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The Life

September 4, 2000
ESPN The Magazine

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    You ever seen someone smoke crack? Where I'm from, I considered it entertainment. Me and my boys would beg for change, pool our money and buy crackheads their five-dollar hits -- but only if they smoked right in front of us. They'd smoke it in cans, pipes, any damn thing, and then, real fast, they'd go into this zone, acting all crazy, making these out-of-control motions. We'd sit on that corner in Immokalee, Fla., and laugh all day, man. I was 10.

    Edgerrin James
    The Sept. 4, 2000, cover story.
    My story is a lot like me -- raw and real. It'll make you a lot stronger, spendin' your summers harvestin' watermelons with crackheads at $20 a truckload, hiding your money from them at night. That was the highest-paying job I had before my $49 million one with the Colts, and it helped shape me, dawg. It helped shape me so much that I was all muscular when I got to Miami even though I never lifted a weight in my life. I was hardened in every way.

    I got no problems sharing my past with you. You ask the right questions and I'll tell you straight-up, point-blank about how I had aunts and uncles addicted to crack. About how as a kid on food stamps, I never could celebrate Christmas or birthdays with gifts, except every once in a while when my uncle would show up with a bike or an Atari. About how that uncle was a drug dealer and my main male role model, but then he went to jail and my Christmas went to jail with him.

    I know this looks and sounds bad for the image of the NFL, but I ain't apologizin' for it. Because you know when it looks and sounds good? When I'm talkin' to some bad-ass kids about how they can be better. I ain't tellin' 'em about something I read in no book or saw in no video. They want a baller, not a spokesman, and I can tell 'em I lived this stuff. Best believe, they'll listen when I say what it feels like to come home and see the other uncle who committed suicide in the backyard.

    I ain't changin' for nobody. The ad people want to clean up my grammar, my speech, my look, my image, but I got a saying: "It's real easy to be me; it's too hard to be someone else." If I'm shootin' dice, you get me. If I'm in a press conference, you get me. I'm a baller, man, pure and simple. Some companies don't want that, I guess. Maybe that's why I led the league in rushing last year but didn't have a sneaker contract.

    Lose the dreads. Lose the gold teeth. That's what I get a lot. Man, I know the hardest guys in the world go before a judge in suit and tie, head shaved, but the NFL shouldn't be like jail. I ain't on trial. Everyone has a different flavor. The league ain't a straight-up square. You can be president and rule the world if only 51% of the people like you, so I'm cool with not everybody bein' down with me.

    But best believe I'm doin' it my way, dawg. My way has always worked. My way is what got me here, not those ad people. I don't come from the air-conditioned place where people make marketing campaigns. Nobody can be Michael Jordan again, so we should stop tryin'. He maxed that out. It's okay to be different. Kids love different. If I keep ballin', I know people will accept my kind of different. Eric Dickerson and Walter Payton wore Jheri curls, you know what I'm sayin'?

    And it makes me feel good that, everywhere I go, boys from the 'hood thank me for keepin' it real. I had a speech class at Miami, and the teacher kept tellin' me to articulate, articulate, ar ... tic ... u ... late. Man, I sounded funny to myself. I felt fake, and I ain't that. I kept asking myself, "What's the purpose of this?" I ain't gonna be no politician. Check out all those rappers on BET and listen to 'em. They makin' a lot more bank than the people complaining about the way they talk. Ar ... tic ... u ... late that!

    I'm quite sure I'll get the 51% if I keep ballin'. I bet if I took out my dreads and my gold teeth but stopped making plays, nobody would be coming at me with commercials anyway. It's like Scarface says in that DVD that pops out of my Bentley's dashboard. First you get the money. Then you get the power. Then you get the respect. Scarface had a plan, man, and so do I. I got the money. I'm gettin' the power. Respect is next. People will come around to me once I have it. And believe me when they come, I ain't doin' it for the same amount of bread as before. You better come correct.

