Last call is long gone. Darkness has turned to dawn. Only now,
when his opponents' legs are beginning to wobble in the South
Florida humidity, is Edgerrin James hitting his stride.
Dreadlocks flying, ribbed undershirt soaked with sweat, the
Indianapolis Colts' irrepressible running back sends a purple
bowling ball spinning toward its target, and the conversations of
a dozen onlookers come to a halt. There's a gasp as James picks
up a difficult split and closes out another pair of suckers,
adding a few more Benjamins to the growing wad of cash in his
baggy nylon shorts.
A menacing mass of muscle and hustle, James has no intention of
leaving Don Carter's Kendall Lanes while there's still money to
be won. The two guys who run the alley are getting antsy, having
allowed James and his party to stay long past closing time, and
now James is working them, too, taking their night's wages on
lane 1 while cleaning out Tennessee Titans cornerback Samari
Rolle and two other marks on lane 2. Barely pausing between
rolls, James, wearing Reebok sneakers and placing only his ring
and middle fingers in the ball holes, rolls a 212 on the first
lane and 246 on the other. It hardly seems fair, and it isn't:
James has been bowling for all of a month.
Missy Elliott's Get Ur Freak On blares over the sound system as
James flashes his Fort Knox smile and goes double-or-nothing on
both bets. "This just ain't natural," complains one of his
friends, Fred Hawthorne, shaking his head. "This is, what, his
25th game of the night, maybe his 30th? Any man should be
tired--real tired--but EJ has a different chemistry. It's like this
with everything: pool, Sega Dreamcast, shooting hoops, whatever.
He might start off slow, but the longer he goes and the more
pressure he's under, the better he gets."
To a hustler like James, these games are a godsend, for in his
day job there's no one left for him to dupe. Since bursting onto
the scene as the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1999,
James has made football look so easy that his achievements are
taken for granted. At 22 he has already won a pair of NFL rushing
crowns with a total of 3,262 yards in his first two seasons--only
Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson had more at that point in his career
(chart, page 76)--while also establishing himself as one of the
league's best receivers out of the backfield. Perhaps he's the
one getting hustled: Last season, during which he ran for 1,709
yards, caught 63 passes for 594 yards and scored 18 touchdowns,
James didn't get a single MVP vote and was left off the
Associated Press All-Pro team.
Barring serious injury, he seems poised to make a run at some of
the game's most cherished records. Or is he? "I'll be 26 when my
contract is up [a $49 million package that ends after the 2004
season], and I may not ever do another deal because I don't think
my attention span is that long," James says. "If I'm not
interested anymore, I'll gladly walk away. Then, let the chilling
begin. I'm curious to see what it feels like to have a year-round
In the meantime, from January to July, James is primarily
engaged in the pursuit of pleasure. Criticized last week by
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and coach Jim Mora for skipping
voluntary workouts, James scoffed, saying, "It's crazy how
everybody's making a big deal out of nothing. I've been working
out on my own--hell, I'm 213 pounds [three pounds below his
playing weight last year], with one percent body fat--and I know
what's right for me. I only went to college for 2 1/2 years, but
I think I know the meaning of the word voluntary. My attitude
is, I give them whatever they want during the season, but the
off-season belongs to me."
In other words, on the spur of the moment James might get on a
plane and fly somewhere. Or he might go to the Miami Marina,
board his 38-foot Sea Ray (he named it Stressss Freeee) and head
out to sea. Or he might just spend hours bent over the pool table
in the living room of his downtown Miami apartment, figuring out
ways to take your money.
For James, the bets aren't so much a means to add to his fortune
as they are lubricants for his competitive nature. As a warmup to
his bowling marathon, James spent the afternoon challenging
several friends and a trio of Reebok representatives, in town for
a video shoot, in various forms of competition. After vainly
attempting to launch a paper airplane from his 29th-floor balcony
into Biscayne Bay, James the pool shark required only two runs to
beat James Burgess, a friend and former University of Miami
teammate, in a game of eight ball. That set up a rematch with Big
Pete, one of the Reebok guys, whose modest cash supply was
running out. "Yo, kid, you be killin' me," Big Pete said
disgustedly, as James kissed the 8 ball into a far corner pocket
to finish him off.
While many big-time athletes claim a larger purpose (spreading
the gospel, saving the neighborhood and the like) and aren't
always sincere, the seemingly self-absorbed James at least is
true to his ambitions--or lack thereof. "I just want to devote
myself to having as much fun as I possibly can," he says. At the
same time, he speaks ill of no one and keeps his nose out of
other people's affairs. His reasoning: "My mom always said, 'When
you're in a bathroom, you don't look to your right or left; you
look straight down.' Instead of trying to get in everybody's
business, I'm going to make sure I don't p--- on myself."
James spent the Memorial Day weekend with numerous friends at a
series of parties and concerts in Miami billed collectively as
Urban Fashion Week, but he also made it a prelude to his Going on
the Wagon campaign. He had a few beers and a couple of mixed
drinks but said he would then shut down the alcohol until after
the 2001 season. His half brother Ed (Doc) German, a recent
graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, says James "is
always going to be in control" and offers this example from the
previous off-season: Invited to a friend's prewedding party at a
Tampa club, James brought a crew from his hometown of Immokalee,
a farming community near the Everglades. "These guys got involved
in a disturbance at the club," German says, "and EJ put 'em right
in the limo and sent 'em back to Immokalee. Now people back there
know that when you go somewhere with EJ, you don't act like
Such stories make James seem eminently mature, but there are
moments when his pride and immaturity take over. As James drives
through Kendall, he recalls an earlier visit to the bowling alley
with a group that included his four-year-old daughter, Edquisha.
