Edgerrin James sauntered down a hallway this past Monday at the Indianapolis Colts' practice facility. When someone told him he was moving like the prototypical NFL running back the day after a bruising game, he laughed.
"Nah, I'm all right," he said with a grin. "No need to be moving fast when you don't have to."
James has been moving at warp speed on Sundays. The fourth player selected in the 1999 draft, he is the NFL's second-leading rusher with 1,311 yards on 301 carries and nine rushing touchdowns. He also is No. 2 in the league in total yards with 1,787, having made 51 catches for 476 yards and three more scores.
The only negative has been the six fumbles he has lost, but he almost certainly will be the NFL's offensive rookie of the year, not to mention a Pro Bowl selection and probable starter in that game. With one more 100-yard rushing game--he already has nine--he will set an NFL rookie record. It could happen here Sunday. The Colts can clinch the AFC East Division title with a victory over the Washington Redskins, whose defense ranks 28th overall in the league, 24th against the run.
On Monday, James didn't want to talk about the Redskins, who are trying to stay a game ahead of the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants for the NFC East lead. "I don't like to start talking about an opponent until Wednesday, after I've seen them on film," he said. And after a 20-minute interview, he was ready to leave the building and football behind for the rest of the afternoon and all day Tuesday, when Indianapolis's players are off.
But, according to quarterback Peyton Manning, when James returns on Wednesdays to begin preparing for the next opponent, he "works as hard as anybody in this building. He just soaks everything in, and you'll hardly ever see him make a mistake on the field."
There is little time for socializing, James said. His life these days consists of "being at the practice facility and then coming home and then waiting to be at the practice facility."
'We Got Lucky'
During the spring, and for much of the summer, there were some in this city who thought Colts President Bill Polian made a serious mistake when he drafted James rather than Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy winner who had ended a fabulous career at the University of Texas by becoming the NCAA Division I all-time career rushing leader. Others thought the Colts would use the pick for a defensive player, perhaps cornerback Champ Bailey, whom the Redskins selected later.
But Polian and Coach Jim Mora had studied James, and they thought he would be the best fit for the team's offense, which already had Manning, the passing prodigy, and Marvin Harrison, one of the NFL's best wide receivers.
"We liked both backs," Mora said of James and Williams, "but we felt [James] was a little more versatile. We liked the heck out of Ricky, too. But Edge fit our style. We didn't think we'd need to give him the ball 30 times a game, though we have. Ricky needs that many carries. But the passing game was a big part of our offense. We got lucky, too."
James was not exactly a big secret in his last season at Miami--especially after he rushed for 299 yards and scored three touchdowns against then-undefeated UCLA in his last regular season game, one that eliminated the Bruins from national championship contention. He set single-season school records with 242 carries, 1,416 yards and 17 touchdowns, and became the first player in Hurricanes history to have back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. In addition, his hands were so soft and pass-friendly that Miami Coach Butch Davis considered using him as a wide receiver at one point during his freshman season.
Davis found James in Immokalee, Fla., a town of 15,000 on the edge of the Everglades, 15 miles from Alligator Alley, the barren stretch of highway that links the east and west coasts of southern Florida. It is a community built around farming, but one that also has Florida's highest incidence of AIDS and a dreadful crime rate.
James grew up poor, the middle of five children raised by a single mother, Julie James, and a grandmother, Annie Lee James, who took a unique approach to keeping him out of harm's way.
James said his mother "would always let me hang out with the older guys, but just as long as I didn't get into any trouble. She'd tell them, 'Take care of him, and don't let him do anything he shouldn't be doing.' I learned a lot that way, life experiences with people who used drugs, sold drugs and did a lot of other bad stuff.
"You see the mistakes they made, and you knew you didn't want to become what they became. They never tried to tempt me. If they were going to do drugs, they'd say, 'Get away, you don't need to be around any more.' They made me stronger. I knew I wanted no part of that kind of life, and I was lucky. I don't have to live like that."
In his early teens, James earned money loading watermelons onto trucks in the brutal summer heat. In the fall, he used his muscle to become a hero on his high school football team.
His mother, who worked in the school cafeteria, was able to keep a close eye on him. And one of the football assistants, running backs coach Tim Howell, also was a narcotics detective with the Collier County Sheriff's Department who constantly emphasized the importance of staying clear of trouble so James could take advantage of the opportunities his football talent eventually could bring.
"He owned the town," Howell recently told the Indianapolis Star. "When we had our games, people from other communities, instead of going to their own games, they'd come to watch Edgerrin James. His mama and his grandmother instilled in his mind there's nothing wrong with having fun with these guys, but there comes a point where you have to separate yourself. He saw the dealing going on. He could probably stand right next to somebody making a transaction. But he had the desire and he had the ability to go on and do something better for himself."
James became a Parade magazine high school all-American, then spent three years at Miami before turning pro. Davis said James was conscientious about going to class and never failed a course. When he departed, he was only 29 credits short of graduation, but it's unlikely he'll return. James went to college to play football, and he figures the knowledge he acquired in the classroom and the street smarts he gleaned from his buddies back home should stand him in good stead for the future, not to mention a contract that should provide enough money to last a lifetime.
James began impressing the Colts in minicamps last spring. But he held out for more than three weeks of training camp in a contract dispute. He missed 25 practices before his agent, Leigh Steinberg, completed a five-year, $49 million contract that included a $9.5 million signing bonus.
