Lose the dreads, they told him. And for heaven's sake, get the
gold out of your mouth. Nobody in the NFL has gold teeth
anymore. You're a businessman now.
Edgerrin James is a polite person and humble by nature. So he
listened. When they finished, he touched a place on his chest.
"But this is me," he said.
His closest confidant is his half-brother Edward German III, a
32-year-old student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.
German thought E.J.--as James is known--would be better off with
a more traditional look: hair clipped close to the scalp and
regular-looking teeth (more white ones, in other words). James's
coaches at Miami and at Immokalee (Fla.) High agreed. In the
days before the Indianapolis Colts drafted him in April with the
fourth pick in the first round, and in the days since, James's
most trusted advisers have pulled him aside and implored him to
listen. Look, E.J., they've said, do you want people thinking
you're some kind of thug?
It was true: He scared people. They hesitated to talk to him.
So, to disarm those who prejudged him by his appearance, James
approached them first. He showed that he was a gentleman.
Invariably he saw the anxiety wash out of their faces. Their
bodies seemed to uncoil. He enjoyed the effect, enjoyed
dispelling their wicked imaginings by the simple act of being
kind. "Next thing you know, they're apologizing," James says.
"They're saying, 'Damn, E.J., I'm sorry. I just didn't expect
you to be like this.' 'Like what?' 'Well, you know, nice.'"
September 19, 1999
Those he didn't scare he confused. This, too, was a problem that
his advisers believed he could easily eliminate. People mistook
him for Texas running back Ricky Williams. "Ricky!" they said,
running up. "How you doin', my brother?"
Then James let them have a closer look. He stood there with all
the poise of a man having his portrait done. Then he gave a
smile. "I'm the one with the gold teeth," he said. "Ricky's got
gold other things."
"I call him Little Ricky," says Colts rookie linebacker Mike
Peterson, "and he just shakes his head and says, 'No, man,
Ricky's his own person, and I'm my own person, too.' He tries to
downplay the resemblance. Then he goes about his business."
Somebody asked James if he understood that by looking like
Williams he was encouraging more comparisons. James thought about
it. Tapped his chest. "But this is who I am," he said.
In Indianapolis on draft day, Colts fans cursed and threw things
at their TV sets when NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced
James as the team's top pick. The fans wondered about the mental
stability of Colts officials and glimpsed the future as a
terrible white-hot blur of regret and recrimination. "You guys
have to draw straws to see who starts my car tonight," Colts
president Bill Polian joked that day with interns in his
Maybe Edgerrin James knew who he was, but all anybody in
Indianapolis seemed to care about was who he wasn't. He wasn't
Williams, the most prolific rusher in college football history,
whom the New Orleans Saints gobbled up with the fifth pick after
bartering away eight draft choices to the Washington Redskins.
And James wasn't Marshall Faulk, the three-time Pro Bowl running
back, whom the Colts traded to the St. Louis Rams just two days
before the draft. In 1998 Faulk accounted for nearly half of the
team's total offense, but when he threatened to hold out of this
year's training camp unless his contract was fattened, Polian
swiftly dealt him.
Through no fault of his own, James found himself unpopular with
Indianapolis fans even before he'd tried on a Colts uniform. To
add to the fans' fury, for three weeks this summer he kept clear
of camp while his agent, Leigh Steinberg, squeezed the club for
money. James, barely 21 years old and having started only 17
games at Miami, received a seven-year deal that gave him a $9.5
million signing bonus and an additional $350,000 just for
reporting to camp. If he meets a series of relatively easy
incentives, the value of the contract will balloon to a
staggering $49 million. As it turned out, James wasn't Williams,
he wasn't Faulk, and he wasn't cheap.
But he may be worth it. In a season-opening 31-14 win over the
Buffalo Bills on Sunday, he rushed 26 times for 112 yards and a
touchdown. "Fans are going to have their opinions," James says.
"The good side is, once you make some plays and help the team
win, you see people turn around and say, 'Man, I was dead wrong
James carries hardly a whit of the star attitude that turns
college heroes into professional prima donnas. Rather than
splurge on a multimillion-dollar mansion in Miami, where he
hopes to live one day, James spent $350,000 for a four-bedroom
house in Indianapolis. Earlier this summer he went out on the
town with teammates and chose to remain at a club after the
others went home for the night. Stranded without a vehicle,
James shot the breeze with fans for a few hours and then cadged
a ride home.
"All my life has been about proving myself," he says. "I've been
through so much that what I'm going through now is nothing. You
get so accustomed to hearing bad things said about you. People
used to say I'd never make it in college because of where I come
from, and I've proved them wrong. Nothing I love more than
turning a negative into a positive."
James grew up in the town of Immokalee, hard by the Everglades
and square in the middle of some of southern Florida's richest
farmland. During the harvest seasons the population of the area
swells to as many as 40,000 as pickers migrate in to empty the
fields of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, watermelons and oranges.