It seems Edquisha, who lives with her mother, Andia Wilson, in
Immokalee, camped out in the alley's game room and "outdrove"
some of her father's friends in video races. "Finally," James
says, "I went in there and kicked her ass. She was mad, too. She
was practically crying, and she wouldn't talk to anyone." Did
James even think about letting his daughter win? "Hell, no," he
says. "She always has to know I'm the dominant one."
James won't discuss his relationships with women, but he does say
that marriage doesn't interest him. "My mom never married, and I
don't think I'll ever have a wife," says James, who has
maintained a good relationship with his father, Edward German. "I
mean, if I'm with you, I'm with you. Why can't we just chill and
be cool? If you want a big party, I'll throw you a party. If you
want a ring, I'll get you a ring. If you want my last name, be
like the Muslims and just change it on your own."
"We're going to breakfast," James announces, squinting as he
finally emerges from the bowling alley after a nine-hour visit.
"I'm buying." No one argues. James, who, thanks largely to an
incentive-laced contract, says he has made $20 million during his
brief pro career, is now another $3,720 richer. Hustling is
second nature to James. For instance, he says he bought the car
he drove in college, a Chevy Caprice, "in the middle of the
night, from some white lady in Immokalee, after I won a bunch of
money shooting dice."
Driving north through rush-hour traffic in his Mercedes-Benz 500,
James pulls into an old haunt, the Denny's across from the Miami
campus. He removes his sweat-drenched undershirt and tosses it
into a Dumpster, then slips into a sport shirt before entering
the restaurant. Digging into a Grand Slam breakfast, James talks
football. "My first year in the league I was so damn sore all the
time," he says. "But I learned. It's cool to run over those
smaller guys, but those big dudes--the guys who've been working in
the weight room all week, just waiting for their chance to smack
you--now I don't even try [to run through them]."
The big dudes see it somewhat differently. "If you overplay him,
he's going to make you look ridiculous," Zach Thomas, the Miami
Dolphins' Pro Bowl middle linebacker, says of James, the back he
least enjoys facing. "He doesn't so much cut as he stops on a
dime and then takes off again at full speed."
Just ask the Seattle Seahawks, who flailed helplessly last Oct.
15 as James ran for a career-high 219 yards and three touchdowns.
New San Diego Chargers defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who faced
James four times as a member of the Buffalo Bills, says, "He's a
blend of Marshall Faulk and Eddie George." Rolle, the Titans'
All-Pro, describes his friend as "a fast Emmitt Smith." Like
Smith, James is remarkably consistent: In 32 career
regular-season games he has been held under 70 rushing yards only
James also has otherworldly stamina, as evidenced by his
post-Denny's behavior. Despite having been up for 20 straight
hours, James heads back to his apartment, hooks up with a fresh
set of friends and shoots pool for another five hours. Finally,
at 4 p.m. he takes a four-hour snooze that's interrupted by a
dozen phone calls and 26 pages. Then he showers, dresses and gets
right back in the mix.
Just after 11 p.m. James enters the fitness center in his
apartment complex, surveys the empty room and smiles, revealing
his five gold teeth. "A lot of times I come down here to work
out between 2 and 4 a.m.," he says. "I call it getting right
while the haters are sleeping." In truth, not much hatred is
thrown James's way. Yet the player whose selection generated
sneers on draft day--after the Colts, who had traded Faulk to
the St. Louis Rams for the fourth overall pick, took James over
Heisman winner Ricky Williams--still feels somewhat slighted. Of
last year's MVP voting, won by Faulk, James says, "Marshall's
the best. He's got the game all figured out, but come on, man, I
led the league in rushing and total yards from scrimmage
[2,303]. At least give me half a vote. It's funny, the politics
that go into these things."
There are times, James says, when he thinks his coaches
misunderstand him. He says he barely talks to the no-nonsense
Mora, the league's oldest head coach at 66, and he bristles at
the old-school teachings of running backs coach Gene Huey, 53.
"He's a straight-line guy, and we go at it all day in the
meeting room," James says. "Sometimes I don't think he really
knows me. He thinks I'm going to slack off or let success get to
my head. I want to tell him, 'Man, I'm into this.' Because,
trust me--the day I'm not into football, I'll walk away."
That day, James promises, will come sooner than most people
think. Once his portfolio is sufficient, he says, "to create a
foundation of economic prosperity for my family," he'll be ready
to leap headlong into retirement. "There's somebody in high
school waiting to take my job--and in a few years, I'll be
waiting to give it to him," James says, laughing. "Maybe I'll
play out my contract, take a year off, get totally relaxed and
then come back for one last season. I just want to live like a
full-time tourist, to show up at the airport, pick a
destination, walk up to the counter and say, 'Do you have any
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER/SABA Easy does it When James gets tired of the ground game, he takes a spin on his 38-foot boat, appropriately named Stressss Freeee.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER
Edgerrin James is only the fifth player in NFL history to lead
the league in rushing in each of his first two seasons. He also
ranks second alltime for total rushing yards after two years in
PLAYER, TEAM YEARS YARDS ATT. AVG.
Eric Dickerson, Rams 1982, '83 3,913 765 5.1
Edgerrin James, Colts 1999, '00 3,262 756 4.3
Earl Campbell, Oilers 1978, '79 3,147 670 4.7
Ottis Anderson, Cardinals 1979, '80 2,957 632 4.7
Barry Sanders, Lions 1988, '89 2,774 535 5.2
"I only went to college for 2 1/2 years, but I think I know the
meaning of the word voluntary," James says of Colts workouts.