There may not be a dirtier word in North American professional sports (a category in which I cynically include college athletics) than “bust.” No player wants to be considered a bust. No team wants any part in a bust, and no fanbase reacts kindly to the bust or the people who brought the bust onto the squad. Our memories of busts are deep, personal, erratic. Busts are not monoliths; our consideration of the bust must, by definition, be at least dualistic. We must remember the vast potential of the bust, or otherwise they could not have let us down. The bust, when first we meet him or her, has “everything.” S/he has breakaway speed combined with great power, perhaps, or has tremendous instincts to match unceasing diligence. In short, the bust has it all and then blows it. Blows it publicly, for certain. The way some fanatics act, you’d think that the bust had busted on purpose just to spite them.
You know their names already. In basketball, there’s Darko Milicic, selected second overall in 2003: Milicic has never been a particularly good player, but merely mention his name and the chorus of “They could have had ‘Melo! Or Wade! Or Chris Bosh!” starts up instantly. How about Greg Oden? Or Kwame Brown?
There are two kinds of busts: the bust and the medical bust, and these are distinguished by how reviled they are by the teams which drafted them. The former may be a bust because s/he liked the party scene too much, or because s/he didn’t work hard enough, or his/her skills didn’t translate, or for any number of reasons. The medical bust, however, is someone who becomes an object of pity because their body simply couldn’t hold up. Greg Oden is probably the best example; Len Bias somehow fits into this category as well.
In hockey, there probably isn’t anyone who can match Alexandre Daigle, whose failure to produce long-term in the NHL is as responsible as anything else for the rookie salary cap that was instituted in the mid-late ’90s. And while I don’t think baseball can have a bust on the same level as Darko Milicic or even Adam Morrison, ask an Orioles fan sometime about how Corey Patterson and Billy Rowell make them feel. Moneyball reminds us that Billy Beane, a quintessential five-tool player out of high school, was one of the great busts in recent baseball history en route to becoming one of the game’s great GMs.
As severe as a bust is in basketball or hockey, no North American sport really has a bust mythology like American football. Every year around the time of the Draft, the slideshows show up on ESPN and FoxSports.com, and readers are reminded of the ghouls of the past. Ryan Leaf comes to mind, the man who is the evil half of the Manichaean duality he and Peyton Manning have unintentionally created. Todd Marinovich does as well. In high school, he was surrounded by national discourse so utterly ridiculous that I’ve actually used it as an example of a hyperreal simulacrum per Baudrillard in my senior English seminar. Then there’s Heath Shuler, famous for being a member of the House of Representatives longer than he was in the NFL.
JaMarcus Russell is perhaps the greatest bust of them all. Heck, it’s only a matter of time until there’s a 30 for 30 about him. (I think there’s already been a 30 for 30 about him, actually.) Even his Wikipedia photo is symbolic of the man; we can hardly see his face as he walks away from the gridiron, eyes fixed firmly on the ground. What we can see of his face is his furrowed brow, evincing the stress covering the then-23-year-old would-be phenom. His number: 2.
In all fairness, let me say that Russell is hardly the only bust to come out of LSU in the past several years. Since 2006, Glenn Dorsey, Tyson Jackson, and Craig Davis were all legitimate busts (though you have to think “Buster” Davis asked for it a little); LaRon Landry and Joseph Addai never really did play up to their billing. Despite the name, I am also suspicious of Barkevious Mingo. Even if he wasn’t the spitting image of Vernon Gholston, God hates Cleveland.
Russell, who led LSU to an 11-2 season which ended with a rout of Brady Quinn’s Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, was drafted first overall by the Oakland Raiders. His rookie contract, which is to the NFL what Daigle’s rookie contract was to the NHL, turns out to have been the icing on the cake. Russell was lauded for being able to throw the ball through the uprights from his knees at a distance of sixty yards. This skill is literally useless in the NFL, but the arm strength captivated scouts; his stats as a junior in the superior SEC were actually pretty good: 28 TDs to 8 picks, completing 68% of his passes for better than 3000 yards. Over three seasons in the NFL, he threw for more than 4000 yards and 18 TDs with a 52% completion rate. He was a turnover liability as well, throwing 23 interceptions and a tendency to lose a fumble every other game. Aside from that, Russell also had a minor drug problem and a not insignificant weight issue. Despite his well-publicized efforts to reform, he has never gotten another chance in the league, and his name to even casual fans is synonymous with failure. Jamarcus Russell is 27 years old.
