I would have believed any story you told me about Jamarcus Russell's arm. Threw a football through the goal posts from midfield on a knee? Sure. Threw it over the edge and out of Tiger Stadium? K. Out of Tiger Stadium and through the roof of the PMAC? Sounds like it. Threw it across the Mississippi River? I wouldn't have bet against it. To see him flick his wrist and make a football travel to whatever exact spot he wanted was a thing of beauty.
Maybe it's appropriate that I wrote the profiles of these two players on this list. Russell and Jacob Hester will always be linked in my mind, because to many people they'll always be misunderstood, and probably underrated to some degree. But whereas Hester has always been dismissed as nothing more than an overachiever who got by on grit and platitudes, Russell has always been viewed as the complete opposite: a talented player who was unworthy of the genetic lottery he so clearly struck with all of his physical abilities. Some will still say he was even unworthy of wearing the purple & gold.
That's unfortunate for a lot of reasons. Some connected to his failed professional career, some to the quarterback race between he and Matt Flynn conducted in the eye of the message board era (and the fact that Flynn didn't outplay Russell as a starter). Others reasons are no fun to talk about here, so I won't. But the fact remains that on his best day, Jamarcus Russell was the single greatest quarterback I've ever seen play for LSU.
Few even remember how dominant his 2006 season was: an LSU-record 232 completions in 342 attempts (a record 67.8 completion percentage) for 3,129 yards (second-most in a single season in school history) at an incredible 9.1 yards per attempt, for another record 28 touchdown passes and just 8 interceptions. His 167.0 passer rating was the highest in FBS football among BCS-conference quarterbacks, out-pacing the eventual Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and trailing only Hawaii's Colt Brennan and BYU's John Beck, who played in much more pass-happy offenses against WAC and Mountain West Conference opposition.
Until Zach Mettenberger came into his own in 2013, Jamarcus Russell was truly the only quarterback I can remember at LSU that made me think "well, we got that guy, and he gives us a shot no matter what." His million-dollar arm and athleticism (he was remarkably nimble for a man his size) gave LSU the luxury of big-play potential on every pass. Think of the great playmakers of that era of college football like Percy Harvin, Reggie Bush or Devin Hester. Russell couldn't do what they could with their feet, but on any given snap he could put the ball any place on the field, wherever the defense couldn't defend. Far hash to the sideline? No problem. Rollout and throw a backside go-route? J-Rock had that. "Just go deep and I'll find you." And he could.
Was he reckless at times? Sure.
Players that can do things that others can't do with a football tend to do that. Big-armed quarterbacks try to squeeze the ball into double coverage more often. Barry Sanders tried to dance his way out of every closed hole and got thrown for a lost often because of it. When you can even the odds, it isn't the same kind of gamble (just two percent of Russell's career passes at LSU resulted in an interception).
People thought he was all arm, but that wasn't true. Oh sure, he could power the ball across the field or split two defenders with ease. But he could drop a crossing route between a linebacker and a safety in perfect stride. He could hang up a ball just enough to let Dwayne Bowe, Buster Davis or Early Doucet get back to it, or lob it just out in front of them to the exact spot a DB couldn't reach.
In the end, Russell will never be remembered as fondly by LSU fans as he probably should be. Most think of his disastrous pro career, as if he's unique in that regard. Some will remember the infamous "Bama Boy" chain from the 2008 BCS Title Game (a reference to a friend's rap label, not the University of Alabama).
But I'm not going to try to change anybody's mind about that. This is about remembering the on-field greatness. And we'll never forget the moments. The comebacks he helped lead as a freshman versus Oregon State and Iowa. The game-winning strike to Dwayne Bowe to beat an undefeated, top-five Alabama team in overtime in Tuscaloosa. The 18-for-20, 330-yard clinic versus Mississippi State. That last-second game-winner in Knoxville in 2006 and the epic evisceration of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.
I'll never forget how it felt to watch him sling the football all over the field, and neither should you.