During the holdout, James stayed in Florida. But he said he called Manning almost every day to brush up on the plays the team had been running in practice. He also worked out in Miami's weight room and played a lot of basketball. If the Colts had two two-hour practices in camp, James played basketball twice that day for two hours at a time, in addition to lifting weights and running.
"It was tough on me," James said. "I wanted to play. You dream about it all your life--and then you're so close, but so far. I talked to a lot of guys around the NFL, people like Deion [Sanders]. They all said, 'Look out for yourself because football will be there. Just don't get in a situation where you're doing something you didn't want to do.' I didn't want to be holding out again after one year."
When James finally reported to camp, Polian said he'd never seen a player show up in better condition after such a long holdout. The body fat on James's 6-foot, 216-pound frame was measured at a mere 3 percent, and when he stepped into drills his first few days at camp, it was as if he had never been missing.
Though some of his closest friends and advisers initially told him he might be wise to abandon his customary dreadlocks in favor of a more conventional hairstyle and perhaps replace his gold-capped teeth, the better to attract commercial endorsements, James has resisted. He said the hairstyle and teeth are "a South Florida thing, and why should I change?
"In this world," he added, "there are people who probably look at me the wrong way, but I'm not concerned with that. If someone likes me or not, I'll still be myself. I'm not going to act a certain way. This is how I am, and if you like it or not, so be it. I might cut the dreads one day, take out the teeth. It's fads and fashion, that's all. I'm not an act."
The Colts love the way he acts and performs on the field, save for the fumbles. Many players said they knew back in minicamp James was a special player. They became even more convinced after his first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, when he rushed for 77 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries and didn't miss any assignments.
Ricky Williams was on the sideline that night because of an injured ankle, one of a series of injuries that have plagued him all season. Williams has played in 10 of the Saints' 13 games, rushing for 816 yards and two touchdowns on 216 carries, and making 20 receptions for 136 yards and no touchdowns.
Bill Brooks, a former Redskins wide receiver, now the Colts' director of community relations, was particularly impressed by another facet of James's skills that night in August against the Saints.
"They blitzed a linebacker," Brooks said, "and Edge just destroyed him."
Said Adam Meadows, the Colts' starting right tackle: "You saw what he did against the Saints and you're thinking, 'Holy smokes, look at this guy run.' It's awesome blocking for a guy like this because regardless of the play that's called, he can be anywhere at any time, so you better stick with your guy and knock him down. Every time he has the ball in his hands, he thinks he can score."
Manning has been impressed with James's dedication to his profession and with his confidence, which has grown each week.
"In the huddle, he'll say, 'Just give me a little crease,' " Manning said. "He's obviously got such great ability. Right now, the things I like are his toughness, and he also has a love for the game. A lot of guys get into this thing and they treat it like a job. He loves to work, he loves to play and he loves to win."
A Loving Son
He also loves his mother, so much that not long after he was drafted, he told her it was time for her to retire. He has bought her a new Lexus, though she has been content to stay in her three-bedroom house, which was renovated by Habitat for Humanity six years ago.
Julie James spent the early part of the season living in her son's $350,000 house in the Indianapolis suburbs, cooking for them both as opposed to serving up grilled cheese and Jello for hundreds at the school cafeteria. When the weather turned cold, she drove the Lexus home to Florida.
"That was just one goal I had," Edgerrin James said. "I've seen so many times in my own family, people who worked hard all their lives and then they died. I wanted her to enjoy herself. Too many times, they work, work, work, always owing bills, always trying to keep up or catch up. I freed her from that, and she deserved it."
James has other responsibilities too. He fathered a daughter while he was at Miami. Edquisha, 2, lives with her mother, who works at a bank in Immokalee. James said he provides financial support for the mother and child, who he says "will never have to want for anything." But Julie James has said she would like her son to marry Edquisha's mother.
However, when asked about getting married any time soon, James shook his head and held up his hand. "My fingers are made for Super Bowl rings," he said. "Right now, I'm married to my mom and to football."
Right Out of the Box
The top seasons for rookie running backs in NFL history:
Player Team Year Att. Yards Avg. Long TD
Eric Dickerson Rams 1983 390 1,808 4.6 85 18
George Rogers Saints 1981 378 1,674 4.4 79 13
Ottis Anderson Cardinals 1979 331 1,605 4.8 76 8
Curtis Martin Patriots 1995 368 1,487 4.0 49 14
Barry Sanders Lions 1989 280 1,470 5.3 34 14
Earl Campbell Oilers 1978 302 1,450 4.8 81 13
Curt Warner Seahawks 1983 335 1,449 4.3 60 13
Jerome Bettis Rams 1993 294 1,429 4.9 71 7
Eddie George Oilers 1996 335 1,368 4.1 76 8
Reuben Mayes Saints 1986 286 1,353 4.7 50 8
Edgerrin James* Colts 1999 301 1,311 4.4 54 9
Billy Sims Lions 1980 313 1,303 4.2 52 13
*Three games remaining in regular season.
James vs. Ricky Williams
Comparing the numbers of the No. 4 and 5 draft picks in '99. The Colts passed over the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner, who was then taken by the New Orleans Saints:
Player Att. Yds. Avg. TD Rec.Yds. Avg. TD
James 301 1,311 4.4 9 51 476 9.3 3
Williams 216 816 3.8 2 20 136 6.8 0