For folks who don't get the Picayune where they live, like myself http://www.nola.com/lsu/t-p/football/index.ssf?/base/sports-0/1092567305314800.xml THE RISE OF 'THE CHOSEN ONE' LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell has been the talk of Mobile since his freshman season of high school, and Tigers fans are eager to see if he can live up to the legend in college Sunday, August 15, 2004 By Mike Triplett Staff writer MOBILE, ALA. -- The legend of LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell began when he was a true freshman. In high school. Advertisement The hype began here at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, home of the Senior Bowl. In a place where so many football talents are discovered, Russell was a revelation. He was a gangly 14-year-old. A 6-foot-3, 180-pound quarterback for the Williamson Lions, one of many city high school teams that play their home games in Ladd-Peebles. He wasn't the team's first choice for a starting quarterback. He was more of a last resort. The Lions lost one quarterback to academic troubles in the summer of 1999. They lost another to legal troubles. So they went with Russell, partly so the fans would take pity on the coaching staff if things went horribly awry, admitted Williamson offensive coordinator Ray Parker. Needless to say, that didn't happen. The Lions lost their first two games with Russell that year. Then he led them to the state championship game. "That kind of set the wheels rolling and set everyone talking about him," said Mobile Register writer Mike Herndon. "Then the next three years he was dealing with expectations." "He was a big deal," said Russell's uncle, Ray, an understatement if ever there was one. Russell went on to set the state's passing record with 10,774 yards. He was chosen Alabama's Mr. Football as a senior. And he announced his decision to play football at LSU instead of Florida State -- on the Fox Sports Network. Russell, now a 6-5, 248-pound redshirt freshman, has yet to take a snap for the Tigers. But he was as talked about as any other member of LSU's 2003 national championship team. Today is fan day at Tiger Stadium, and you can bet that the line for a JaMarcus Russell autograph will be as long as any other. That's the way it was a year ago, when Russell hadn't even gotten through his first week of practice. "I'd say it's about the same attention that followed me in high school," said Russell, who said he gets approached by children and parents alike around Baton Rouge. "The expectation level is outrageous. They expect you to be like a god or a king." As good as advertised? Whether in Baton Rouge or in Mobile, Russell said he gets asked two questions above all else. One, "When are you going to play?" And two, "When are you going to start?" For now, Russell is battling fellow redshirt freshman Matt Flynn for the backup job behind fifth-year senior Marcus Randall. Russell has shown tremendous ability, but still is learning the Tigers' offense and lacks on-field experience. Surely, Russell's time will come. Not soon enough for some. "I'll tell you one thing, if y'all put him in the game, y'all ain't going to take him out," said Alfred "Tree" Bingham, who works at the barber shop down the street from Williamson High School. They are even more biased at the Mirage Styling Center, which is run by Russell's uncle 'Dre and cousin Spencer. Russell is always a hot topic among customers and barbers alike. "He's going to be everything you all think he's going to be and more," Spencer said. "He's more gifted than Peyton Manning's little brother," 'Dre added. Biased or not, you'll have a hard time finding anyone who watched Russell in high school downplaying his abilities. Herndon said he always saw Russell as more than just a raw athlete. He was most impressed with Russell's poise and decision-making. In fact, Russell is more of a pocket passer than people might expect. He's more likely to rely on his ridiculously strong arm than his legs when a play breaks down. Chris Morgan, marketing director for the Senior Bowl and a 1994 LSU graduate, said he is just as excited as all of the other overzealous Tigers fans chatting about Russell on the Internet. "They are not getting overexcited about his ability," Morgan insisted. Paul Christopher, the general manager of Ladd-Peebles Stadium and a former referee, has been watching football in Mobile for 40 years. That includes the annual Mississippi-Alabama high school all-star game. He said Russell is "the best high school football player at his position that I ever saw. And I've seen a lot of them." The Lions never made it back to the state championship game after 1999, never assembling as much talent around Russell as they did that first year. But the quarterback did nothing to tarnish his reputation. It seems like everyone in town has their favorite Russell moment. There was the time his junior year that he brought the Lions back from a 21-0 halftime deficit for a 22-21 victory. He threw the last-minute touchdown pass and ran in the two-point conversion. He threw a fourth-and-9 pass to his tight end for a 60-yard first down his sophomore year. A "frozen rope" for a first down his senior year while being wrapped up around his ankles. Parker said the memory that stands out most