Edgerrin James gets into Pro Football Hall of Fame doing it ‘his way’

Indianapolis Colts

Colts runningback Edgerrin James on the sidelines as the Indianapolis Colts defeated the San Francisco 49ers by a score of 28 to 3 at Monster Park, San Francisco, California, October 9, 2005. (Photo by Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary)

INDIANAPOLIS – There are times it’s more appropriate to start at the end, not the beginning.

That’s the case with Edgerrin James. This is about where he ended up this weekend, and how he views eventually going out. Yes, leaving this planet. We’ll get to that shortly.

But first, Saturday evening with the entire football world focused on Canton, Ohio, James enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2020. For historical purposes, he’ll forever be the 336th individual enshrined.

That particular number struck a sentimental cord when James sat through an orientation meeting after being selected last year. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the Class of 2020 ceremony to this weekend.

He’s No. 336 in a club that consists of 354 members.

“You’re sitting in the meetings and they’re showing you the numbers and the people. You’re like, ‘Only 300-and-some?’’’ James said. “I’m 336… 336. I’ve got three boys, three girls, six kids… 3-3-6.

“I always find a meaning. If it was 337, I would have found something.’’

At James’ chosen trade – running back – so much is about the numbers.

He piled up 12,246 rushing yards in 11 seasons, 13th-most in NFL history. His 9,226 yards in seven seasons are an Indianapolis Colts’ record. His 15,610 yards from scrimmage are 16th-most in league history.

He was a two-time league rushing champion – they came in his first two seasons and a season-ending knee injury in week 6 of 2001 derailed what probably would have been a third straight – and joined Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson and Walter Payton as the only players to rush for at least 1,500 yards four times. Two came after the torn ACL at Arrowhead Stadium.

But as much as James was a numbers guy, he was a guy from Immokalee, Fla. who insisted on doing things his way. He never considered shedding his dreadlocks and gold teeth during those early years to Indy to enhance endorsement opportunities. He only trimmed the dreads that streamed out of the back of his helmet after being yanked down by them at Cleveland late in his rookie season.

“Business decision,’’ he insisted at the time.

Always, James listened to himself. He avoided the unforgiving streets of Immokalee that claimed so many of his friends when he was growing up. He heeded the words of his mother, Julie, and his late grandmother, Ann. He was befriended early by Tim Howell, his junior-varsity coach at Immokalee who also served more than 30 years in the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

“I never heard anything negative,’’ Howell said, “and in my profession, I would have.’’

James was too focused on proving there was a world and unlimited opportunities outside of Immokalee, and perhaps a place for his bronze bust in Canton.

“Let nobody get in the way of what you’re doing,’’ he said.

Stay true to yourself.

“I’m glad I did it my way,’’ James said. “I’ve done everything my way. I didn’t go around and politic and kiss nobody’s butt. I didn’t get in trouble.

“If I had listened to this person or that person, I might have gone down the wrong path. I trusted my gut, trusted my instincts.’’

And that brings us back to how he plans on leaving. Whenever that time comes, it will be with Frank Sinatra crooning in the background.

“Yeah, Frank Sinatra,’’ James said with an infectious smile. “I tell my family that’s my funeral song… ‘My Way.’ That’s been my message from day 1. That’s what got me here.’’

In Canton, finally

Again, here is Canton, Ohio. It’s a place James always felt he belonged as the yards, touchdowns and team successes piled up. The NFL, he insisted, was too easy.

But there was a waiting period that was extended by the COVID-19 pandemic. He was elected in his 6th year of eligibility and after reaching the Final 15 for a 4th time.

“I’m a patient guy,’’ James said. “I don’t stress.’’

Does it matter it took this long?

“No, man,’’ he said. “In is in. That’s the thing about it. No matter when you get in, you’re in. You put in so many years of work and you position yourself. Once you get in, you’re in.

“It’s going to happen. It’s not something that’s a rush for me. It’s more of, ‘Man, when the time is right, it’s right.’ I enjoy life. I enjoy the process and everything that comes with it.’’

The process of actually getting to Canton, though, confused James. He knew his body of work merited recognition by the Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee (I am one of the 48 selectors). He never understood what they weren’t seeing.

