Former Raiders defensive tackle Darrell Russell, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 1997 and the second player selected overall that year, was killed early Thursday morning when a vehicle carrying the one-time NFL star went out of control on a Los Angeles city street, shearing off a fire hydrant before slamming into a parked bus.
Russell, known less for his brilliant play and outgoing personality than for his numerous run-ins with law enforcement and myriad drug suspensions by the NFL, was 29.
According to a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman, a unit responded to the accident on southbound La Cienega Boulevard near Sawyer Street in the Culver City area, which occurred at about 6 a.m.
An MTA spokesperson said the Grand Prix appeared to have been involved in a high-speed race with another vehicle when the accident occurred. According to a police spokesman, the Grand Prix skidded nearly 50 feet, hit a curb, a tree, a newsstand, the fire hydrant, a light pole, another tree and the unoccupied transit bus.
The accident sent a plume of water into the air from the sheared fire hydrant, flooding the scene.
Paramedics worked for about 25 minutes using the Jaws of Life to free two men from the wreckage of a 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix.
The driver, identified as Michael Paul Bastianelli, 29 -- a former De La Salle football player and teammate of Russell's at USC who spent time with the 49ers in training camp -- was in full cardiac arrest. A close friend of Russell's, Bastianelli later died at UCLA Medical Center.
Russell -- whose seven-year, $22 million contract in 1997 was the richest rookie contract ever signed in the NFL -- was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Friends and former teammates of the 6-foot-5, 325-pound Russell -- a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in 1998-99 who missed 1-1/2 years while serving two NFL-mandated suspensions before playing eight games in 2003 for the Redskins -- were stunned and saddened by the news.
Former Raiders offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy, who grew up blocks away from Russell in San Diego and bonded with the likeable, childlike player who gravitated toward thugs and trouble, was in tears as he recalled a tormented friend he could never really reach.
"Darrell was a good guy, he really was. This is so tough for me," said the sobbing Kennedy, who played five seasons with Russell, who police say resided in Santa Monica. "You have regrets in life and things you wish you had done. I wish I could have helped him more.
"He and I were close -- we grew up near each other, we had a similar background. But I had to leave him alone, because he couldn't let his friends in San Diego alone. I tried to help him but I couldn't let him drag me and what I was trying to accomplish down to where he was headed.
"He was a big kid like me that had a big heart," said Kennedy, who retired from the NFL after the 2004 season and now works as an analyst for the NFL Network. "He couldn't say no to anybody. ... He couldn't let his friends go, from San Diego. He couldn't let his past go. He always wanted to try to take care and do for other people. It ended up bringing him down."
Wide receiver Jerry Porter was a rookie in 2000 and remembered Russell as a great teammate who was fun to be around.
"A great guy. He was a helluva guy. He just never found the strength to get going again after all the trouble he got into," Porter said. "I don't know about the company he kept. But a lot of people said the company he kept had a lot of his friends from wherever, staying with him, influencing him. That's hearsay. I don't know. But he was a good guy, a great teammate to me. It's just sad."
Center Adam Treu recalled Russell's giving nature.
"A fun-loving guy, always had a smile on his face. He was a very generous person. I remember coming in as a rookie, I hadn't had a shoe contract yet, and he had one, and I remember him giving me some shoes, because we both wore size 15," Treu recalled. "I remember that. And his ability to jump the count in gap-blocking schemes when I was on the scout team trying to block back on him, it was very aggravating."
Defensive back Calvin Branch, who was part of the 1997 draft class with Russell and Treu, said despite Russell's many difficulities, was surprised to hear that his life ended so tragically.
"I would have to say yes, just because the time I spent with him, he's such a nice person," Branch said. "I think he just fell into trouble a lot of times where he was more of a follower than a leader, and wouldn't say no to things he probably should have. It's unfortunate. So I guess in that sense you leave yourself open for something like this to happen. It can so easily be avoided."
The Raiders released a statement Thursday afternoon: "We are deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Darrell Russell. He was a brilliant athlete who met misfortune early in life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family."
Russell had 28-1/2 sacks in five seasons with the Raiders, but failed a league-administered drug test and sat out the first four games of the 2001 season. He was then suspended by the NFL for a second violation of the league's substance abuse policy.
In 2002, Russell and two friends faced 25 rape and sex charges. Alameda County prosecutors later asked a judge to dismiss all counts, citing a lack of evidence to support accusations by a Sunnyvale woman that the three men drugged, raped and videotaped her.
Russell had pleaded not guilty and was free on bail when the charges were dropped. The accuser, who testified she was a former girlfriend of Russell's, told prosecutors she had met Russell at Harry Denton's Starlight Room on Jan. 20, 2001 and returned with him to an Alameda home rented by Raiders player Eric Johnson.
She testified that she blacked out but remembered the attack in a later flashback. As part of its case against Russell and the two men, the state presented an expert on date rape drugs, who testified she believed the accuser was under the influence of the powerful, illegal anesthetic GHB.
On Aug. 25, 2002, Russell's problems were compounded when he was arrested in Carson City, Nev. and charged with DUI after he was clocked going 60 mph in a 35 mph zone.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue later extended Russell's suspension by three months because he wasn't satisfied that the player's off-field behavior warranted his return to the league.
In six NFL seasons, Russell started 58 of 72 games for the Raiders and Redskins. He signed briefly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004, reuniting with his former Raiders coach, Jon Gruden. But he failed yet another substance abuse test, was suspended indefinitely by the NFL and was released.
The NFL reinstated Russell again in August of this year. But no teams were interested in signing him.
Russell -- who told friends he was turning his life around and was hoping to land another job in the NFL -- seemed to be on a better path.
He spoke to all 255 drafted rookies at a league-sponsored Rookie Symposium June 26-29 in West Palm Beach, Fla, joining former NFL player Cris Carter in lecturing the incoming players about his troubled past.
Sadly, Kennedy doubted many of the rookies heard Russell's message.
"He felt invincible when he came into the league and eventually the humbling experiences, when he lost most of what he had had and was scrambling around trying to find a job," Kennedy said. "This was a number one pick that couldn't find a job in a professional football league.
"It wasn't like it was that long ago when he started playing so that was the humbling that I saw in his eye when I spoke to him last year, and I seriously thought he had his act together and he was going to better himself. By the episode of this morning and the accident you see that's not totally true."
Chronicle news services contributed to this report.