for him came during spring practice, when Russell was still in eighth grade. "On this particular day we ran him with the first-string offense," Parker said. "The offensive line broke down, and I looked at his eyes to see what he was going to do, if he was going to take off and run like any 14-year-old would have done, like I would have done. "Well, as he rolled out, he never took his eyes off the receivers downfield. Then he threw a 40-yard dart across his body downfield. I think several coaches looked at each other and said, 'Man, I think he's going to be all right.' " Handling the hype Russell stopped by his neighborhood park, Crawford Park, when he was back in Mobile earlier this month. "Where it all began," he said, half-joking. Russell started playing quarterback when he was 6, even though basketball was, and still is, his first love. He started as a running back, but made the switch when the quarterback broke his arm. "Back when he was with those tiny mites, he was two feet taller than everybody else," said Russell's former park-ball coach, Ron Robinson. "And they've been talking about him ever since." So maybe this is where the legend was born. Or maybe at birth. Russell came into the world a month premature and weighed four pounds, nine ounces. He's been growing ever since. Russell said his birth weight is the reason he chose jersey No. 4 at LSU when his high school No. 2 was taken. Too bad he had the No. 2 tattooed on his left arm. Right next to the words, "The Chosen One." "I always just felt that good things had always been happening for me," Russell said, rather sheepishly, while explaining the tattoo. "I felt like I was one of the chosen ones. You pray to God to ask for things. It might not happen all the time, but very often it does." By all accounts, Russell has dealt with his fame well. Williamson's head coach, Bobby Parrish, told stories about how team-oriented Russell was, especially when he returned from the Elite 11 quarterbacks camp in California before his senior year. Christopher, who has a picture of Russell hanging behind his desk, said he got more enjoyment from the "fun-loving" Russell as a person than from watching him as a player. Russell was raised by his mother, Zina, grandmother, Bernice, and three uncles, all in one house. As uncle Ray said, "He was raised by the posse." Ray, who is something of a local celebrity as a radio DJ and comedian, said he always stressed to JaMarcus that the headlines would be even bigger if he got in trouble. "I sort of kept him grounded," Ray said. "Plus, he's just a down-to-earth kid. He's never let that stardom stuff go to his head." "The best thing about the whole situation," Bernice said, "is that if you didn't know that he was JaMarcus Russell, he wouldn't try to show you or let you know." Russell's parents never married. His father lives in Mobile and the two keep in touch, but his father wasn't active in raising him. Nevertheless, Russell said he learned a valuable lesson from his father, Bobby, who was a standout basketball player in high school. "My dad could've made it big. At the time, he didn't have the right guys to push him, telling him what to do, telling him what not to do," Russell said. "My mom got me a bookmark with a saying on it: 'The key to success is following God's guidance.' As long as you live that guideline, I believe you're going to have success." Eye on the Tiger Russell might be the most highly touted recruit that Nick Saban has landed in his five years at LSU. Because of his position, Russell has received the most attention. Saban said Russell seemed well-grounded during the four years that he recruited him. Saban became aware of Russell early on because his former coaching assistant with the Cleveland Browns, Phil Savage, is from Mobile. "Some guys get a lot of hype and a lot of attention, and there's a little bit of difference in how each guy handles it," Saban said. "And I never ever noticed in recruiting JaMarcus that it ever really affected him." Russell said LSU was always the front-runner in his decision process. LSU contacted him first. He liked Saban and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. He loved the atmosphere at Tiger Stadium. And he discovered that LSU was closer to home than any other SEC school. Russell said he had settled on LSU a few weeks before appearing on the "Countdown to Signing Day" show. But the network offered to fly him, his mom and his grandmother to Atlanta if he would save his decision and appear live in studio. Russell said he had a little fun with the suspense, telling people he would choose whichever school he dreamt about the night before signing day. Obviously, Russell is happy with his decision, signing on with the eventual national champions. But at the same time, he said, he felt a little funny about accepting his championship ring. "I really didn't feel it. It was great and everything. I hope nobody takes this wrong, but I felt like I didn't really do anything to deserve the ring," Russell said. "I felt like I was freeloading off the guys who played the games. "I'd say I wasn't really unhappy because I knew I was going to get my chance. This year I'll really have a lot to prove out there after not playing for a year." After all, he has a legend to live up to. . . . . . . .