With tax season right around the corner, I was beginning to think the 49ers weren’t going to pay theirs in regards to LaMichael James; as it turns out, they just filed an extension.
Prior to last week’s game versus Miami, the former Oregon Duck standout and 2nd round draft pick had spent the entire 2012 season inactive. That doesn’t mean he was disappointing, lacked work-ethic or was a “bust” regarding his potential and/or the hype surrounding his arrival in San Francisco, but more so spoke to the 49ers depth at his position and Jim Harbaugh’s habitual reluctance to play rookies.
James wasn’t the only notable draft pick to toil deep in the San Francisco depth chart, for Illinois rookie and 1st round pick A.J. Jenkins has yet to catch a pass this year and has been inactive for most of it. Harbaugh has a historical lack of trust when it comes to first-year players and turned to James more out of necessity than an intense desire to put him to the test. With back-up running back Kendall Hunter headed for the Injured Reserve and veteran Brandon Jacobs suspended due to a form of insubordination, the Niners second-year head coach was left with little choice but to promote James to second-string tailback and put him back on kick-offs in hopes of igniting a spark.
And spark he did.
In Sunday night’s victory at New England, the 49ers found themselves in the midst of a furious Patriot comeback and were a 3-and-out away from giving Tom Brady the ball with a chance to win the game. LaMichael James returned the ensuing kick-off 62 yards to the New England 38-yardline and San Francisco scored what would prove to be the winning touchdown a play later. After the game, 49er players and coaches spoke glowingly of James’ performance and pointed specifically to his kick return as the catalyst to the winning drive. While not carrying the bulk of the load, he’s contributed when called upon and has proven – at least for now – he’s capable of providing all-pro running back Frank Gore with a more-than-capable replacement 8-10 times a game. In his two games this year, LaMichael’s tallied 61 yards on 15 carries, has a reception for 15 yards, and has averaged more than 30 yards per kick return. Does that sound like a “disappointment” or “bust?” Of course not, and nor should it surprise you based on this young man’s track record.
LaMichael James isn’t nor has been perfect. But he has proven a will to be better - in all aspects of life – and has grown from an undersized prospect from Texarkana, Texas, into a collegiate All-American and bona fide NFL player, and did so without parental guidance and amidst controversy of his own making. Three years ago, James found himself in trouble with the law and firmly in the crosshairs of the type of social backlash one would expect from a domestic disturbance. However, the star Oregon running back didn’t hide from the allegations, but rather admitted to a level of guilt, owned it as a man, and swore to do better. Since then, he became an Academic All-American and stood tall as a positive role model for his school, his teammates, and most importantly the man he strove to become: Someone worthy of the praise which has been heaped upon him.
When you’re in the spotlight, you’re also a target in today’s celebrity-driven world. For all those who love and adore you, there are as least as many who’d love nothing more than to send you back from where you came. LaMichael James grew-up in a relatively small town (Texarkana, Texas, population roughly 37,000), his father died before he was born, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother prior to her death during James’ junior year in high school. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t highly recruited and came to Oregon (A perennial top-25 team at the time) amidst offers from TCU, Mississippi State, and Minnesota. He chose Oregon based on “everything,” including his budding relationship with Running Backs Coach Gary Campbell, who by the end of his tenure in Eugene he’d refer to as “like his dad.” All went well for LMJ (A name he became commonly referred by) until that domestic dispute early in 2010, when he quickly went from budding superstar to “entitled athlete” and “thug.” The immediate details painted a villainous picture which would later be significantly watered-down, but the damage had been done and it was up to LaMichael to rebuild his severely damaged reputation.
He did his part on the field, becoming Oregon’s career rushing leader and leading Oregon to 3 consecutive BCS bowl games, but more importantly did so off the field as well. No one outworked him in the offseason and his academic goals became priority number one. His final year in Eugene he made it known that his primary goal outside of team success, was his desire to become an Academic All-American. He didn’t quite reach that goal, but was 1 of just 4 players to make both the All-Conference and All-Academic 1st teams in the then Pac-10 Conference. He’s also repeatedly contributed charitably in the Eugene community and has bought a home there, putting down roots in an area far from where his originally grew. But he hasn’t forgotten his roots, in spite of some people’s suggestions to do just that.
Willie Lyles is a name most have become familiar with. His association with the Oregon football program has created a black cloud of suspicion which to this day hovers over it, and which may lead to NCAA sanctions in the not-to-far-off future. But LaMichael has consistently spoken to their friendship and the loyalty Mr. Lyles has shown him over the years, and due to the aforementioned has refused to cut ties with the man most have urged him to befriend. The same could be said for his friendship with former gang member turned community activist Pernell Brown, who has a lengthy criminal record but has been described as James' "mentor.” Brown and Lyles were there for James when he needed them most, and for that he’s been forever thankful. Certainly it behooves someone to surround themselves with the “proper element” during one’s formidable years, but as an adult you have the ability to understand flawed individuals, while simultaneously accepting them for who they are. Everyone makes mistakes and LaMichael seems to understand that acknowledging someone’s flaws, doesn’t mean ignoring them or appreciating what they’ve done for you in the past. I find that to be an admirable quality, and one we should applaud rather than berate someone for displaying.
I’m glad to see LaMichael James getting an opportunity in San Francisco. He’s spent the bulk of his rookie season grinding on the practice field, feverishly working to earn the trust and respect of his coach, while desperately wanting to prove he belongs. He seems to have done that. While an extremely small sample size, James’ production in those 2 games has not only shown what he’s capable of, but also reemphasized his ability to overcome obstacles which would keep a lesser man down. I’m not deifying the man, for lesser people have overcome greater things, I’m just trying to shine a light on a young man worthy of it, while wishing him well on his voyage to be better…something the media seems to have far too little interest in doing.
“Where you been, LaMichael?” I’ve seen your highs and lows, but where you’re going? That’s something I’m anxious to watch.