Perhaps no one on the earth's crust began 1983 with as much promise as Craig James. Ability, wealth, intelligence, appearance, a new marriage, a new house--he began the year as an embodiment of the American Dream. Potential as big as the Ritz.

To be sure, James has not met with what anyone could call tragedy, but on Monday night against the Los Angeles Express, the 22-year-old running back had an awakening. He was injured for the first time in his football career when a tackler landed him on his head, neck and shoulders.

The injury, a slight fracture of the upper dorsal spine, will keep James out of action for four or five weeks. It has also given him time to think about the past three months, a period that has changed his life.

James has had a great deal of success to absorb. But for three days in Howard University Hospital and now at home, he has had to consider a certain athletic mortality, the fragility involved in his particular line of work.

Lying in bed at his new home in Oakton, James said, "I was never really worried about getting hurt before. The thought crossed my mind--I guess it crosses every player's mind--but I play anyway. I've never been injured before. In high school I hurt a shoulder once, but I never missed any games.

"This is a new one for me. I was let down because I knew I'd be out a month, just when I thought we were starting to put it together. If it had been one of those injuries where they said if you get hit again in the same spot you have a chance of being paralyzed, I'd never be able to carry a football again. The doctors say my injury will heal 100 percent. But still. You think."

On a blustery New Year's Day in Dallas, James ended his college career, helping Southern Methodist complete an undefeated season with a victory over Pittsburgh in the Cotton Bowl.

Thirteen days later, his boyishly handsome face beaming in the television lights, James announced that he had signed with the Federals (a four-year guaranteed contract). Owner Berl Bernhard and President James Gould stood next to their $1.5-$2 million investment and radiated the confidence of men with inside information on Wall Street.

When Federals Coach Ray Jauch began assembling and training his new team at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, he entered into a slow, difficult process in which the quality of individual players varied, and still does vary, wildly.

Jauch knew he could really look to only one constant: Craig James. Though he was only 22, James betrayed no arrogance in his manner with his teammates and he began breaking away from tacklers from the very start.

In a scrimmage against the Tampa Bay Bandits, James gained 94 yards on 11 carries, including a 39-yard run. Against the Birmingham Stallions, he broke through the line on the second play of the game for a 76-yard touchdown run.

The world seemed full of nothing but promise.

By the pool of the Thunderbird Resort Hotel in Jacksonville, James spent a day off lounging in the sun and reading with delight the news of Herschel Walker's USFL contract.

"This is great," he said of the news about Walker. "My dream was always to play in the NFL. I loved the Dallas Cowboys. I was really unsure about signing with the USFL. I didn't know anything about it. But the more I see the players and the guys like Herschel signing, the better I feel about signing."

James knew he was a winner either way. If the league succeeded, he would be a pioneer. If the league flopped, his $2 million was guaranteed and there was always the NFL.

Sittin' pretty, as Red Barber used to say.

One week after his exhibition performance against the Stallions, the Federals played a game for real and the experience was dour. George Allen told his defense that if they concentrated their eyes and forearms on No. 32, all the rest would fall into place. And Allen was right. The Chicago Blitz held James to 34 yards on 14 frustrating, crowded carries and won, 28-7.

"I had bigger visions of our season than what's happened," said James. "I never think in terms of any specific numbers or anything but I always have big ambitions."

Those ambitions met with no more fulfillment against the Los Angeles Express. In the first quarter and part of the second, James carried eight times for only 17 yards. Again the holes were not there.

Then, one series after starting quarterback Mike Hohensee had walked gingerly off the field with a fractured sternum, James looked for running room on his own.

"I remember the play," he said. "It was supposed to be a sprint-draw off tackle. But there was nothing inside and I bounced out around the right. There was a defensive back on the ground and I went to jump over him, but somebody caught me a little from behind and I couldn't jump high enough. My head hit the ground the hardest."

James cracked a vertabrae about one-third of the way down his shoulder blades. He watched the rest of the game from the sideline. The Federals lost, 20-3, clearly hampered by the injuries to James, Hohensee and wide receiver Reggie Smith.

"It was painful, especially coming home on the plane," said James. "It came just when I didn't have to think so much about what to do. At first I had to come to the line and figure out where to go. The other night (against Los Angeles), I was just starting to get to the point where I could just do it.

"But I'm feeling pretty good now, though. In fact, my shoulders are sorer than my back. The only reason I'm not too depressed about the injury is that I know why it happened. It's because I haven't been lifting any weights. They haven't come in yet. I've landed that way on turf lots of times before and was fine. I'm going to get a set of weights tomorrow and put them in the basement."

James, though, will have to spend more of the next month in bed, not in the basement. As young and wealthy and promising an athlete as he is, James knows that people--fans, teammates, coaches and, above all, opponents--will be looking for him when he returns.

Those who are blessed with tremendous gifts and rewards are, after all, saddled with tremendous expectations.

Under the blankets and against the pillows, James is anticipating those expectations:

"I know that every game the other team is going to be looking for me but I'm going to have to respond."