Edgerrin James: 'I was made to play football'
This week, we catch up with Hall-of-Fame running back Edgerrin James on playing at "The U," his love of basketball and why the game of football, for him, was such a damn "breeze."
He could run you over.
He could juke you out of your cleats.
He could pick up the blitz.
He could catch a pass and take it to the house.
Truly, there was nothing that Edgerrin James couldn’t do on a football field. He was the perfect running back at the perfect time for the Indianapolis Colts’ high-octane, no-huddle, Peyton Manning-led offense. When the rest of the world expected Bill Polian to draft Ricky Williams… the general manager took this back out of Miami. It worked out beautifully, too, with James rushing for 12,246 yards and 80 touchdowns in his career with another 433 receptions for 3,364 yards and 11 scores.
James just missed his shot at a Super Bowl ring, signing with the Arizona Cardinals the year before Manning reached that mountaintop. He also was on the Cardinals team that lost a thriller of a Super Bowl to Pittsburgh. But James got his just due a year ago in making the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A true dual threat, his impact on the game was undeniable and, now, Manning will join him in Canton. These days, James is a Dad, runs some businesses and, in his words, free flows through life. (You can follow him on his active IG account, here.)
With Go Long, for Throwback Thursday this week, James breaks down why the environment at “The U” was just different, why playing football was a “breeze” for him, his reaction to everyone thinking the Colts should’ve drafted Williams in 1999, if he laments just missing that ring and the legacy he believes he left on the sport.
You won’t see James on TV at all. This four-time Pro Bowler is about as laidback as it gets.
First off, we know you’re a Hall of Famer. We all watched your game. We don’t see you on TV every other second, like we do a lot of players, so what are you up to in life for people who may not know?
James: Taking it easy, man. I have multiple businesses and I’m just taking care of my kids. I’m just enjoying life. I wanted to have a free-flowing, free-spirited type of life where I can do what I want to do but also make sure my businesses are run the right way. And I’m also being a parent and taking care of my kids the best I can.
Everybody misses the game but have you been able to be in their lives and be there for your kids more since you hung ‘em up?
James: Yeah, that’s the thing about it. You’ve got free time. You have a chance to be a fan. That’s what I enjoy now. I don’t have to be all tensed up about a game. Now, I can just free-flow and just watch a game, enjoy the game, enjoy the sport, enjoy the art, enjoy the athletic ability and the strategic parts of the game. So it’s a good thing to actually become a fan and just watch sports. Out of all the sports, I love basketball the most. I really watch basketball and enjoy that and watch the art on display.
Who’s your favorite team? Who’s your favorite player?
James: I don’t really have a favorite team locked in. I like to watch players. Of course, you like LeBron and the guys who’ve played a long time. I love to watch all those guys. But I love the Miami Heat, as the local team, and of course everybody loves the Lakers. The Lakers are putting something together, something strong. I’m curious to see what the guys up in Brooklyn are going to do. So, I like to watch all the changing parts to see how people are going to perform and how they’ll deal with different situations.
How has the game of football changed since you’ve retired?
James: Football now, it’s not as tough as it used to be. It’s not as hardnosed. So it’s a game that is very creative now. You see the offenses doing so many different things, it’s just a different game right now but I enjoy change and I enjoy being able to adapt to change. Just seeing the way things are going, I watch it just like a fan. This year, you can’t attend too many football games, I just watched the highlights.
With your upbringing, where would you start? What was your upbringing really like?
James: People know about it. People understand my upbringing. I never get super detailed about my upbringing. You’ll have to get it in bits and pieces. It runs parallel with a lot of guys who were in the situation I was in, who played ball, played sports, single-parent home, it’s cliched. But it’s what makes you that dog. It’s what makes you tough. It’s what makes you the person you are. Your upbringing is what shapes you to become the person you are most of the time.
You go to the “U” and there are a lot of guys like that at the “U.” What’s it like when you then get a pack of those dogs together on one team? What’s the scene really like with that kind of attitude really driving a whole program?
James: It’s more about the practice. You really take pride in practice. You look forward to it every day. Gameday is pretty much the easiest day of the week. And that’s how you really look back on it. At other places, gameday was the highlight of their week. For us, it was always practice. Practice is really where you show off your stuff. You really get a chance to go at it with your peers—you really had to compete. If somebody dominates you, you have to sit there and watch all the other guys get on you. And you had to wear that until the next day when you got another chance. So those were the things that made the University of Miami so special. The competition.
What memories do you really cherish from those practices? Would you get into it with somebody? How intense would these practices really get?
James: It’s hard to describe. It’s hard to explain. You have to really be there. The energy there. It was just us and that’s why we were so close-knit. Because we knew what we went through. We knew the things we had to do, to get to where we were trying to get to. And when you see all those guys making it to the NFL, we all came from the same situation. We all came from that same type of upbringing to know what it’s like to get the best of each other. Everybody held each other accountable. It’s something unlike any other place. I don’t care where you go. There’s nothing that will be like that.
What made it different? Why do you say that?
