TAMPA, Fla. — The voice was never far from Mike James. It followed him at his early football games, as encouraging words from a mother tend to do, lifting him as he raced on the field, toward an end zone, toward everything he dreamed about ahead.
James was young then. It was years before the NFL became possible, before he received a phone call on the draft’s final day that changed his life, before he overcame a loss that left his coaches at the University of Miami wondering how someone who lived so much pain could carry himself with such class.
His mother’s voice was calming, energetic, full of love. It was caring, consistent. It offered simple but sound advice that carries to this day.
“Run! Run! Run!”
It is a recent Thursday, and James stands in a small room at One Buc Place, his journey beginning.
On April 27, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected the 5-foot-10, 223-pound, running back in the sixth round, 189th overall, after he earned 1,386 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns with the Hurricanes. He is speaking with local media in person for the first time, fielding questions ranging from the revealing to the mundane.
Soon, James is asked about his mother. She is always close to him, her likeness portrayed on a tattoo found on the front of his left biceps that reads, “Mama’s Boy.” It depicts her cradling him as a child. Nearby, there’s an angel wings design.
“My mom was the focal point of my football career,” says James, 23. “She’s the one that got me into it. She was the one who pushed me toward it.”
On Dec. 20, 2010, Elgusta James was killed in a two-vehicle accident in Haines City, Fla., James’ hometown.
James’ sister, Jasmine Ansley, drove the family’s Ford Explorer during a shopping trip when a man operating a Toyota Corolla ran a stop sign and struck the Explorer on the rear driver’s side.
Elgusta, 47, who sat in the passenger seat without wearing a seat belt, was ejected and pronounced dead at the scene.
Ansley’s then-5-year-old son, Jayden, was ejected from the back seat; he broke his jaw and was in an induced coma for less than a week. Ansley sustained a neck injury and a broken left elbow.
Eleven days later, Elgusta’s funeral was held in Haines City. Instead of attending, James played in Miami’s 33-17 loss to Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, where he had four carries for 15 yards.
James wanted to think of his mother as gone, not as someone lifeless, buried. So he stayed away and played a game Elgusta helped him grow to love, from driving him to youth football practices to watching him at Davenport (Fla.) Ridge Community High School and later with the Hurricanes.
She became his inspiration.
“I can’t imagine what a weight that is on him,” Miami offensive line coach Art Kehoe says. “But I never noticed it. I can’t remember coming up and looking at Mike James on a practice field or in the meeting room or in a hallway and not seeing a guy who either had a look of determination on his face or a smile.”
Ansley’s memories come alive through the phone. It’s a recent Tuesday. She recalls her brother loving football since about age 5, and as the years passed, an interest became a lifestyle.
When James was young, he wanted a particular type of football helmet for a Christmas present, one like an offensive skill position player would wear. But come Christmas Day, James was disappointed to find an offensive lineman’s helmet waiting for him. So a family member took the item outside and sawed off the facemask’s middle bar.
Later, when James was no older than 8, he served as a waterboy for the Haines City High School football team. Elgusta stood and made noise each time James sprinted onto the field to gather bottles. Some fans looked over their shoulders, trying to make sense of the situation in the delay.
“Everybody was kind of confused,” Ansley, 28, says now. “They would kind of sit there. No play was going on, but my mom would cheer. Eventually, they put two-and-two together that because he was on the field, she was cheering.”
Elgusta was a strong and compassionate woman, and those traits can be found in James as he begins his NFL career. She raised James and Ansley as a single parent and worked multiple jobs in child care, including serving as a manager of an after-school program.
Among the lessons she taught her kids: patience; how to share; how to do what is right, even if it is hard; how to value education and practice honesty.
“It was tough love, but it was love,” says Ansley, who teaches math and creative writing at Ridge Community High. “We knew no matter what happened that she loved us. No matter what we did, we always knew that we could come to her and talk to her about anything.
“As we got older, she was not only our mom but our friend. But we could talk about work. We could talk about school. We could talk about relationships. My brother could talk to her about what goes wrong on and off the field. We just always had an open line of communication.”
Ansley says she and James had conversations about how they felt after the accident. She says they chose to remember the bright moments, such as Elgusta’s love for kids and her respected presence. Even with their lives changed, the siblings found time to laugh about the childhood memories that shaped them.
No more than six months after the accident, James approached Ansley about a photograph. He recalled a shot of him and his mother when he was young, and he described the picture to his sister.
She leafed through old albums, and after spotting the photo, Ansley snapped a picture with her phone and sent the image as a text message to her brother. Ansley was unaware what he planned to do with it.
In time, she learned the picture became the model for his tattoo.
“With a particular person, you have to have something in you to take that loss and turn it into a positive,” says Johnathan Tharpe, 47, James’ uncle. “Not everybody can do that. That’s the thing I really commend him on, and that’s the thing I really respect.
“I still have tough moments, and sometimes I looked at him, and he motivated me. … He actually handled it better than most of the family.”
Elgusta is gone, but inside her son, she’s far from forgotten.
James stands on the practice field on a recent Friday, his first rookie mini-camp session complete. This is all new: his tasks, his teammates, his environment. This is a time when one dream gives way to another, when anything seems possible.
The running back has drawn positive reviews so far.
Coach Greg Schiano says James loves the game and asks the right questions that show his commitment. General manager Mark Dominik says the young back is trustworthy, dependable and that he’s a selfless player like former Bucs tailback/fullback Earnest Graham who has the potential to play all four downs behind Doug Martin.
“Oh man, the talent’s amazing,” James says, wiping his forehead. “You’ve seen the games. It’s amazing. I’m just glad to be a part of it. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
His family shares the feeling.
Ansley says the occasion will be overwhelming but joyous when her brother slips on his No. 25 Bucs jersey for the first time on a game day. She says James’ obstacles were many, from growing up without a father to earning a spot at Miami to overcoming their mother’s death.
He has endured.
“The love my brother has for my mom is so strong that he was able to keep going and keep realizing his dreams, even though he may have wanted to stop,” Ansley says. “Because he had a strong enough love for my mom, he knew that’s what she wanted him to do. And so he did it, because his love for her was just as strong.”
Adds Tharpe: “I really respected the fact that he used it in a positive way and didn’t let it bring him down.”
Instead, the power of a mother’s love lifted James. Elgusta’s memory remains alive.
“Anybody will say that their family helps them go,” James says. “My family definitely does that for me. My mom was my biggest fan, my biggest support system. I’m just glad that I got to spend 19 years with her.”
James smiles as he answers a few more questions before walking away, toward the team facility, toward his new beginning. He has lived tragedy, but he continues to grow and evolve. This is his life, his mother never distant.