EUGENE, Ore. -- The call came this summer. The coach of the No. 2 team in the nation was on the other end of explaining what was up.
Back then, though, Chip Kelly wasn't coach of the No. 2 team. He was coming off a Rose Bowl loss and in the middle of a dreadful off-field offseason. Coaches sometimes don't call their own wives in the middle of summer, much less a media hack. This had to be important. Kelly wanted to talk LaMichael James.
You had the wrong opinion about him, Kelly said. James is a good kid. The reports you read that included words like "domestic abuse" were overblown and overwrought.
|If you think LaMichael James is just another problem child, think again. (US Presswire)|
He was talking about the court documents that detail James' misdemeanor conviction for physical harassment involving a former girlfriend. In this sentencing memorandum, James doesn't come off as innocent, but he certainly isn't the monster that the initial reports painted. LaMichael-James-Sentencing-Memorandum
In the glare of the Cam Newton scandal, James' situation is barely noticed these days. So why bring it up? Well, because this is Heisman week and perhaps all of it says something about us -- fans, media, and observers of the American condition. That James will be in New York as a Heisman finalist for the award Newton will almost certainly win shows what we're willing to overlook.
Both players have raps against them. Only one has a rap sheet.
And that bothers Oregon's redshirt sophomore tailback, a member of CBSSports.com's 2010 All-American team.
"Even our own fans, a lot of people, turned on us," James said while resting comfortably this week in the Ducks' football office. "It just wasn't cool and they didn't know the whole story. People have pictures of me, calling us convicts. There were days when I didn't want to go out in public."
It wasn't just James. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli's dismissal after multiple run-ins with the law was possibly the low. In the middle of the greatest week in Oregon football history, some of the Ducks haven't forgotten.
"The general public had this view of us," said backup quarterback Nate Costa, "that we were, like, thugs, and that hurt me. It hurt me deeply."
James has arguably become the face of Oregon football. The best player on the best team -- at least in these parts. Kelly and his Jetsons' offense is an extension of a coach. But the coach is an extension of the head-down, day-at-a-time ethic. It's James' electric moves and nation-leading 1,682 yards that have elevated him to elite status.
In his 28 years with the program, running backs coach Gary Campbell hasn't coached anyone better. That list includes Reuben Droughns (1998-99); career rushing leader Derek Loville (1986-89) and single-season leader Jonathan Stewart (2005-07). James is 41 yards away from breaking Stewart's record.
"He's the best guy I've ever had," Campbell said of James. "I talked to all those guys who played here for me. They said, 'He should win the Heisman.' I can't argue that."
James won't win, of course. In fact, all the finalists -- including Boise State's Kellen Moore and Stanford's Andrew Luck -- are going to seem like backup singers to Newton's lead. But it's a long joy ride from taunts to Times Square. James' name came up again for the wrong reason again in the last couple of weeks. The NCAA wanted to know about a car swap with a family friend, Pernell Brown, in Portland. All the sudden, James was seen driving a 2003 Range Rover. The NCAA quickly cleared him.
"Personality-wise, he's over it," Campbell said of the misdemeanor charge, "but it still bugs him. He felt like he didn't do anything wrong."
James smiles easily, but experience has hardened him against the world. His mother gave him up when he was two weeks old. His father was shot and killed before he was born. His maternal grandmother, Betty James, raised him in Texarkana, Texas.
"She was probably the most important person in my life," said the back they call "LaMike." "My grandmother had cancer and I wanted to live with her. She lived alone. She had to be in her 70s. All her grandchildren, they're all grown."
When Betty James developed cervical cancer her grandson wasn't quite aware. High school and growing up intervened. She died during his high school junior year. James witnessed her passing. Imagine being a teenager and seeing your primary caregiver, the source of your love in your life, die before your eyes. Then understand these words:
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"I really had no emotion, none" he said. "It was one of those deals where she was already dead before she actually died. I still haven't accepted it. She is always going to be part of my life."
So when James says his grandmothers' death made him stronger, you understand. After Betty James died, his grandson lived alone for a year in the house they shared.