James: The hunger. The hunger. Everybody was driven. You had a bunch of kids that wanted to take their family into another space and wanted to do things for their family, wanted to do things for themselves. And compete. To get the best out of you, you need somebody that’s actually going to dig deep. On a gameday, you’re not going to get that. But on a day-to-day basis? You’re going to have somebody pulling at you. It’s going to bring something out of you.
Everybody there is just fighting like hell — it can be life and death. That has to be a powerful thing.
James: You have to think, man. You’re one or two years away from being able to live the lifestyle that you dreamed of. You’re right there. If you have it in you, it’s going to be brought out of you. That’s what happens — it brings it out of you. If you’re a weak person, it’ll bring that out of you, too. So you have all the elements that are pulling you in every direction. But then you also have the elements that are pushing you in a greater direction. So it depends on how you respond. The good ones respond. And that’s why you see us being so dominant. Because the ones that were supposed to be there? We got the best out of those.
You get to Indianapolis and, you think back to draft day, you were counted out by a lot of people. Nobody could understand why the Colts didn’t take Ricky Williams. Does it feel like yesterday or does it feel like light years ago when you were doubted right when you get to the NFL? Your goal all along?
James: It wasn’t a big deal. It just tells you how easily people can be manipulated — when you don’t know something. You only go off of what you know. If you don’t see me on TV, and you don’t see me that much, how can you say, “This is the guy?” So you put everything in perspective: “The people who’ve actually seen me, those are the ones who knew.” The people who had actually seen me were the ones who made the decision. The people who had never seen me? Of course they’re going to say, “Why did they take this person over that person.” Because that’s who’s on TV. That’s the cheat sheet. Nobody wants to do the homework. But the people who had to invest their money and invest their franchise in somebody — they did what everybody else didn’t care to do. They had to really evaluate it. That’s why I look at the whole thing and say, “Man, I get it.” So it never was a big deal to me. I’m not one of those guys who says, “Oh, I’ve got to go prove this person wrong.” I didn’t care where I got drafted. I was going to the NFL. I’m going to do what I set out to do, regardless of any of the factors.
I set out to be a Hall of Famer and I became a Hall of Famer. So all the other stuff, it’s good for conversation and good for the “What if this and that,” but I’m straight, beeline to it: I came in to ball out, do what I’m supposed to do, get to the Hall of Fame, make a lot of money and enjoy life.
So you got your motivation in other ways. You never had to use any of that?
James: I’m self-motivated. You don’t understand how tough it is to get to the NFL. You work your whole life to get there. I can’t let one little scenario overtake all of that. No. When you’re seven, eight, nine, 10 years old playing, you’re building and building and building and doing all of this for free. You’re paying to actually play football. And then, you get to a point where I’m getting paid to play football. That’s motivation in itself. I want to be one of the best. If you want to be one of the best — one of the guys where people say, “He’s a Hall of Famer” — those situations aren’t going to tell you to do that. That’s not big enough. It has to be in you.
And it was always in you. What do you attribute that to? The “U?” All of that?
James: It comes down to who you are as a person and a man. As a man and a competitor, you go “I’m going to make sure nobody out here is better than me.” I never stopped working. I never stopped measuring myself so I could always improve. Improvements constantly came because I always focused on improving myself. Everything else worked itself out.
And you changed football. There were dual threats — Roger Craig, Thurman Thomas — but it felt like your game, we had never seen before. In that offense, with everything you could do, did you look at it that way? Do you think you changed football with your role?
James: I just did what I was supposed to do and what I was capable of doing. I was an every-down back. I was a guy who could’ve been a receiver. I could’ve been a receiver, at one time, at the University of Miami. They contemplated moving me to receiver because they could see that I could really catch. I was always tough and running back was always my position. So there was never a time I couldn’t be on the field. And my size, a lot of running backs don’t make it to 6-foot. A lot of them are 5-10, 5-11. I’m 6-foot, 6-1 and tough and 200-something so I can work the goal line and short yardage. And when it comes to pass protection, I was always able to hold my own and I actually did that at a level higher than any backs to ever play.
So when you start looking at all of the factors, there really wasn’t a weakness. Now, I can be on the field more. The more I can be on the field, the more opportunities I’ll get. And I took advantage of those opportunities.
Did you ever get tired? How did you stay out there as long as you did—369 carries your rookie year, 62 catches? And you’re taking on blitzers in a Peyton Manning offense.
James: That’s being young, driven and motivated. When you’re young, you can do all those things. I was young, energetic and all I wanted to do was play football and do what I was supposed to do. Football meant a lot more to me than others. I always wanted to be on the field.
Pass protection in this offense, with all the audibles and all the calls in an era where guys can still take the quarterback’s head off, how difficult was that? You said you’re the best to do it. What went into that?
James: At the University of Miami, if you couldn’t block, you couldn’t get on the field. So I took pride in those things and it just transferred over to the NFL. A job is a job. It’s man vs. man. I don’t care where you put me. I have to do my job. And that’s how I always looked at it — If I have to pick this man up in blitz protection, I don’t care how big he is or how fast he’s coming. It’s my job. I’m competing. So, it’s the game within the game. I’m always competing. Because as a man, I’m not going to let someone come and knock me down or somebody bully me. So I have to keep that mindset nonstop. No matter what the situation is.
