On April 17, 1999, the Indianapolis Colts were faced with a very big decision.
Picking fourth in the NFL draft that year, and after selecting quarterback Peyton Manning with the first pick a year early, the Colts were looking to add more firepower alongside their young franchise quarterback.
The Colts had traded running back Marshall Faulk to the St. Louis Rams just two days prior, and almost everyone around the league thought the Colts were going to select Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams to pair with Manning in the backfield. The New Orleans Saints even tried to trade up with the Colts to select Williams. It didn’t matter.
Former Colts general manager Bill Polian shocked much of the football world in taking running back Edgerrin James out of Miami with the fourth pick instead of Williams. Colts owner Jim Irsay had no doubts this was the perfect pick.
“He was special from the beginning,” Irsay said. “We all know about our intuition with energy and when we meet people we get a certain feeling about them. It’s not what they say or even how they say it or how they look or how they dress. It’s just that feeling that you get when you’re in a room with someone like that. A special person who’s gonna do special things and you just say ‘Wow.’ I know we were right with that pick, and the rest is history.”
History proved it was the right pick indeed, as James became the greatest running back in Colts franchise history with a career worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A Legendary Career, Always a Colt
James’ impact was felt from the very start. He took the NFL by storm with a league-leading 1,553 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, earning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and was selected as a First-Team All-Pro in 1999. It didn’t stop there either, as James led the NFL in rushing once again in 2000.
With the league on notice, "The Edge" became one of the most feared running backs in football. He was a back that could make defenders miss in the open field with his elusive jukes or run them over with great power and drive in his legs. He also possessed homerun speed, making every time he touched the ball an opportunity to reach the endzone.
As dangerous as he was running the ball, James took just as much pride in the other facets of his game. He was fantastic in pass protection, helping to keep Manning clean as he delivered numerous strikes downfield to wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. James was also on the receiving end of some of those throws from Manning, always being in the right spot and ready to make more big plays as a receiver himself.
“It was an honor to play with him,” Manning said. “His presence back there allowed Marvin Harrison, who went in (to the Hall of Fame) three years ago, Reggie Wayne, me, just to have one-on-one coverage to be able to throw the ball. If you don’t have somebody like that back there, defenses can kind of do a little more. So, when they’re trying to stop him it kind of frees you up. We were all very thankful.”
The common theme with Manning and James was their incredible work ethic. Irsay has told stories of James working out in the gym at 3 am. The work ethic he possessed combined with Manning’s legendary preparation and work ethic allowed them to form a very tight bond.
“I played on some great teams in Indy, played with some great teammates,” James said in his Hall of Fame speech on Saturday. “Peyton Manning, we couldn’t have been more different as people, but when it came to football, the way we worked, we connected like brothers.”
James thanked numerous former Colts in his speech, bringing back a lot of nostalgia for fans and the fond memories they have of those dominant teams. Harrison, Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Cato June, Tarik Glenn, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem, Adam Meadows, and Marcus Pollard were all mentioned. He also thanked his Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, describing him as a great coach but an even better man.
A Colt from 1999-2005, James is the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing yards (9,226) and rushing touchdowns (64). He was a four-time Pro Bowler as a member of the Colts and ran for over 1,500 yards in each one of those seasons, only one of four players to rush for 1,500 yards four times. The Colts honored him for his accolades with the franchise by placing James in the Ring of Honor in 2012.
While James was not a member of the Colts’ Super Bowl XLI winning team, he had as much of an impact as anyone in getting the Colts to that point. Irsay presented him with a Super Bowl ring in appreciation and to make it known that they would not have been able to bring home the Lombardi Trophy without his contributions over the years.
“I will always cherish my years with the Colts,” James said. “I was born and raised in South Florida, so coming to the Midwest was a whole different experience for me. To the city of Indianapolis: Thank you for embracing me.”
Altogether James put up incredible numbers in his NFL career. In 11 seasons, he ran circles around defenders to the tune of 12,246 rushing yards (13th all-time), 80 rushing touchdowns (21st all-time), and 15,610 scrimmage yards (28th all-time). And now as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020, he rightfully takes his place among football royalty.
Edge Being Edge
Coming into the league there were a lot of questions surrounding James, but it had nothing to do with his on-field ability. He came into the NFL with dreadlocks at a time when hardly anyone else in the league had such a hairstyle. His gold teeth shimmered when he flashed that South Florida smile.
One of the things you could always count on was Edge being Edge. No matter who he was around or who was watching, he was going to stay true to himself and be authentic.
“For some reason, I always had to deal with perception,” he said. “Perception, though, isn’t always reality. It definitely wasn’t my reality. People looked at my gold teeth and dreads and were shocked and surprised I had never been under arrest or spent time in jail. So many people told me that you can’t have dreads and gold teeth and be accepted in the NFL, but I never listened.
“I always knew who I was," James continued. "A great football player, a great father, a proud Black man, a lion, and this (pulling at his dreads) was my mane.”
James proved all of those wrong who tried to paint a picture of him that wasn’t true. He never had any off-the-field issues and was never involved in nefarious activity. He stayed true to himself and let his dominance on the field do his talking while being a model citizen in the community.
“Times have changed," James said. "Look around the league. Look at some of the young stars. As a matter of fact, look at my Pro Football Hall of Fame bust. Rocking the same dreads they said I shouldn’t.”
James’ bust is the only bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame to have dreads on it, signifying once again the trail he blazed was unequivocally his own.
The phrase “Edge being Edge” is one of great admiration. He did things his way and did not change because others on the outside wanted him to fit a certain mold. He knew what was truly important and stuck to the morals instilled in him by his mother, Julie, and through his faith in God.
His final message as he wrapped up his speech was one that we can all get behind, and one that speaks volumes to young kids who face immense challenges growing up and pressure from others to be a certain way.
“Proudly represent the real you,” James concluded. “Follow your dreams, aim high, and create the life you want to live. And to all those who have been judged prematurely because of their appearance, the way they speak, where they come from, and in the minds of many should be locked up in prison, I represent us.
“I’m forever immortalized, locked up in the Canton Correctional Institution," James delivered. "Inmate number 336 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My career started with gold teeth and ended with this gold jacket.”
Edgerrin James. One of a kind. Colts legend. Pro Football Hall of Famer.
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