LaMichael James rushed for 2,043 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior at Liberty-Eylau (Texarkana, Texas). He ran with such ease you never would have guessed the difficulties he faced at home.
Now a San Francisco 49ers rookie running back, James lived alone his senior year after his grandmother died of cervical cancer. James’ grandmother had raised him since he was two weeks old because his mother was out of the picture and his father was shot to death before he was born.
“He basically raised himself,” said James’ high school coach, Pat Brady. “When you’re forced in that situation, you grow up fast.”
LaMichael James proved himself during a difficult senior year in high school.
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Despite his circumstances, James kept his focus. That’s what separated him from other talented players, in Brady’s eye.
“He knew he had places to go,” Brady said. “I’ve had lots of really good athletes that could be playing in the NFL right now, but they weren’t able to do what was needed in order to stay out of trouble, go to school and finish.”
Before he had a chance to be impressed with James’ maturity, Brady was impressed with his athleticism.
Brady first recognized James’ potential after watching him as an eighth-grader during basketball practice.
“It was obvious that he was above other kids his age,” Brady said. “I could tell he was going to be something special.”
When James transitioned to high school football, he was stuck behind more experienced running backs. That first year he played on the freshman team until the playoffs, when he got called up to varsity.
James didn’t get any playing time in the playoffs, but he became a varsity stalwart as a sophomore thanks in large part to his quickness.
James focused on learning how to control his speed as a sophomore, then became his team’s playmaker as a junior.
“He had it all — speed, power and good vision,” Brady said. “We basically designed our offense knowing that if we could just give him the ball and give him space, he was going to make something happen.”
In addition to running for 1,600 yards and 19 scores, James lined up as a receiver, returned kicks and even threw the ball from time to time to lead Liberty-Eylau to the Class 3A state title.
Despite his success, many big-time college coaches initially dismissed James because at 5-foot-9 he wasn’t a prototypical size. Big-time local schools like Texas and Texas A&M passed on James, who wasn’t a Top 100 recruit according to Rivals.com.
Still, plenty of schools were more than willing to take a look.
“He just didn’t look imposing,” Brady said. “But then you’d watch him on film, and then (coaches) just went crazy.”
Brady said offers eventually came pouring from everywhere — among them Nebraska, Minnesota, Arkansas and Oregon.
He ended up at Oregon, where he became a two-time All-American and won the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back.