They were celebrated on Mobile-area gridirons, went on to dominate at Southeastern Conference schools and ended up realizing their dreams in the National Football League, where everything changed.
Becoming superstars in front of tens of thousands of fans every week in autumn in the South certainly made the fall from grace much more stark and confusing for some native sons. The high-pressure environment of the NFL led each to limited success, shorter-than-expected careers and sometimes, trouble with the law. Ultimately, though, it has led to redemption.
Perhaps the most high-profile is former Williamson High School and LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who was drafted first overall in 2007 by the Oakland Raiders and secured a contract worth a guaranteed $32 million. But three years later he was out, and he hasn’t returned to a professional field since.
A July 2010 arrest for possession of liquid codeine garnered a litany of media coverage. A friend of Russell’s claimed the drug was his, according to Sports Illustrated, but Russell said he was using illicit cough syrup to combat sleep apnea. The charge was eventually dropped.
In the SI story, titled “The Man Who Isn’t There,” Russell laid some of his professional demise on the Raiders, which he said failed to provide a mentor. Today, Russell seldom speaks to the media, and could not be reached for this story. However, he hasn’t completely disappeared from public life.
He occasionally visits his old high school to offer impromptu lessons at practice and during the Super Bowl in February, he was featured in TV advertisements for the Dish network.
Russell played for three seasons in the NFL, beginning in 2007. He had a career 7-18 record over 25 starts, according to pro-football-reference.com. He appeared in 31 games over that span. He threw for a total of 4,083 yards in three years and completed 52 percent of his passes, according to the site. Last season, it was rumored he was training for a return, but an offer never came.
Plenty of other players have similar stories, with glory on the gridiron beset by misfortune, yet at least two hometown heroes have used that experience to turn their lives around and find redemption through helping others.
Years before a drug problem and suicide attempts led to multiple arrests, Mobile native Keith McCants was just a kid inspired to perform by the great sports tradition of his hometown.
McCants took that inspiration to Murphy High School and became a defensive standout before moving on to Tuscaloosa to play alongside Derrick Thomas as a linebacker at the University of Alabama.
While with the Crimson Tide, McCants again excelled. As a sophomore in 1988, he was second on the team in tackles with 78. The next year, McCants led the team with 119 tackles and four sacks. In all, he posted 197 total tackles and 16 tackles for a loss during his career in Tuscaloosa.
He reached his dream of playing in the NFL when he was drafted fourth overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1990. That’s when the trouble started, McCants said in a phone interview from his home in South Florida last week.
“Not only was it a dream come true, but it was an awesome dream come true that turned into a nightmare,” McCants said of his transition to a professional career.
But the baggage created from the pressure of having to perform day in and day out at the highest level is something the media and fans don’t see, McCants said. For instance, he said, he’s had 32 surgeries.
“Millions of fans want me to take somebody’s head off, but they can’t see that I go home and can’t walk,” he said.
The 47-year-old first round pick partially blames the league for his problems with street drugs that he said developed during his playing days. McCants said there was so much pressure to play injured and capitalize on the league’s investment, he was provided addictive medication to help deal with the pain.
At the height of his career, McCants said he was taking as many as 185 pills a week, while also regularly consenting to cortisone and morphine injections.
“It happened to a lot of players,” he said. “When you’re in the NFL, you get on the drugs you need. You’re valuable because you make the team money. Teams invest a lot of money and you want to be able to get on the field.”
McCants became dependent upon the morphine, but the drug became too expensive when his NFL career ended in 1995. In a hospital, injections cost $185, but drugs “were cheaper on the street,” he said.
“One thing led to another … ,” he said of his dependency. “I wasn’t doing it for pleasure; I was doing it because of the pain. It numbed me up for a minute and it felt good.”
McCants also admitted he was struggling with a sex addiction, stemming from molestation he was subjected to as a child.
Following his NFL career, McCants secured a job as a marine police officer, but an old knee injury flared up after he landed hard while disembarking a boat, sending him spiraling into what he described as a “breakdown.” The drugs began to consume his life.
He said soon he was bankrupt, while a mixture of street drugs and old concussion symptoms took their toll on his body.
“I didn’t know who Keith McCants was,” he said. “I lost the will to live.”
That’s when the suicide attempts started, he said. Eventually, he credited “the hand of God” for saving his life and turning it around.
“God gave me hope,” he said. “I went through a struggle, questioned God and he let me know he was real.”
He credits the low point in his life for the strides he’s made since.
