Craig James remembered what was on television the day he reported to his first Washington Federals training camp in January 1983: Super Bowl XVII. The Redskins and Dolphins. The Riggo Bowl. He remembered watching the game and, even though he was a professional football player, feeling "very distant" from it. The Super Bowl was something that belonged to the NFL. James had signed with the USFL for reasons having to do with a pioneering spirit and a bucket of cash -- not a Super Bowl. The way he saw it, he was running off in a completely different direction.
But there was a back injury one year, then a knee the next. And a 4-14 record one year, then a 3-15 the next. And no money one year, then even less the next. You know how it goes in the untrained gerbils business. One day you're locked out of practice and you have to climb a fence to get in. The next day your team bus breaks down on the way home from a practice at Georgetown and you're out there in full uniform on Constitution Avenue trying to hitch a ride in the rain. One thing led to another. And pretty soon, in midseason actually, James could be had for the price of a phone call. As in, hello New England.
And now look. Craig James, who never ran for 100 yards in a game with the Federals, did it six times this season with the Patriots, including their most recent playoff games against the Raiders and the Dolphins. Craig James, who can honestly say he played on the worst team in pro football, has the chance to leave here saying he plays on the best. Craig James, who'd planned on being elsewhere, is in the Super Bowl.
And how is it so far? Is it all he thought?
"All and more," he said, beaming, his aquamarine eyes as sharp as needles and his overall demeanor so frisky you wanted to scratch his ears. "I've loved every minute of it. I'll walk down the street and see all the T-shirts with the Bears and the Patriots on them, and everybody buying their Super Bowl souvenirs, and it's hard to believe I'm part of all this. I pinch myself every few minutes to make sure it's happening."
He has been hanging around with some high school buddies from Houston who'd come to share the joyful madness with him. They were rehashing their glory days the other night, James and his old high school quarterback, Mark Gabrisch, when Gabrisch called time and said, "You realize we're sitting and talking about a state championship, and here you are in the Super Bowl!" James shrugged, because what else can you do? The whole thing's so hard to believe. "Even my brother," James was saying. "He called me and said, 'It just hit me where I'm going. I'm going to see you play in the Super Bowl.' " Unbelievable, right?
When James left the Federals it hadn't seemed worth grieving over. The Federals had lost with him; surely they could lose without him. He'd been no better than an average running back, certainly not the Galahad they'd proclaimed. But Kim McQuilken, the NFL veteran who'd been the Federals' first quarterback, cautioned against so easily downgrading James: "I've played nine seasons, and I've seen a lot of good backs. I'm telling you, this kid can play with anyone."
It's a curious thing that James is the only featured running back in the NFL who is white. What makes it even more curious is that James is not cut from the stereotypical mold of white running backs. "Most of them are big, bruising runners," James explained. "I went against the grain." James is a cut-back, shake-and-bake runner, fast enough to run the 100 in 9.7 in high school, fast enough that Julius Adams respectfully calls him, "White Lightning." Not as fast as the fastest, but sure fast enough.
We have all suffered with pro football's standard prejudice of converting black quarterbacks into defensive backs. Something analagous happened to James at SMU. "When I went to college, (Coach) Ron Meyer stuck me at fullback, probably because I was white. I wasn't happy with it. I knew coming out of high school that I could compete with black athletes -- I'd outrun all the previous ones." James smiled; the usual: three parts choir boy, one part Dennis the Menace. "After about seven games (Meyer) saw what I could do, and I started the last three games at tailback." James and Eric Dickerson went on to form the storied "Pony Express," one of college football's most productive tailback tandems.
Speaking of the knee-jerk shifting of white runners from tailback to fullback, James said, "It's a category you're thrown into. I'm glad I fought through it." As accomplished and angelic-looking as he is, James would undoubtedly receive a lot of fan mail anyway. But demonstrably, his whiteness brings him even more. "They write and say they like to see a white boy run, and not straight ahead, either." James would very much like to believe the letters speak to pride, not prejudice. But sadly, neither he nor we can be sure they do, and history has taught us to doubt.
There's yet another irony in his career. The move to New England reunited James with Meyer -- then a most unpopular head coach of the Patriots -- and immediately inspired grumblings about favoritism from fans and players alike. Succumbing to the whisper campaign, Meyer declined to play James. It wasn't until after Meyer was fired and replaced by Raymond Berry that James became a starter. As much as he cared for Meyer, as sorrowful as he felt for Meyer's situation, James knew in his own heart that "it was a breath of fresh air for me." Once a running back, always a running back. They give you the ball, and you don't look back.
It's a crooked, thorny path Craig James took here, bumping into stereotypes, mismanagement, incompetence and innuendo; treating those impostors the same way -- no retreat, no surrender. Maybe that's why he's so appreciative to be here. Maybe that's why he says, "When they introduce me on Sunday, you may see me running on the carpet, but in my mind I'll be 10 yards above it."