Edgerrin answered all the questions, and then some

Edgerrin answered all the questions, and then some

Colts fans tailgating in a parking lot adjacent to the RCA Dome seemed to know very little, if anything, about the young ball carrier who was about to make his Indianapolis debut. Who was this dude named Edgerrin James?

It was late in summer 1999, and granted, it was only a preseason game. Yet those draining kegs and scarfing down tube steaks were, as they say, “ready for some football.” Some, frankly, were quick to point out “Indianapolis is the place where running backs come to die.” If “Edge” was any good, they wondered, “Why would he want to play here?”

The easy answer was James had 9 million reasons to suit up, not to mention a quarterback named Peyton Manning as a teammate. That was the signing bonus he received, a perk tacked onto the seven-year, $49 million contract Colts owner Jim Irsay offered.

For a guy who pitched watermelons in Georgia to make money in the summer while in high school, Indy was paydirt for the pickin’.

But could James, the former University of Miami headliner taken fourth overall in that spring’s NFL Draft, really be that good, good enough to fill the shoes of Marshall Faulk, a star the Colts already had traded to the Rams prior to the arrival of number 32? How was James going to be able to help Indianapolis bounce back from a gloomy 3-13 season in 1998?

Now, of course, we know James, who hailed from the often-sweltering inland migrant town of Immokalee in Southern Florida, answered all those questions and more. This past Saturday he was called center stage as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020.

If ever there was a success story to ignite the cockles of an old sportswriter’s heart, this is the one. Plans already are in motion to be in Canton early next August when James will slip into the gold-colored sports coat emblematic of professional football immortality.

Two things about the HOF induction ceremony will be of particular interest. Who will James choose as his official presenter? Furthermore, how long will James himself, throughout his career a humble player who never sought the limelight, speak?

As an athlete at Immokalee High, he was one of those “man among boys” performers no matter what the sport. This especially was true at Gary Bates Stadium on a Friday night in the fall when James rumbled through opposing defenses at will. Even though an elbow injury forced him to miss six games his senior season, James still stepped off more than 1,200 yards rushing that autumn alone.

Finesse was not his trademark on the basketball court. His overwhelming strength and athleticism, however, made him as fierce a rebounder as anyone ever to don an Indians uniform.

That James would wind up in Coral Gables for his college football career at “The U” was no coincidence. Another Immokalee High football standout, Albert Bentley, preceded James in the Hurricanes’ gridiron scheme. Bentley was a physical beast in his own right, a warrior who went on to score Miami’s winning touchdown against Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl. Bentley, too, wound up in a Colts uniform, selected by Indy in the second round of the 1984 NFL Supplement Draft.

James carved his own niche among the ‘Canes’ all-time greats, though. His most astounding performance took place his junior (and final) year in the rickety Orange Bowl Stadium on Dec. 5, 1988. Miami and UCLA were supposed to clash earlier in the season, but the pounding dealt by Hurricane Georges forced the game to be postponed. UCLA eventually rolled in riding a 20-game win streak, ranked number three in the nation and in the thick of the national championship chase.

The Butch Davis-coached UM squad had engaged in some serious soul searching, having suffered a 66-13 drubbing to Syracuse in the Carrier Dome the Saturday before the kickoff against the Bruins.

UCLA appeared poised to stay unbeaten, establishing a 38-21 lead with a little over a minute remaining in the third quarter. What happened in the fourth, however, resulted in an upset that to this day ranks among UM’s greatest victories ever. The Hurricanes, led by James, would storm back for a stunning 49-45 victory.

Journalists at the game were permitted to move from their pressbox seat to the sidelines for the final few minutes. Even before the game-winning drive began, James already had established himself as the star of the day. He had run for 178 yards by halftime, scoring two touchdowns before the intermission. Could he possibly pile up 300 by the game’s memorable finish?

The numbers, scribbled play-by-stirring-play, on my clipboard indicated the junior was, indeed, getting close. In fact at one stage of the final flurry, he did have 303 net rushing yards. But a loss on one tote put Edge back at 298. Ultimately his 39th carry of the day was a historic 1-yard scamper to the left into the UCLA end zone with just 42 seconds left.

The noise was deafening. It was his 299-yard miracle that catapulted James ahead of Texas Longhorn Ricky Williams in the NFL selections that would ensue.

Working the sports desk late the night before the draft, it was paramount to stay abreast of all developments regarding the projected picks. About 20 minutes before deadline, there was a website that projected James would, indeed, go ahead of Williams. So that nugget was boldly squeezed into the Naples Daily News just in the nick of time.

ESPN had requested James’ presence in New York for the network’s NFL Draft coverage.

“Naw, I just told ‘em I wanted to stay here in Immokalee with my boys,” James would later reveal.

And so it was that ESPN set up its large satellite dish among the pines that surrounded Lozano’s Mexican Restaurant on New Market Street. Hundreds of local fans turned out to witness the festivities. The crowd even included a number of UM coaches and players. Well-known sports agent Drew Rosenhaus was in the house as well, but James wasn’t talking to him, and he wasn’t talking to James, who was playing pool with buddies in one corner of the friendly joint. There was a 9-inch black and white TV perched near the ceiling.

And then, after the first three picks were announced, a phone rang. Given the circumstances, it just had to be the Colts calling. There was so much noise in the room that James actually had to take his cell phone outside. He paced up and down the street, speaking with none other than Irsay.

Their conversation was short and sweet. James was on his way to Indy, where the final details of his contract would be hammered out, and he would clutch that $9 million check.

How did that feel?

“I didn’t get to hold it long,” James said later with a laugh.

At the time his mother said she didn’t want a new house. Instead, the devoted elementary school cafeteria worker simply asked for a new sofa.

“I don’t hardly know what a thousand dollars is, much less 9 million,” she said.

James, by the way, paid no mind to those previously mentioned tailgaters. Exactly 12,246 yards later, his numbers are as “Edgendary” as the man himself.

After seven seasons in Indy, he would finish out his NFL career with stints as an Arizona Cardinal and a Seattle Seahawk. The Manning-led Colts, meanwhile, went on to win the Super Bowl the year after James’ departure in 2006. Out of respect, Irsay saw to it that EJ was awarded a Colts Super Bowl ring.

Up next? The long-awaited unveiling of his bust in the Canton shrine, where football stars — heroes who bring tears of joy to the eyes of old sports writers — reign forever.

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