But Russell is lucky. Brady Quinn, another bust of sorts, is lucky, too. And so is Marinovich, and so is Leaf, and so too Daigle and Pat “Gran” Falloon and Hasheem “Grabthar’s Hammer” Thabeet and Milicic and Beane. At least those folks busted late. They picked up the money, or the glory of a great college career, or fame, or BMOC-status, or even notoriety.
It could be worse, because they could all be Darrell Scott.
Sometime in February of 2012, I had the NFL Combine on in the background while I was doing some other work. That was when I heard the name “Darrell Scott” for the first time since 2008. I couldn’t place it at first, for good reason. But when I saw him, I realized how I knew him.
When I first got into college football, I really got into it. There are two people who I credit for sparking my interest in college football. The first is Percy Harvin, who remains to this day the most electrifying college player I’ve ever watched. The second is Pete Fiutak, a columnist for collegefootballnews.com who I highly recommend. I helped myself out a little bit by using the “Create Team” feature on Madden 2008 (why yes, the one with pro bust Vince Young on the cover) and then making squads of ubermensch from the best players from each conference. The Big 12 team had more quarterbacks than it knew what to do with: Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Colt McCoy of Texas, and Chase Daniel of Missouri. (Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year Robert Griffin III narrowly missed the cut.) Oklahoma’s DeMarco Murray and OK State’s Kendall Hunter were the first two at running back; the third was the man I expected to take the award that RG3 won: Darrell Scott.
Scott was ranked the sixth-best recruit in the country by Rivals.com in 2008: this is the class which was led by Terrelle Pryor, Da’Quan Bowers, and Mike Adams. (And yes, in case you were wondering, that’s Patrick Peterson ranked just ahead of Scott; Andrew Luck is ranked sixty-eighth.) Scott and his family showed a willingness to move around during his high school years, which doesn’t appear to have affected his play too much: however, it clearly rankled with the coaches in his area. Scott, a five-star prospect, ultimately opted to attend Colorado, where he saw limited action as a freshman on the 5-7 Buffaloes. As a sophomore, frustrated with his lack of playing time, Scott tried to transfer to UCLA; when UCLA wasn’t particularly interested, Scott went across the country to the University of South Florida. He played there in 2011, running for 814 yards and five touchdowns on 153 carries before he decided to move on again, this time declaring for the NFL Draft. Perhaps unsuprisingly, he went undrafted. After all, he had less than 1500 total yards and seven touchdowns in three seasons at two universities.
I didn’t know any of this when I stopped whatever it was I was doing to watch Scott’s 40. His best 40 time was a 4.73. I could remember all of the hype surrounding this guy and how he was supposed to be the next great running back, how he could beat you with his quickness and with his hands. I remembered how odd I thought it was that he was going to Colorado, and I realized that Scott had, despite being a player of some interest to me in the late months of 2008, completely slipped out of my mind by 2009. Scott went undrafted, was signed by the Dallas Cowboys, waived because of an injury in late July 2012, and as far as I know, has never been resigned or played a snap in the NFL. Scott turned 24 last month, and I have immense sympathy for his impatience and his struggles alike. What does a 24-year-old do when his/her life goal is shattered and s/he doesn’t have the time to put it back together?
Darrell Scott is a bust. He’s not a bust like Greg Oden, who you can do nothing but feel sorry for because his knees just don’t work anymore. He’s not a bust like JaMarcus Russell, who managed to earn the enmity of a city and the unkindness of a nation through his inability to keep the football with his team. Darrell Scott never made it to that position where he could be pitied or reviled. Instead, Scott was unable to cut it at the college level. He never managed to be an impressive or notorious bust: he just fell through. There are so many like Darrell Scott: consider Dayne Crist, ranked nineteen spots below Scott by Rivals in 2008; or Gunner Kiel, who couldn’t beat out Everett Golson for the starting job at Notre Dame and is now headed for Cincinnati; and the man without whom this list would be worthless, Mitch Mustain. His case is so interesting that it will probably receive another post entirely.
These young men washed out well before the rest of us do. For Darrell Scott and others like him, they can’t even afford the blaze of glory. What they get instead is more like this. But where Buzz and Woody achieve a sort of salvation when they end up in Andy’s arms, there can’t be any redemption for the bust. Just as the bust promised so much at the beginning, we must withhold something from that bust at the end–salvation, redemption, forgiveness. I doubt that there will be more opportunities for Scott to play football; I’m not even sure there will be a lot of places for him to coach at a high level.
In the end, it’s people like Darrell Scott, not JaMarcus Russell, who are the true busts. And for true busts, the only appropriate emotion is grief.