But most of the time only about 14,000 make Immokalee their
home, and many of these people are impoverished and struggling
Edgerrin's mother, Julie James, worked in a school cafeteria
until her son liberated her with his NFL money. His father,
Edward German, is a harvesting contractor whose work keeps him
away from Immokalee for long periods. Julie and Edward were
never married, and except for about eight months when he was in
middle school, Edgerrin has always lived with his mother. Julie
had six children (not all with Edward). One of them, Jeffrey
James, is a sophomore defensive back at Illinois State, though
he's injured and out for the season.
Most evenings when Julie returned from work, she cooked dinner
for the kids and then dropped off to sleep, too tired to stay
up. The family needed food stamps to get by, and there was no
money for anything not necessary for survival. Edgerrin received
few gifts for Christmas and his birthday. "I did what I could,"
German says. "I've always worked, but I couldn't provide for him
and Jeff the way I could my other children. People say Edgerrin
and I are estranged, but it's not true. He knows who his father
is, and he's always known."
"I've seen everything in my life, everything you can think of,"
James says. "I had relatives who were on drugs. I had an uncle
and a cousin die from AIDS, the uncle in prison. I had another
uncle die in the backyard of my grandma's house. People said it
was a suicide, but the family suspects he was murdered."
"Where Edgerrin was raised, there were a lot of people who used
and sold drugs," says Timothy Howell, a detective in the county
sheriff's office and the former running backs coach at Immokalee
High. "Edgerrin was exposed to a lot of bad stuff, and exposed to
"Crack dealers, rockheads, prostitutes, everything," says Julie.
"So Edgerrin, not to run to all that, has really held up."
When Edgerrin was a child his family moved from one apartment to
another as his mother struggled to earn rent money. Whenever
things got really bad they bivouacked in a small apartment owned
by Julie's parents, Manies and Ann James. "I had a room to the
front, but it was the living and dining room too," says Julie.
"The whole place was two rooms, and they weren't very big. The
children's room was right in there with the kitchen and
bathroom. It was tight. And it was tough. But let me tell you, I
was lucky to be there at the time."
To help his mother, Edgerrin worked in the watermelon fields as
a teenager, often joining other members of his family on jobs in
southern Georgia. That was where his summers went, to 16-hour
days in towns such as Ashburn and Cordele, loading melons that
weighed as much as 30 pounds onto trailers in 110[degree] heat.
"Edgerrin threw 'em from dawn to dusk," says his half-brother
Edward. "He would be one of a chain of guys. As the truck is
going down the field at a slow pace, maybe three miles an hour,
there are six or seven lanes of watermelons, and there's a
person in each lane. The person farthest from the truck throws
it to the next person, who throws it to the next one. If you're
the person right next to the truck, you touch every last
watermelon. They call that bumpin'. Well, Edgerrin did mostly
bumpin'. He was so strong, he could touch the watermelon with
one hand and just throw it up in the truck without any effort.
He had stamina like nobody else. He could go all day."
"You had a lot of crackheads and everything else working the
fields up there in Georgia," Edgerrin says. "You'd have to hide
your money to make sure they didn't steal it or rob you. I'd
stay in a hotel, just any hotel. I saw it as a way to get out
and help my mom." Each payday Edgerrin put aside a third of his
earnings for Julie. He saved the rest for clothes and
miscellaneous school expenses.
As a child Edgerrin played football in the fall on patches of
ground in the projects or in the streets near his grandparents'
place. He pretended he was Walter Payton, the former Chicago
Bears running back. At home at night Edgerrin studied videotapes
of Payton and tried to mimic his high, graceful steps, his
punishing stiff arm. Payton occasionally held the ball with one
hand, and Edgerrin did the same--until he fumbled, that is, and
his coaches blistered him. "In Pop Warner, Edgerrin used to run
over teams," says John James, his mother's brother. "People in
Immokalee called it the Edgerrin James Show, because he was just
better than everybody. But he was never a braggart. Never said a
word, to tell you the truth. But anything he decided to do, he'd
"Sometimes when you see him turning the corner now, it's like
those Indy Cars coming out of Turn 4, heading down the stretch,
tracking," says Gene Huey, the running backs coach for the Colts.
"Watch how easily he makes the turn compared with some other
guys, who fight and labor to stay inbounds and end up losing
their balance. Edgerrin just turns up the sideline without any
problem. He's smooth and explosive, and he has great vision. You
don't teach these things. He's got it naturally."
James fantasized about playing in college and then the NFL, but
as a student he was lazy, and for much of his high school career
his future looked bleak: half of each year in the fields, the
other half waiting for something to happen. "In 10th grade I
just felt older than everybody my age," he says, "so I started
hanging with older people. I stopped going to school as much,
and I didn't concentrate when I went. School was boring. I
became one of those kids who hangs out on the street corner
until three or four in the morning."
