans have gathered around, cheering wildly and shouting epithets.

"Burn it!"

"F--- JaMarcus Russell!"

"You piece of s---!"

"You punk!"

"You're a piece of garbage!"

The last rites of Russell finally are halted when a police officer stomps out the flaming jersey, eliciting a chorus of disapproval from the frothing mass.

Don Staben Jr., a 28-year-old lifelong Raiders fan, sees the commotion as it is just beginning, pulls out his cell phone and records the act for YouTube posterity.

"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," recounted Staben Jr., a union plumber who lives in Antioch, about 40 miles northeast of the Coliseum. Staben said the only thing that bothered him about the scene was that it was a Raiders jersey being torched. "Being a Raiders fan, I don't like to see our memorabilia getting burnt."

Did it seem at all excessive?

"No, it didn't strike me as excessive," Staben said. "In the context of that game, you had to have been there or at least seen the game to understand the way he was perceived on that particular day."

There's hatred, and then there's sports hatred, a bastardized version that is largely accepted as harmless because, well, you know, fans will be fans. The sports zealot is readily dismissed as an amusing, face-painted, screeching sort who's merely indulging his passions to escape the real world.

There are either glorious heroes or bitter enemies, with little room for nuance.

But there's something about how Russell has engendered such loathing within Raider Nation that it has become almost frightening to watch. So embittered is the fan base at this point that the team's recent trade for former Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell -- which could lead to the release of Russell -- has to be viewed not only as a possible upgrade for the team but also as a potential escape from hell for Russell.

Randy Novelli was at that same Broncos game, toting along his video camera. A local, part-time disc jockey and radio host who goes by the name DJ Kazzeo, Novelli had decided to record what random fans thought of Russell and then share their responses through YouTube. Like a lot of the faithful, Novelli had harbored huge hopes that, after the Raiders made Russell the No. 1 overall pick of the NFL draft in 2007, the franchise finally would emerge from a sustained bout of badness.

JaMarcus Russell
AP Photo/Pat SullivanRaiders fans haven't exactly been enthralled with quarterback JaMarcus Russell.

The Raiders were coming off a 2-14 season and had four consecutive years of at least 11 losses when they chose Russell out of LSU. After a prolonged holdout, the 6-foot-6, ever-widening quarterback (he was listed at 252 pounds in college but arrived in Oakland reportedly pushing 270) signed a six-year, $61 million contract -- $32 million of which was guaranteed. In December, when Russell entered his first game of what would be a 4-12 season, he received a standing ovation from Raider Nation.

Weak in many areas, the Raiders finished the 2008 season 5-11, with Russell as the starter. And though he had a respectable year, the No. 1 draft choice and self-described "chosen one" was becoming a lightning rod. He had weight and work ethic issues, and to many fans and teammates, he appeared neither to care nor feel he bore any responsibility for the team's continued woefulness.

Russell declined to be interviewed for this story but issued a statement through his agent acknowledging he has areas to improve upon and saying he is working to get better.

By September of last season, the 38-year-old Novelli and seemingly every other Raiders disciple had turned on Russell. Novelli thought it would be enlightening to solicit opinions about Russell at the stadium. And so, as a sea of Raiders fans exited the Coliseum following the Denver loss, he simply pointed his video camera and asked, over and over again, "What do you think of Russell?"

Oakland police officer: "I think they should have got Michael Vick."

Smiling fan, making peace sign, then changing tune when asked question: "He sucks, that guy is bad."

Very large, face-painted fan, wearing sombrero: "F--- Russell."

Random guy, with arm around his girlfriend: "Sucks, sucks, sucks."

Ultimately, Novelli turned the camera on himself and said, "There you have it, I proved my point: JaMarcus Russell, you f---ing suck!"

Novelli didn't catch the burning of the jersey in the parking lot, but he did see it on YouTube. Did it seem excessive?

"I guess I would have to liken it to Al Qaeda burning American flags. They hate us and we as Raider fans hate JaMarcus," Novelli said, laughing.

Two and a half months later, on the other side of the country, about a half-dozen guys gathered in the basement of Dan Vassalluzzo's New Jersey home. The group of Raiders faithful once consisted of 25 to 30 members who would convene every football Sunday in a local bar that, despite being in the heart of Eagles country, set aside a back corner for the gang in silver and black.

