The Tragic Story of Darrell Russell

14 Oct 1995
14 Oct 1995 /

From Ricky Bell to Drean Rucker and Mario Danelo, USC has its share of tragedies. Few are sadder than the tale of the late Darrell Russell.

In an alternate reality, May 27th is Darrell Russell Day. It’s his 40th birthday and a time to celebrate a long and decorated career in the NFL.

Unfortunately, reality is cruel.

He didn’t get the chance to see his journey over the hill. Nor did he have anything close to a historic career come to fruition.

The former USC defensive tackle was taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft and immediately became a star with the Oakland Raiders, before legal issues had him out of the league in his mid-20s, and a tragic car crash took his life at 29, along with Trojan teammate Mike Bastianelli.

It wasn’t supposed to go that way.

When he does that every Saturday, he’ll be not only the best I ever coached in college football but maybe the best I ever saw.-Keith Burns

The future was too bright. Russell was too damn good for it not to end up all rosy.

At USC, he did everything asked of him. He won the Morris Trophy and twice made the All-Pac-10 first team.

He had a coming out party as a freshman against Notre Dame, in which he recorded five tackles and put a hurt on a Lou Holtz team that stopped recruiting him.

“That [game] should be Darrell’s personal standard,” defensive coordinator Keith Burns told the LA Times a year later. “When he does that every Saturday, he’ll be not only the best I ever coached in college football but maybe the best I ever saw.”

He certainly was on that path.

Russell’s 19 tackles for loss in 1996 are the most by a Trojan defensive tackle since Tim Ryan set a school record with 26 in 1989.

It set the stage for his early entry to the NFL, a move validated when former USC assistant and eccentric Raiders owner Al Davis went all-in with him at No. 2.

All was right in the world for big No. 96.

With a personality as big as his record rookie contract, and a game that mirrored Warren Sapp, Russell waltzed into the  Oakland Coliseum and became a dominant force on a Raiders team that won a lot of games under head coach Jon Gruden.

Darrell Russell made his home at the Oakland Coliseum with the Raiders. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

He was a 22-year-old All-Pro in just his second season. By 1999, he was a two-time Pro Bowler.

Darrell Russell was taking over the NFL.

And then it all started to come unraveled.

Call it immaturity or simply a talented man showing signs of being human, Russell’s career went from a Hall of Fame trajectory to nowhere, almost overnight.

A player with as much talent and a future as Russell had too much going right for him before personal demons took over.

First, it was a failed drug test for what his agent called ‘second hand smoke.’

Then it was a four-game suspension in 2001, as part of the NFL’s substance abuse policy for a failure to be tested.

A year later, his career was officially in a tailspin. Russell violated the policy again and was suspended for the whole season.

“I just hope he can deal with it,” Gruden told reporters in 2002. “But the bottom line, this is devastating for a young guy at the top of his profession to have to go through this.”

And it would only get worse. That same year, Russell was involved in an allegation that he participated in the filming of a drug-induced date-rape of a woman with two other men. Charges were ultimately dropped, though his public image would never recover.

The Raiders released him in 2003. After a dismal half season with the Washington Redskins, followed by a stupefying seventh violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy costing him 2004, Russell’s career was over.

That heel turn alone made his story a sad one.

A player with as much talent and a future as Russell had too much going right for him before personal demons took over.

More gut-wrenching, the thing that did him in was the very thing he strived to help others avoid.

NFL players Ronnie Brown and Justin Tuck told the New York Times that Russell had given them heaps of advice upon coming into league, stressing the need to careful of the dark side of fame.

“You can’t get caught up in situations,” Russell said as he addressed players at the NFL’s 2005 Rookie Symposium. “You have to be careful who you hang with, places where you find yourself at.”

It was thought-provoking discourse; a worthwhile lesson coming from a broken NFL star who let his stardom and fortune get the best of him.

If Russell could save the careers of others by motivating them to be better, then perhaps it would redeem his faults.

Everyone loves a comeback story, and by late 2005, things were looking up following a reinstatement from NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue (right).

Russell never got that far.

He left the world too soon on the morning of December 15, 2005, killed when former USC wide receiver Larry Parker’s white Pontiac Grand Prix lost control at 100 miles per hour on La Cienega, with Mike Bastianelli and Russell inside.

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Russell wasn’t the driver and toxicology reports on Bastianelli never surfaced publicly from Los Angeles authorities, though a vodka bottle was reportedly discovered at the scene.

The Darrell Russell story isn’t the romanticized and triumphant account of athleticism and grace that everyone hoped for.

And fair or not, his history with off-the-field issues stained his public image, robbing him of being a fallen hero.

But that doesn’t mean his story isn’t worth telling.

And it doesn’t mean that Russell hasn’t had an impact on the players who have come after him, including those very men he spoke to in 2005.

“The first thing most rookies do is watch,” Tuck told the NY Daily News in 2013. “That’s exactly what I did when I came in. You try to mimic what [veterans] do. That’s the best way we can teach them.”

You can bet Russell’s words were with him forever.

They should be. He was right. That he was unable to live by those words doesn’t change that.

Happy Birthday, Darrell. Wish you were here to enjoy it.