“I had to go through all of that to define what I am now,” he said. “It’s where the passion I have to help people came from. God gave me a purpose.”
McCants now works in marketing at Reawakenings Wellness Center. In addition to his day job, he said he talks to many of the patients about his struggles and how he overcame them.
“I do this to keep me on the straight and narrow, as well as helping somebody else,” he said.
He said he also works as a motivational speaker from time to time at high schools and colleges. He often shares his story, imploring students to take advantage of every opportunity they get. For instance, he said, they might get a football scholarship, but they need to remember to get an education as well because only a small percentage of students get to go to college for free.
“Point zero one percent make it to the NFL and play,” he said. “Staying there is even harder. You are going to be replaced no matter the talent level.”
McCants is also in the process of writing a book about his experience. It’ll be finished early next year, he said, but he’s unsure when it will be released.
It sounds like a plot from a made-for-TV movie. A young man uses sports to overcome his surroundings, becomes a star running back and eventually earns a Super Bowl ring. Then agony follows the ecstasy, as he is sentenced to federal prison on drug charges.
The one problem is that the story is true.
After starring at Blount High School and the University of Alabama, Sherman Williams went on to help the Dallas Cowboys capture the NFL title as a rookie in 1995. Once his career ended, though, Williams made some choices he will always regret. In 2000, he was convicted of trafficking marijuana and counterfeiting.
“I made some bad decisions. I ran with the wrong crowds,” Williams told Lagniappe. “Anyone can make a mistake. I still have an opportunity to make something good with my life.”
Williams is now working to make a difference in his community. He and David Palmer, his Crimson Tide teammate, have combined to form the nonprofit Palmer-Williams Group. Its website (www.PalmerWilliamsGroup.org) says it was “created to provide youth development programs to assist and guide disadvantaged youth to overcome interpersonal obstacles, embrace family values, education and avoid life’s pitfalls.”
Williams and Palmer have known each other since their celebrated prep careers. They later were roommates in Tuscaloosa. Even during the 15 years Williams was incarcerated, the two communicated and began to formulate a plan for what became the PWG.
“We talked a lot in prison,” Williams said. “He was already working with kids at a Birmingham youth center. We knew we needed to give back to the community.”
The first thing offered by PWG was free camps to teach the fundamentals of sports. They also stressed sportsmanship and mental discipline to the attendees.
The next venture was motivational speaking. Williams meets with underprivileged children, and explains how he can relate to what they experience. He tries to point them in a direction away from drugs and prison.
Now PWG is conducting the Life Sync Academy. “It is a 36-week program, where kids come in and develop social skills,” Williams said. “We stress spirituality, personal connections, being obedient to your parents and authority. We want to help the child develop in a social atmosphere.”
So far, Williams and Palmer have conducted their camps and seminars in Mobile and Birmingham. Their goal is to expand to Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Huntsville.
“We hope to cover the entire state,” Williams said. “Then we want to spread through the whole country. Our goal and mission is to take one step at a time.”
Williams, who ran for more than 3,000 yards in leading the Blount Leopards to the 1990 state title, still stays involved with football. He has helped to direct the Prichard Cowboys, a team in the Mobile Youth Football Conference.
“We are taking care of 87 socially disadvantaged kids,” Williams said. “That is a lot, so we are always looking for sponsors. Let’s just say we have a lot of fundraisers.” The team falls in line with PWG’s mission of battling child obesity, as they encourage youngsters to play in some form of sports and to remain active.
Even with the social work and his job selling cars at Tameron Honda in Daphne, Williams has made time to share his story on a wider scene. It may not yet be ready for a movie, but his trials and tribulations are now in a book.
“The Crimson Cowboy: The Rise and Fall of a Three-Time Champion” debuted in Dallas on Sept. 5, when Alabama played Wisconsin at the Cowboys’ home stadium.
“I started writing things down while I was in prison,” Williams said. “When I got out in March of 2014, I started to pull it together for a book.
“I talk about what life was for me, the experiences that I had. I want to share the good and the bad, so maybe I can help some kid make the right choice.”
Williams had a book signing last week at Page & Palette in Fairhope. His next speaking engagement is Oct. 17 at Mae Eanes Middle School in the Maysville community.
“My background is sports, but this is a not a sports book,” Williams said. “This is a teaching tool. This is my testimonial that I want to share.”
To purchase an autographed copy of the book, visit www.CrimsonCowboy.com. To learn more about Williams, he can be followed on Facebook (Sherman.Williams.92798) and on Twitter (@crimsonboy20).