By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:21 AM
James Starks's route to becoming perhaps the most significant X-factor in Saturday night's NFC semifinal against the Atlanta Falcons goes like this: One scholarship offer out of high school; a record-setting career at the University of Buffalo; an injury that cost him his entire senior season; a hamstring injury suffered in training camp with the Green Bay Packers; a subsequent trip to the physically-unable-to-perform list that delayed his rookie debut until December; a splash onto the scene with 73 yards in his first NFL game; then a pair of games in which Packers coaches left him inactive.
Somehow that meandering path led him to a breakout, 23-carry, 123-yard performance in Green Bay's wild-card victory last Sunday in Philadelphia. Somehow, in a week's time, Starks - who had appeared in just three NFL games and had 29 NFL carries prior to facing the Eagles - has filled a void that has plagued the Packers since marquee back Ryan Grant went down with a season-ending ankle injury in the opener.
"You're expected to produce when your number is called," Starks said after the 21-16 win over the Eagles, when Starks ran for more yards than any Packer gained during a game in the 2010 regular season. "This season was a process that I had to go through, and I'm doing better with it."
The process began in Starks's native Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he played quarterback. It continued at the University of Buffalo, where then-coach Turner Gill - himself a running quarterback in his days at Nebraska - converted him to running back. That turned out to be a decent decision, considering Starks set school records for yards in a career, yards in a season and career touchdowns - all in his first three seasons.
All that, though, was before the start of practice for the 2009 season, when Starks was rising on NFL draft boards as a potential first- or second-round pick. Then came practice on Aug. 15. Starks suffered a shoulder injury. When doctors diagnosed a labral tear and the shoulder didn't respond to rehab, Starks decided he would help neither his team nor himself by playing and underwent surgery, a move that ended his college career.
"You know how he handled it?" said Danny Barrett, then Buffalo's offensive coordinator. "He showed up every day. He wanted to be around, be around the huddle, around his teammates in pregame and at practice. He was still one of the leaders on our football team. It meant a lot as a coach there. He didn't really have to do what he did, but he did it anyway, because he's an unselfish kid that really wanted what was best for the team."
Starks also had the knowledge that he would almost certainly be able to continue his career as a pro. He is part of an exceptionally athletic family; his cousin, Jonny Flynn, was a first-round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves after two stellar seasons at Syracuse. Starks's high school coach needed just a few looks at him to project his career. When Starks was a freshman, Don Bass watched him in a preseason workout from afar. Bass didn't know who Starks was, but he called him over afterward.
"If you don't get messed up with girls or drugs," Bass told Starks, "you'll never have to pay for college."
A few days later, when Bass's team first put on full pads, Starks "was just so much better than everybody else," Bass said. He called him over again.
"Son, if you can dedicate yourself," Bass said he told him, "you can do this for a living."
"He was just that far above everyone else," Bass said.
The NFL, though, is a hair different. After the Packers took him in the sixth round, Starks pulled a hamstring during one session of organized team activities. He returned briefly for a minicamp in June, but couldn't pass his physical prior to training camp, so the team put him on the physically-unable-to-perform list. That meant he had to miss the first six weeks of the season, a seemingly depressing development given what he had already endured.
"During all the time he was dealing with all these different things, he was able to stay in high spirits," Flynn said by phone Wednesday. "I think that takes a big person, to keep fighting and going when you know you're not going to play. I've learned that lesson from him."
During that down time, Starks developed into something of a cult figure among Packers fans. As the Packers ranked 24th in rushing yards and averaged just 3.8 yards per carry - their second-worst mark in the last dozen years - behind Brandon Jackson and Dimitri Nance, calls to talk radio and Internet chats around Wisconsin clamored for Starks, the great unknown.
"I think what we've seen with Packer fans, we're a little bit spoiled," said former Packers running back Gary Ellerson, who co-hosts a sports-talk radio show in Milwaukee. "We've had some really good running backs here. Now, the tide has turned where a lot of Packer fans are not really accepting of a pass-happy kind of offense.
"When you think of the Green Bay Packers, you think of the tradition of Lambeau Field, the frozen tundra, all that. The fans think: 'Can the Green Bay Packers pass when it's 20 below? Can they throw the ball in November, December and January?' I think they have not bought into what [Coach] Mike McCarthy is selling."
McCarthy's offense, of course, centers on quarterback Aaron Rodgers. No team remaining in the playoffs threw for more yards than the Packers (4,124) during the regular season. But the Falcons now must deal with an added element: Starks.
"He's going to carry the ball in Atlanta," McCarthy told reporters Monday in Green Bay. "He's earned that."
He earned it with his performance against the Eagles, which was unexpected by almost everyone not close to Starks considering McCarthy left him inactive twice in December, saying he had to improve his practice habits and ball security. The Timberwolves had a game at the same time, and when Flynn returned to his locker, his phone was overloaded with text messages. Flynn checked Twitter, where his followers were asking, "Is James Starks your cousin?" So he found a box score.
"You don't understand how mad I was to miss that game," Flynn said. "But I saw the numbers, and I was like, 'I knew this is what he could do.' I wasn't surprised, but he was just finally getting his chance. It was for our family, but to show everybody who's coming through hard times what they can do, too."
Starks understood those hard times better than anyone else. In the locker room after he helped dispose of the Eagles, he considered his circuitous route.
"It's been a while," he said, "since I felt like this."