    I won't be drownin' at my desk with no face full of coke like Scarface, either. Too much of my family has messed with drugs. Addiction might be in my genes, so I ain't ever tryin' it. It's something you can't control, and I don't like things I can't control. I worked too hard to have it taken away for something stupid. I ain't gonna be laughed at the way I used to laugh at those crackheads.

    I know I ain't a bad person. I'm nice to everyone, and I've never been in trouble. I got a bunch of speeding tickets, but no habits. You ain't gonna see me fallin' down drunk in the street. You may think you did because everyone around me was drunk, but my eyes are always open. My head is always on a swivel. I keep a gun in my car (safety on, clip out, licensed and legal) because I've seen too much to trust too much, but I follow the rules: no guns in vehicles at NFL functions.

    Gotta be protected, though. You see how some boys rolled up on Stephon Marbury and stole his $150,000 necklace? You come up on me like that, I got no sympathy for you. A $150,000 necklace? That's crazy. I gotta get me some basketball money.

    I got some wild friends. I saw what happened with Ray Lewis, another Cane, but I ain't erasin' my boys for nobody as long as they stay true to me. I trust 'em more than anybody who came into my life after I got famous. I trust 'em a hell of a lot more than the people tellin' me to get rid of 'em now. What happened to Ray could have happened to a hundred guys in the NFL, real easy. That's why I always got my cousin, Dingaling, with me. He's like a second set of eyes. And my personal assistant has a registered gun too.

    My assistant is on call 24 hours a day, so I don't have to do nothin' but ball. This isn't me giving one of my boys a job or having a posse or living the life, either. This is about straight-up business. I owe the Colts all my attention -- they didn't pay me $15 million last season to be distracted -- so I want to focus on football and not be bothered with anything else. I did an autograph show last year, and it lasted an hour longer than it should have, so I canceled all autograph shows for the rest of the season. I don't need that mess.

    I told my assistant that his job is to put his pride aside and make EJ happy. If somebody needs a plane ticket, he takes care of it. If I don't have time to call and check on Grandma, he takes care of it. If I need someone to pick up my brother in our white stretch limo, he takes care of it. I own the limo, but not because I'm out there spending stupid. I'm very careful with my funds. I bought the limo after droppin' $6,000 for a three-day rental at the Super Bowl. That's crazy. So I bought mine new for $60,000, with two DVDs, two TVs, music, the whole nine, and it's just so my friends and family can style when they're in town. Let 'em enjoy themselves. I'm too busy practicing and playing to enjoy things sometimes, so somebody should.

    I send the limo to Illinois State for my brother Jeff and cousin Walter if they do well in football. But only if they do well. I wasn't spoiled, so my brothers and cousins won't be either, no matter how much money I have. I used to ask God, "Why did I have to go through all I had to go through to get where I am? Why couldn't I have been one of those people who had better times growing up?" But I think I know the answer now. Growing up that poor, you appreciate certain things a lot more than the normal person. That's why I got two sayings that come up on my computer whenever I turn it on. One is, "Remember what it took to get where you're at." The other is, "Adversity causes some people to break; it causes some others to break records."

    What I'm doing with my brothers and cousins is running a cold, green business. Football is gonna break us up real bad, so we might as well get paid while it's using us up. My little brother is kind of lazy, but I told him if he runs a 4.3, I'll take him to the lot and buy him any car he wants. He has the talent to do it if he works. It's an investment, though. If he runs a 4.3, he'll be drafted and we'll both get paid. My brothers get around my discipline sometimes, though, by asking my mom for money. I have to talk with her about that.

    My mom is my heart, dawg. I don't get emotional. I never cry anymore because of everything I seen in my life. Why should I? You cry and you stop and you haven't fixed anything. But I get weak when I think of what I been able to do for my mom. I freed her, man. She worked in a school cafeteria all her life. She never made more than $17,000 a year. Growing up, it was me, my mom and four brothers and sisters living in a one-room efficiency with a toilet and a stove. She worked so hard she looked tired even when she was sleeping. I remember that on days I don't feel like lifting.