“I wasn’t impatient,’’ James said. “It was more like, ‘What is the process?’ It’s more confusing than anything. You don’t really know what’s right, what’s wrong, how is this, how is that? That’s the only thing that bothered me.

“If they said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to wait 10 years to get in,’ well, then 10 years it is. But when they start saying, ‘OK, you have to have this or you have to have that.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I have this. I have that.’

“That’s probably the only thing when you’re going through this that’s frustrating. It’s being jerked around. I’m in business so I understand that part, but let’s not turn me into a customer.’’

James, like Marvin Harrison before him (Class of 2016), never wanted to be part of what he describes as a “dog and pony show.’’

Pro Football Hall of Fame officials encourage the 15 Modern-Era Finalists to be on hand when the latest class is determined. The Selection Committee meets the day before the Super Bowl in that city and the 15 finalists are extended hotel accommodations. That allows Hall of Fame president David Baker to knock on the door and inform each individual selected, with the camera rolling, of course.

James never was on hand only to be told he’d have to wait another year, including last year when the Selection Committee met in his hometown of Miami. The news – yes or the wait continues – would be delivered via a phone call from Baker.

James still was asleep on that Feb. 1, 2020 afternoon when his phone buzzed to life. The partying the previous night had spilled well into the next morning.

“I almost never answer the phone,’’ he said. “It was different this time.’’

Three previous calls from Baker were with the “Sorry, maybe next year’’ message.

“This time the conversation started out different,’’ James said. “It was, ‘Edge, I know in the past…’

“This time it was different. It was crazy.’’

Next stop: Canton.

From Indy to Canton

The backstory is well known. As the 1999 draft approached, the Indy fan base was lobbying for team president Bill Polian to invest the 4th overall pick in an elite running back to complement quarterback Peyton Manning and wideout Marvin Harrison, especially after a pre-draft trade sent Marshall Faulk to St. Louis. The back of choice – outside the Colts’ West 56th Street complex – was Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy winner out of Texas.

The organization met with Williams at the NFL Scouting Combine and brought him back to Indy for a follow-up interview. The Colts broke their routine by making Williams available to the local media, which might have been a smokescreen to disguise their actual intentions for the draft.

When Indy was on the clock, the back of choice was Edgerrin James.

Polian said the decision had been made after the meeting at the Combine.

Offensive coordinator Tom Moore was in lockstep with Polian. Again, at the time, the Colts had yet to send Faulk to the Rams but were vetting the top running backs in the draft.

“I remember his interview at the Combine,’’ Moore said. “We interviewed one guy who I won’t mention by name and we asked him ‘If you come to Indianapolis you’ll be with Marshall Faulk. What do you think?’ He kind of hedged.

“We asked Edgerrin the same thing. He said, ‘I don’t care who’s there. I’m going to play.’ That was his mindset.’’

Moore was struck by James’ competitive disposition, intelligence and willingness to work.

“He had the same work ethic as Peyton,’’ he said. “Edgerrin was just a phenomenal player to work with because you knew he was going to be accountable. You knew he was going to be prepared and you knew he was going to perform.’’

Polian considered James the “linchpin’’ of the offense with his complete skillset.

“He let us do what we wanted to do,’’ he said.

In 96 regular-season games, James averaged 96.1 yards per game. He cracked the 100-yard barrier 49 times – 51% of the time – and the Colts were 43-6 when he hit triple digits.

An appropriate sidenote to James finally earning his own little slice of Canton is it occurs the day before Manning is enshrined as a member of the Class of 2021.

Frustrated by the Selection Committee’s reluctance – once, twice, five times – to give James enough support for induction, Manning approached me in the weeks leading up to the 2020 selection meeting about offering his personal support for James’ latest bid.

“I always felt like the good teams we were playing against, their first priority was to stop Edgerrin James,’’ Manning wrote. “Defensive Rule 101 is don’t let a team run the ball all over you and break your will and Edgerrin could do that. Edgerrin broke a lot of wills.

“I always felt so comfortable having him back there with me. He was extremely dependable.. Certain guys make this incredible impression on you. Marvin Harrison was like that. Edgerrin James was like that.’’

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