Before LaMichael James was born, his father was shot and killed. Two weeks after his mother gave birth to him, she gave him up. When he was in high school, the grandmother who raised him died of cancer.
When it came time for him to go to college, he chose Oregon, a destination so foreign to him and far from his native Texas that he begged to go back home.
Yet now, he’s a Heisman Trophy candidate, the No. 2 rusher in the Football Bowl Subdivision and arguably the best running back in college football.
Entering No. 3 Oregon’s game at Washington State on Saturday, the speedy, shifty, 5-foot-9, 185-pound redshirt sophomore has 712 yards and seven touchdowns, of which a career-high 257 yards and three touchdowns came last Saturday night in a victory against then-No. 9 Stanford.
“He’s one of the most focused and driven young men I’ve ever been around,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly says. “He could because of his situation be a woe-is-me kid, but he isn’t.”
A star is born
James grew up in this conservative East Texas city of 36,000 and was raised by his maternal grandmother, Betty James, but still has a relationship with his mother, Rosemary James.
He knows little about his father, Herbert Blacksher. He says his mother didn’t talk much about him.
According to Tasha Galloway, LaMichael James’ sister, Blacksher was moving from Los Angeles to Texarkana, Texas to be with Rosemary, who was pregnant with LaMichael, when he was shot and killed in 1989. He was 32.
LaMichael James says his father doesn’t cross his mind much now, unlike when he was a child.
“I used to think how maybe it’d be different if I had a dad in the stands or a two-parent household,” James says.
As a child, James excelled in basketball and baseball, but was best at football.
He dazzled so much in Thursday night games in junior high that coaches at Liberty-Eylau High School would arrive early on Friday mornings to watch video of the star they were about to inherit.
They’d ooh and ahh at plays like a sweep in which James ran to one sideline, was bottled up by defenders, reversed his field only to be bottled up on the other sideline, then turned back to the middle, where he disappeared into a pile of players.
The referee ran to the heap to look for the ball, but couldn’t find it. Neither could players from either team. But there, 60 yards away in the end zone, were James and another official signaling a touchdown.
“If Dominique Wilkins was the human highlight reel for basketball, LaMichael is the football version,” says former Liberty-Eylau assistant coach Robert Cochran. “It was always, ‘What’s he going to do next?’”
Cochran used the carrot of coaching James to persuade a former Liberty-Eylau assistant to apply for the school’s vacant head coaching job in 2004.
Cochran and Pat Brady had coached together when Liberty-Eylau won a state championship in 2000 with Brandon Jones, who went on to become an NFL wide receiver.
With James part of a class that didn’t lose a game in junior high, Cochran’s pitch to Brady was simple: “Pat, they’re really good and LaMichael’s a better athlete than Brandon was at his age.”
Brady took the job at Liberty-Eylau, one of three high schools in Texarkana, Texas, but with enrollment of just 725. At first he wasn’t sure whether James should play cornerback or tailback. But after watching James run one way, spin around, and change direction during a 70-yard touchdown run, Brady knew James’ future was at tailback.
“We’re trying to coach our kids not to let that happen,” Brady says. “Little did we know it was going to happen a lot to us in practice. Now, it’s happening to teams in the Pac-10.
“He can make a cut and completely change direction and by his second step he’s going full speed and you’re not,” Brady says. “Full speed for LaMichael James is very fast.”
As a junior, James rushed for 1,600 yards and had 19 touchdowns in leading Liberty-Eylau to a Class 3A state championship. But that spring, tragedy struck again.
A devastating loss
His grandmother had been in remission from cervical cancer, but it had returned. After a doctor told her there was nothing else that could be done, she told Galloway, “I’m going to die. I know I’m going to die, but whatever you do, don’t tell LaMichael. I don’t want him to know.”
A month and a half later, she was gone.
Betty James, known to her family as Madea, had raised LaMichael since he was two weeks old. She never stopped referring to him as “my baby.” She also raised Galloway and a cousin while working two jobs at night.
“She was probably the most important person to me in the world,” James says.
Grief-stricken, James continued to live in his grandmother’s house, alone. He missed her cooking his favorite breakfast of buttery rice and bacon and her waiting up for him to come home after games.
“It seemed like everything was kind of surreal,” James says. “I never really accepted it. Even to this day, I still haven’t accepted that whole situation.”
The road to Oregon
By then, recruiters were on James’ trail. Texas sent then-running backs coach Ken Rucker, who had coached at Texas A&M from 1994-97 when the Aggies had future NFL players including Leeland McElroy and Dante Hall.