That same year James journeyed to Miami to have several of his
teeth capped in gold. Then he had his hair fashioned into
dreadlocks. He liked the look he projected: tough, invulnerable,
Immokalee. He was young and unformed yet, just 15, but he had an
inarguable self-assurance. "The thing that immediately stands
out about him is his toughness," says Colts quarterback Peyton
Manning. "In this league you've got to be tough."
"It's true that he's humble, but you can't ignore his
confidence," says Colts coach Jim Mora. "And he's got an
incredible work ethic. He's always hanging around, working at
As a senior at Immokalee High, James dislocated his elbow and
was forced to sit out half the season. The team went 5-5, far
below expectations. But such disappointments did not keep James
from being named a Parade All-America, nor did they deter top
college programs from recruiting him. Florida, Florida State and
Ohio State were among the dozen or so Division I schools that
showed interest, but in the end, after James continued to
perform poorly in the classroom and produced inadequate scores
on college entrance exams, only Miami offered him a scholarship.
"A lot of schools just didn't want to gamble on me," says James,
who needed to take the ACT several times. "Coach [Butch] Davis
had only 12 scholarships to give, but he said, 'Edgerrin, get it
done and we'll hold one for you.'"
At Miami as a sophomore and junior James became the first player
in school history to rush for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
His biggest day came last December against UCLA, which was
ranked No. 3 at the time and vying for the national
championship. James broke Big East and school rushing records
against the Bruins with 299 yards on 39 carries and three
touchdowns. "Until then I'd been splitting time with two other
backs, [Najeh] Davenport and [James] Jackson," says James. "But
in that game I finally got the carries I always wanted. I like
to wear defenses down--they get tired and I'm still moving. At
Miami you'd wear a defense down, and then you'd have to go to
the sideline, and you didn't know when you were going to get
back in. Coach Davis had to do that because he had so much
talent, and he was trying to keep everybody happy. I didn't like
it, but in the long run it kept me fresh. I didn't take many
Upon deciding to leave college after his junior year, James
worried that NFL coaches might consider his limited playing time
at Miami a liability. But as it turned out they prized James for
the minimal wear on his body. He still had tread on the tire,
some said, pointing out that Ricky Williams, a power runner with
a tendency to take on defenders, had twice as many carries as
James did last year.
The Hurricanes' running backs coach, Don Soldinger, for one,
wasn't surprised when the Colts passed on Williams to take
James. "You wouldn't be either if you looked at Edgerrin's
film," Soldinger says. "The kid can do so many things. To start,
he has receiver-type hands, and the Colts like throwing to
backs. He's afraid of nothing. On his blitz pickups Edgerrin
hurts people. He gets in great position; then he just nails
you--and, yes, I'm talking about linebackers. His running
ability is phenomenal. Plus, the guy is smart." Finally,
Soldinger adds, "Work: That's what he does."
James brought an analytical approach to deciding whether or not
to forgo his senior year for the NFL. His mother was still
struggling in Immokalee. And James and Andia Wilson were the
parents of a daughter, two-year-old Edquisha. As much as James
wanted to help Miami continue to revive its program and compete
for a national championship, he had other obligations. "To break
the trend of poverty in his family," says Edward. "That's the
main thing he wanted to do."
As the NFL draft approached, Edgerrin told Julie that she didn't
have to work any longer. "I had to force her into retirement," he
says. "I'm going to take care of her, anything she wants. But
she's been working so long, she doesn't know what to do. She's so
accustomed to getting up early and going to work that now she
volunteers at the high school cafeteria whenever they need some
According to published reports, Saints coach Mike Ditka was
turned off by James's weak handshake when they met last February
at the NFL scouting combine. Perhaps Ditka was blinded by his
love for the Texas runner for whom he would later mortgage his
team's future. Polian cared less about James's handshake than
about his many upsides, character and ability most important
among them. Says Polian, "You've got to take the emotion out of
it and make the decision that's right for your team."
That decision was to take the six-foot, 216-pound James, who
looked like the perfect fit for the Colts and their Manning-led
offense. He impressed team officials with his humility and
conviction. Asked what he hoped to achieve as a rookie, James
made no mention of rushing yards or touchdowns but instead hit on
the only thing that counts in the NFL. "I want to help the team
win," he said.
Meanwhile, friends and family back home in Florida were telling
him to change his look. James finally listened to the one voice
that mattered most: his own. "I'm not doing it," he said to
Edward. "I'm not cutting my hair, and I'm keeping my gold teeth."
"Why is that?"
"It's me," James said. "It's always been me."
"I'm the one with the gold teeth," James said with a smile.
"Ricky Williams has gold other things."
"When you see him turning the corner, it's like an Indy Car
coming out of Turn 4," Huey says.
His boyhood summers were spent loading 30-pound watermelons onto
trailers in 110[degree] heat.