By 2009, though, thanks to marriages, kids and consistent ineptness by their beloved Raiders, the group had dwindled to maybe six die-hards, meeting on game days at Vassalluzzo's pad. Their 35-year-old host, a Raiders fan since childhood, has two tattoos honoring his team and a roomful of memorabilia: figurines, painted plates, flags, banners, a model team plane and several bobbleheads.

On Dec. 13, the New Jersey branch of Raider Nation came together in the basement to watch its team play the Redskins. Oakland, with Russell finally benched in favor of Bruce Gradkowski, had won two of its three previous games and fans had embraced not just Gradkowski but anybody other than Russell.

At the half, the Raiders trailed just 17-10, and hope persisted. But Gradkowski left the game with a knee injury, was replaced by Russell, and that was the end. In the second half, Oakland's offense gained just 39 yards, and the Redskins won 34-13. Russell finished 10-of-16 for 74 yards, with one interception. He was sacked six times.

Afterward, admittedly alcohol addled, the New Jersey bunch turned on Russell.

"All at once, we looked at the bobblehead, and it was just smiling at us," said 31-year-old Brett Triantafillou, one of the die-hards. "We grabbed it and ran out back. At first we were gonna just stomp it, but we thought fire would be better."

Triantafillou recorded the scene on his cell phone, and, using a can of bug spray as an igniter, the Russell bobblehead was set ablaze.

Over raucous laughter in the background, the men derided Russell.

"Light him up!"

"JaMarcus, you f---ing suck!"

"Your goddamned f---ing overpaid contract!"

"Burn baby burn!"

Asked months later whether the group might have gone too far, Triantafillou, a freelance videographer, said, "We figured there's worse things on the Internet. If you take it so seriously, there's something wrong with you. It's football. It's not like we were gonna go across the country and find the guy."

There are 333 members on the JaMarcus Russell Sucks Facebook page. There is a JaMarcus Russell Sucks blog. There are thousands of pages that reference Russell in the same breath as Ryan Leaf, arguably the biggest bust in NFL history.

"He's almost despised here," said Gary Peterson, a columnist with the Bay Area News Group who has covered sports in the area for 31 years -- from the legendary Bill Walsh San Francisco 49ers teams to the consistently bad Raiders teams of the past seven seasons.

Peterson has watched Russell's tenure in Oakland devolve into the Theater of the Absurd. In early March, as homage to Tiger Woods' reported stint in sex rehab, Peterson made a joking reference at the end of a column that Russell had entered a clinic for treatment of "lethargy addiction."

Within hours, a local TV station reported Russell's alleged affliction as fact, and soon the Internet was awash with stories about the quarterback's malady. Peterson had picked the word lethargy after turning to dictionary.com in an effort to ensure he selected just the right term. How did "lethargy" speak to him about Russell?

"Basically everything you would characterize his career as being," he said. "A lack of will, a lack of energy, just someone who won't apply himself."

Peterson said that feeling persisted not just among fans but also throughout much of the organization.

"Oh, you get that message all the time," he said. "It's either inside the locker room or out, it's either off the record or spoken in code, but the unrelenting message is: He does not work hard at it and he's not fully invested in the outcome, and if the check's cashing, he's happy."

And therein, Peterson says, lies the root of the extreme bitterness directed at Russell by Raider Nation. It's not just that the team has had three more double-digit losing seasons, making it seven in a row for the organization with a self-proclaimed "Commitment to Excellence." Nor is it just that he doesn't seem to be getting better. Or even that he seems to fumble with ridiculous regularity.

No, it's the apparent aloofness -- real or imagined -- that stands out.

"I think people are angry that he doesn't seem to get it," Peterson said. "… Maybe he doesn't understand that he's supposed to work harder or he is content not to work harder, and I think that just adds, that just takes the fans' discontent and it just explodes exponentially. They can almost abide a guy who can't play well, but fans here will not abide a guy who doesn't play well, maybe in part because there is a limit to how hard he will work at it."

Mark Fainaru-Wada is an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.

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