"When I went in to recruit him I made sure I had my day open," Campbell said. "He had some other choices, but I don't think he felt the family atmosphere. He knew what we was looking for. I don't think he found it until he came to Oregon."
Even as one of the fastest backs in the country, James runs with a brutal efficiency, almost like he's taking his frustrations out on tacklers. His speed alone made him an easy pick for our All-American team. But Oregon coaches recently wanted him to channel that brutality into a more punishing style.
"Before I knew it in practice, he was putting his shoulder pads down like he was a 220-pound runner," Campbell said. "He wanted to prove to me that he could be a physical runner."
"I just like running hard," James said. "I like contact. It's fun."
It's also damn-near crippling on a 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame. James admits to being sore this time of year. "Beat to hell," Campbell puts it.
That's part of the wonder of his talent. Campbell doesn't feel foolish comparing him to Warrick Dunn or Barry Sanders because they made James ascension possible -- smallish backs who took, and dealt, loads of punishment.
James coming around the corner is now a conundrum for defenses. Do they take an angle and risk being run past or do they take him on and risk being run over?
"I break a lot of tackles. I'm determined. I'm really strong mentally," James said. "I have it made up in my mind you're not going to tackle me. I have no fear whatsoever."
Kelly first saw the evidence on tape three years ago. He still refers queries about James to YouTube, which holds the best mashups from his days at Liberty-Eylau High. Kelly showed the tape to Campbell, who agreed the kid would fit at Oregon.
"It's not one of those we-found-him-and-nobody-else-was-recruiting-him," Kelly said. "Probably the only schools he didn't have [coming after him] was the big boys, Texas and Oklahoma ..."
Maybe that says something about why Oregon is in the BCS title game. Auburn and Alabama have made it to championship games the past two years relying a lot on their state's and region's renowned high school talent. The majority of Kelly's players come from Oregon and California, but he likes to cherry pick. There are three players from Hawaii. One from Kansas, another from the North Pole. Yes, North Pole, Alaska.
Darron Thomas, one of six Texans on the roster, stepped in for Masoli. The year before, James stepped in for LeGarrette Blount. No one really knew on Sept. 4, 2009 that would be the night everything turned around. Blount punched a Boise player, was suspended and James moved up the depth chart. A couple weeks later, he was starting.
James had been intrigued from the first time he had seen Oregon play on TV. Kelly was the Ducks' offensive coordinator in 2007-08 before getting the job in 2009. In 2007, quarterback Dennis Dixon was on his way to the Heisman before blowing out his knee late in the year. Fall camp in 2008 began with a rash of quarterback injuries.
The coach, the program and the back persevered. James just liked what he saw, a no-huddle spread option that wore down opponents with a power running game.
"I didn't even know where Oregon was," James said. "Coach turned me on because of his offense. When you're 17, 18 years old and you see all those uniforms you go, 'Yeah.' Then I was into it. I saw all the good stuff -- cleats, gloves. Who wouldn't want to come to Oregon if you paid a visit there?"
A visit is one thing. James remembers the first being a three-, or four-connection all-day flight from Texarkana. There was the usual homesickness. A breakout 2009 helped. James set the Pac-10 freshman rushing record with 1,546 yards. This year he might be on pace for 2,000 yards if not for the one-game suspension following the February domestic abuse case.
After that, Kelly took the unique course of calling national writers to make sure they knew the whole story. Four of the five original charges were dropped. Not included in that memorandum were a letter of apology from James and a letter from the victim's attorney agreeing to the facts in the memorandum.
Facebook is a wonderful communications tool. To James, it became a vindictive anti-social network. The haters who weighed in didn't know he is a 3.0 student, named Pac-10 academic all-conference. It wouldn't be a surprise if James would rather be academic All-American than win the Heisman.
Can the same be said of the guy who is going to win?
Maybe the answer was written on the face of Campbell, a father of four, being asked a profound question this week by his fatherless tailback.
"I hadn't originally planned on it," Campbell said, "then LaMike said, 'You're going with me, right?'"
To New York. For the Heisman. The coach couldn't say no.