When did you know you could be a Hall of Famer?
James: When I saw how easy the game was. In the beginning. As soon as I started playing, I said, “This game is a breeze. It’s not that complicated.” I was made to play football.
Easy? A breeze?
James: You have to be realistic about things. It was easy for me. I never struggled learning the game. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t do. So the game was easy to me. I really liked basketball but football was just so easy for me. I played football because I was really good at it and it was easy for me but I always liked to pick up a basketball. It’s kind of weird.
A lot of guys say they love the creativity of the sport. Why did you love basketball more than football?
James: Football requires so many people, so many elements. You could be a great running back and have a terrible line — and you’re not a great running back. You can be a great running back and have a terrible quarterback—you’re not a great running back. You can be a great running back and have a terrible coach — you’re not a great running back. In basketball, you can show your greatness instantly. You say, “Look. I’ve got my position. I can go get buckets. I can lock somebody down.” The individual aspect of it, I’ve always embraced that because I can do my job. I just always liked basketball. You can pick up and play at any time! Football, you have to throw on all this equipment. There’s so much that goes into it.
And I’ve always thought that how somebody plays basketball says a lot about them as a person, right? How do you play the game and what does it say about you?
James: That I’m a football player. Tough like a football player. The toughness.
We talking prison rules out there? You’re taking guys out?
James: Not really taking people out. Just playing tough. You play tough. You have a tough mindset. That’s the way you play — real aggressive.
You sound like somebody who genuinely loved the spirit of competition, all of that. You’re a Hall of Famer. You’re one of the best to ever do it. But you just missed that Super Bowl in Indy in ’06. Does that ever bother you? Do you think about that?
James: Nah, it doesn’t bother me. I still have guys with Super Bowl rings calling me to get loans to this day. I did what I was supposed to do. You have to understand, it’s a team game. You have some guys that are put in situations where they can have multiple Super Bowls. It’s a team game. It takes an organization. It takes a whole lot of things to actually play in a Super Bowl and win a Super Bowl. I got a chance to go to the Super Bowl (with Arizona). So I’m not tripping on that. But I was able to accomplish things that I set out to accomplish. When I sit back and hear somebody say, “Oh, I have this Super Bowl, but can I get a loan? Can I get this?” C’mon, let’s put everything into perspective. I did what I was supposed to do and still, to this day, what I’m supposed to do. Certain things are out of your control.
What is your legacy? Now that you have that gold jacket, what do you want that to be?
James: That’s my legacy: From gold teeth to the gold jacket. Everybody knows my background. It’s similar to so many backgrounds that we run parallel — but this lets you know it’s possible. I did it my way. I didn’t sit up there and kiss anybody’s ass or get any handouts. Everything I got was earned. I wasn’t the most popular guy coming out of college. But I was the fourth pick. See what I’m saying? It wasn’t, “Oh, he won all these Super Bowls so we have to put him in the Hall of Fame.” No. Mine was just pure numbers — “These are the facts. This is what happened.” And however you look at it, it’s forever. Immortal. It was (Hall of Fame) #336, gold teeth to gold jacket. Edge.
It seems like there are some guys who get into TV to help their Hall of Fame case, to skew history and make themselves out to be maybe better than they were. You never really gave a shit about any of that?
James: Real is real. When something is real, it’s real. And I’ve always been real. And I always will be real. Never begging. No sitting up there politicking. Any of that. And I don’t knock anybody for it — that’s their approach. It may mean more to them than it means to me. For me, it’s doing everything the right way and doing it my way. All of these guys may be more popular but Edge hasn’t been to jail, Edge doesn’t get arrested, Edge doesn’t put any bad light on the shield. I take care of my family and do what I’m supposed to do. So, hey, Edge does it his way. Edge isn’t going to come in here and suck up to anybody. That’s where there’s sometimes a difference when you don’t do that.
There is a lot of branding today.
James: I don’t have a problem with that because everything is business. Some people have a problem with these guys doing that. Hey, these guys have the stage. Think of businesses. When it’s Super Bowl Commercial time, what are they going to do? They’re going to find a way to push their brand. It’s a way to elevate themselves. I think everybody has the right to do it.
You have to capitalize on your worth.
James: You have to because it’s a short window. And when it’s over, you’ll have nobody to call. You won’t be able to utilize that stuff. Utilize your window as best as you can and as much as you can. Because that light’s going to dim. It’s not going to go on forever. You only can do this stuff for so long. So in the midst of that, position yourself.
Do you miss it at all?
James: Nah, I don’t miss it at all. I enjoy the space I’m at right now. Right now, I’m still laying in bed. I get to lay in bed as long as I want to. Do what I want to do. That’s what life is all about. That’s the goal. Live the life you want to live. Do what you want to do. Enjoy living. That’s what I try to do the best I can.
I always keep things going. My schedule is based around my kids for the most part. And then, business. Every business I have, it’s on my clock. I’m a night person. I like being up at night. I move around those type of things. I have my meetings at night. All the things that don’t relate to the kids take place at night. Tonight, my son has a basketball game so I’ll be at the basketball game. I create the schedule weekly, based upon the things that are important.