Like Bill Polian walking into the press room late after the conclusion of the 1999 NFL Draft, looking drawn and haggard – well, more drawn and haggard than usual – plopping down in a folding chair and saying, “I’m going to have to send someone out to start my car for me tonight.”
It was a rare moment of candor for Polian, who was acknowledging the local criticism of his decision to use the No. 4 pick on Edgerrin James rather than Ricky Williams, who seemed the obvious choice at the time. Considering that choice came in the wake of his decision to trade Marshall Faulk, you understand Polian’s concern for his welfare.
Some places you never forget.
Like Immokalee, Fla., James’ post-apocalyptic landscape of a hometown, where I once spent a few days on assignment from The Indianapolis Star to get a sense of his roots. Before I left for the trip, Edge briefed me on what to expect, wrapping up with this: “Look out for Ice Pick Willie.” Then he flashed that golden smile, turned and left the locker room.
Turns out, Ice Pick Willie found us and the meeting was pretty much what the nickname would lead you to anticipate. Thankfully, our tour guide was a local sheriff’s deputy, otherwise a relatively non-violent request for the photographer’s equipment might’ve been a bit more aggressive – and ultimately successful.
Some people you never forget.
James was easily the biggest personality in the locker room during his time with the Colts and not because he was boisterous or commanded attention. He was warm, funny and honest in a way that magnetically drew people to his locker.
The guy that introduced the word “conversate” into the local lexicon sometimes seemed to be speaking his own language but had no problem getting his point across. Edge was never trying to attract attention. He was just being Edge.
Some players, you hope they never forget.
James will be inducted into the Colts’ Ring of Honor on Sunday, an obvious and fitting move. He will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2015, which should be an obvious and fitting next step. As we see just about every year, the obvious tends to get overlooked when it comes to the selection process.
“I think it will all take care of itself,” James said. “The numbers speak for themselves so I don’t really worry about it. If I was concerned with that I would’ve continued to keep playing and keep padding stats.”
There was nothing in the game James did not do well. He obviously could run with both power and speed (he ranks 11th all time with 12,246 rushing yards), was a dangerous and consistent receiver (ranking 13th with 15,610 yards from scrimmage). He was a stone-cold blocker who played a major role giving Peyton Manning time to find Marvin Harrison downfield.
The first player in NFL history to lead the league in rushing his first two seasons, a four-time All-Pro, a member of the NFL All-Decade team for the 2000s, James wasn’t in a class by himself but it didn’t take long to call roll. Only four players have rushed for at least 1,500 yards four times – Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, and Ice Pick Willie’s buddy. He also had three seasons of at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Only Faulk (four), Sanders and Payton had more.
Of the nine Hall-eligible players ahead of James on the career rushing list, the only one not yet inducted is Jerome Bettis — a great power runner, to be sure, but not as complete a contributor as James.
“As good as there’s ever been, in my opinion,” said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, the Colts’ quarterbacks coach during James’ first two seasons. “I mean, he could do it all. He’s in the top five or six backs to ever play the game, in my opinion. He never had to come out of the game – he never would come out of the game. “
Though a knee injury in 2001 sidetracked his career, effectively costing him two seasons when he was at his absolute best, James doesn’t deal in regret. In fact, he believes the experience ultimately proved to be good for his career.
“It gave me a real appreciation for the game once I got hurt,” he said. “It actually took my game to another level. I started understanding other phases of the game.
“At first, I was just out there running and playing because it was so easy then. And then all of a sudden I got hurt and I really had to put in a lot of work to actually get back to a certain level to play.”
But, honestly, what if the injury never had happened?
“Then we wouldn’t be debating about me going into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “It’d be automatic. But it worked out how it was supposed to work out.”
Let’s hope, in a few years, we can say the same about James and the Hall. I can think of few players in any sport more deserving of being remembered.