Cochran, who had been an athletics manager at Texas A&M when Rucker was there, recalls watching video with Rucker after James’ senior season and telling him James was laterally quicker than McElroy and faster vertically than Hall.
“He’s better than anything y’all have,” Cochran told Rucker.
Rucker didn’t dispute it, but doubted he could sell Texas coach Mack Brown on offering James a scholarship.
“He was basically saying Mack won’t let him take him because he wasn’t one of the top three running backs on all these recruiting lists,” Cochran says.
Oregon soon joined the recruiting mix after Ducks running backs coach Gary Campbell, who is from the Dallas area, saw video of James on the internet.
Before long, James had visits from Kelly, then the Ducks’ offensive coordinator, and then-head coach Mike Bellotti.
Bellotti arrived in a limousine. “So, you want to be a Duck?” he asked James. “What’s it going to take for you to become a Duck?”
The phrase stuck with James. Just after returning from his official visit to Oregon in January 2008, he walked into Brady’s office and told him, “I think I’m going to be a Duck.”
“I couldn’t talk him out of it,” says Galloway, who along with her husband wanted James to go to Oklahoma State, just five hours away. “I was so shocked.”
Homesick and frustrated
There was one more obstacle between James and college. He was already well on his way to meeting NCAA academic requirements, but Texas students must pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills before they can receive a high school diploma.
So James, who struggles with standardized tests, transferred for the second semester of his senior year across State Line Avenue, the road that splits Texarkana, Texas, from Texarkana, Ark., to Arkansas High School.
“He just never could pass that test,” Brady says. “That was the best thing for him. He didn’t need to be sitting around Texarkana waiting to go off to college. He needed to go as soon as he could that summer and get out of Texarkana.”
James was initially excited about going off to Oregon, but not long after he arrived there, homesickness set in. His mother was having health problems, and before the 2008 season started he told Campbell he was going back home.
“I’d never really been away,” James says. “I was always used to being the same all my life. I never had change and once I tried it, I really don’t like it. I was ready to leave.”
But Campbell, along with James’ family and his high school coaches, persuaded James to stay for the football season. There were still issues, though. He redshirted, and Oregon’s coaches couldn’t decide initially whether to develop him as a tailback or cornerback.
James wanted to play tailback. Frustrated, he’d call his sister every night and beg her to let him come home and transfer to Texas Christian.
Eventually, James established himself as a tailback. Heading into last season, senior LeGarrette Blount was the starter, but then Blount infamously punched a Boise State player after a loss in the opener.
A punch … and an opportunity
Back in Texarkana, Texas friends and family who had just watched him get only two carries for 22 yards cheered when Blount threw his punch.
“We’re all jumping up and down like, ‘Yes,’ because LaMichael gets to play now,’” Galloway says. “We hate that LeGarrette did it, but at the same time, oh my God, I feel so bad, but we were happy.”
That night Brady texted James. “Here’s your chance. Your opportunity has come up. Take advantage of it.” James replied, “I’m nervous.”
Two games later, James got his first start, against No. 18 Utah. Again he texted Brady: “I’m nervous.”
Brady encouraged him to step up his play. James did, rushing for 152 yards and a touchdown. “Now I’ve seen you can do it against the best,” Brady texted postgame. “Now you don’t need to worry. Now you need to relax and have fun.”
James finished the season with a Pac-10 freshman record 1,546 yards and 14 touchdowns as Oregon made the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1995.
“If you get an opportunity to coach a kid like him, it’s once in a lifetime,” says Campbell, who is in his 28th year coaching the Ducks’ running backs. “You’re lucky because most guys never get a guy like him.”
But James’ offseason was marred by a former girlfriend alleging that James grabbed her neck and pushed her to the ground during an argument on Feb. 15. He was charged with five misdemeanors, including strangulation, assault and physical harassment, but pleaded guilty to only a count of physical harassment. He was sentenced to 24 months’ probation and suspended by Kelly for the Ducks’ season-opener.
James calls his brush with the law “a learning experience,” but he confided more in Brady during a visit home shortly after the incident. He lamented that his side of the story wasn’t being told.
“I’m not making excuses and I know I screwed up,” James said, according to Brady. “I’m going to do everything they tell me to do and not let it happen anymore.”
In the classroom, James, a sports business major, has had a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher each semester. He has said he’d rather become an academic All-American than win the Heisman Trophy.
But it’s James’ attitude that has helped get through all of the turmoil in his life. He describes himself as “really a strong-minded person” who is more mental than physical.
“Everything does happen for a reason,” James says. “It’s going to take a lot more to bring me down.”
Now, if only opposing defenses could figure out what that is.