    Edgerrin James
    He's still Real & Raw.
    You know what got me through college? It was the dollar, not the diploma. It was knowing that football would let me walk into that cafeteria one day and tell 'em to keep my mom's little ol' uniform and that little ol' check, too. My mom used to cook for 1,000 people. Now she cooks for just one. She was on a common path -- work, work, work and then you die -- but now she will never need an alarm clock again. I don't want her to be like my granddaddy, working all day at age 77 and then dying that night. Now her life is a blank check, just rollin' and chillin'. "You want a Bentley? It's ordered." It's funny, though. She has an all-access pass to everything in the world, but she doesn't want anything because she ain't used to having anything. Can you believe she still gets bored and goes to work at that cafeteria? That's where I get my work ethic, I guess.

    She hasn't had to worry about me for a while, because I was a man by middle school. For three summers before college I would go to Georgia with my uncles and harvest those watermelons with the crackheads. Do you know how hard that is on your back and body? Pickin' up watermelons all day in the heat and putting 'em on a truck? Football is easy compared to that, man. I bought a car with my watermelon money at the end of one summer in Georgia, and drove it back to Florida alone at midnight. I was 14.

    I value money now the same way I did then. Let's make something very clear: None of my money moves unless I say so, not even for Mom. I got computer charts and online banking, and I'm always tracking my funds. Not a dollar moves unless I say so, period, point-blank. I have private bankers coming to the house once a week just to keep me on top of things. I didn't even know there was such a thing as private banking before I got rich. I guess if you have money, the bank will do anything for it.

    I ain't gettin' robbed by nobody. That's why we put together Team Edgerrin. It's my brother, Edward German, a medical student, and two of his college buddies -- lobbyist Pierre Rutledge and lawyer Tyrone Williams. If you want to do something with me, best believe you gonna go through a process. My agent, Leigh Steinberg, did, and look at the results. He made me more money than a rookie ever made. Team Edgerrin has my back on everything, but I make the last call. I ain't gonna blow my money. Once I can't provide, then I turn into just another black man.

    I ain't bein' just another anything in football. I want to be one of the best ever. It's important to me. Why can't I be? Who's faster than me? Not many. Who has the size and can move like me? Not many. Catch passes like me? Not many. I should have been a senior in college last year, and I had one of the best seasons ever in the NFL instead. I'm only 22, younger than most of the cats drafted this year, and I figure I'm gonna get better.

    I thought the NFL was gonna be harder, to tell you the truth. High school, college, pros, what's the difference? Every level, I've worked hard and got my rewards. Nobody is outworking me. Even when I was holding out last year, I was calling Peyton every day of practice, going over things on the phone, bothering him so much he'd just answer the phone, "What now, EJ?" Me and Peyton are the same animal in different packaging. Same heart. Same want. Different backgrounds. Can you imagine Peyton with some gold teeth?

    Me, Peyton and Marvin Harrison believe if you practice hard, it makes the game easy, so I had Reebok print up some T-shirts for training camp with the words "Back On The Grind" on 'em. I got that expression from my uncle the drug dealer. When he was done partying and his stack of cash got low, he'd hit the streets again, grinding. I have that same outlook, except my stash ain't ever gettin' low.

    People underestimate me, maybe because of my look, maybe because of my speech, and I love that. I love to give the impression that I'm an easy victim. I love that people think I'm uneducated just because I was educated differently. That way people come at me from angles, misreading me, and I can see the whole thing developing from far away, just like on the field. I ain't nobody's fool, believe that. And I'm gonna keep doin' it the way I always done it.

    If you like it, great.

    If you don't, then I never knew you anyway.

    Keep it real,
    Edgerrin James

    This article appears in the September 4, 2000 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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