Edgerrin James: From Hall of Fame-worthy career to ‘Sugar Dad’

Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James watches play against the Jacksonville Jaguars December 11, 2005 in Jacksonville. The Colts defeated the Jaguars 26 - 18 to remain undefeated. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Football coursed through Edgerrin James’ veins. Until it didn’t.

“I did it the right way. I gave (the game) everything I had,” he said.

He was the preeminent teammate. Until he wasn’t.

“Whenever I talk to college or NFL teams, I always tell them the best teammate I’ve ever played with was Edgerrin James,” offered Peyton Manning. “The reason is he was the most talented running back and one of the most talented football players I’ve ever been around.

“He’s also the most unselfish player.”

His Hall of Fame resume speaks for itself.

In the classic Peyton Manning vs. Brett Favre Shootout in 2004 – Colts 45, Packers 31 – Manning attempted passes on Indy’s first 22 offensive snaps. James’ first carry came early in the second quarter. He spent the first quarter picking up blitzing Packers.

“Never complained. Not once. Just kept pounding them,” Manning said.

For 11 NFL seasons, the first seven with the Indianapolis Colts, James put in the time, did the work. He attacked the next practice, prepared for the next opponent.

That single-minded approach made the highest level of football “easy” to James. He still laughs whenever anyone tries to convince him the NFL is a difficult venture for a top-tier talent.

“It’s so easy,” James said. “You’ve got to be tough, but the game itself is so easy because it’s repetitive. You get to see exactly what the other (team) is doing. How cool is that? You know exactly what somebody is doing, then you prepare for that.

“It just comes down to who’s going to prepare, who’s going to put in the work, who’s going to do what it takes. I did.”

Until he decided enough was enough.

After nearly two decades of shredding defenses – at Immokalee (Fla.) High School, the University of Miami, with the Colts, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks – James realized it was time to walk away.

Family always had been an anchor in his life. It became his total focus after the 2009 season, his only year with the Seahawks.

“You have to be selfless,” James said. “I did this (football) my whole life. But my family became more important. My kids, my family.

“It was the right decision.”

There was no desire to hang around and fatten a body of work that already had reached Pro Football Hall of Fame worthiness. When he retired at age 31, his 12,246 yards ranked 10th in NFL history. He’s now 13th all-time, having been passed by LaDainian Tomlinson, Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson. Had he tacked on another 500 yards during the mop-up phase of his career, he’d rank 9th all-time.

Saturday, James finds out if he did enough in 11 seasons and 148 games to warrant inclusion in the NFL’s most elite neighborhood. He’s one of 15 modern-day finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018. It’s the second time in his four years of eligibility he’s reached the final 15.

The Hall of Fame Selection Committee – I am one of 48 selectors – will gather in Minneapolis and determine which of the 5 modern-day nominees merit inclusion, and which 10 have to wait at least another year.

James insisted there was no internal struggle when he retired.

“When you know you’re doing the right thing,” James said, “you don’t worry about anything else. I knew I did enough to get in the Hall. I established myself as a guy up there.

“As a parent, I was able to walk away knowing I was doing the right thing. My kids were important to me. That’s when you’re tested.”

Continue to slog away at what you’ve done virtually your entire life and provided financial security? Or go out on your terms and concentrate on what’s truly important?

It was a brief, one-sided debate.

“I did what was right for my kids and my situation,” James said.

There were six children who needed – demanded – his full attention. Over the final few years of his career, James found himself balancing football responsibilities with making certain, from afar, homework was being done and none of his brood was doing what they shouldn’t be doing.

“My mom and everybody in the family was helping, but it wasn’t easy,” James said. “You’re always calling and checking up on them. It got to the point it just wasn’t for me. You realize you’re (in the NFL) because you felt obligated to do it. My whole world was football.

“Then you realize football isn’t all that important.”

That nearly was the case a year earlier. After being the leading rusher for an Arizona Cardinals bunch that reached Super Bowl XLIII after the 2008 season – they lost 27-23 in the final seconds to Pittsburgh – James had all but decided to retire.

Along with the tug of his kids, he was committed to helping Andia Wilson, his high school sweetheart and mother of four of his children, through her battle with leukemia. When his schedule with the Cardinals allowed, he returned to Tampa to be by her side at the Moffitt Cancer Center. There were nights he plopped down in a chair and slept alongside Andia.

One cross-country trip was facilitated by Arizona reaching the Super Bowl, which was held in Tampa.

“That was special because I had been going back there during the season,” James said. “I had my whole family at the game, and she was able to come to the game. It was pretty cool.”

Andia Wilson, 30, passed away three months later.

James reluctantly signed with Seattle as a free agent and endured a lackluster 11th NFL season before shutting it down.

Does he enjoy being Mr. Mom?

“Nah, Sugar Dad,” James said with a hearty laugh. “It’s important. You get a chance to put some good people in this world, and you’re responsible for them. You want to make sure you give them all the lessons you learned along the way.

“For me, it’s bigger than just me as a parent. It helps people that grow up the way I grew up. I can motivate other parents, other fathers from the African-American community. I take pride in that.”

He also takes pride in his kids, ranging from 20-year old Edquisha, who’s studying to be a lawyer at Howard University, to 10-year old Euro. There’s Eyahna, 16, Emani, 14, and 13-year old sons Edgerrin Jr. and Eden. Edgerrin Jr. already is flashing basketball skills. Eden is taking after his father on the gridiron.

“They’re legit,” James said. “They’re really good.”

Clearly, Edgerrin James is in a good place.

Taking up residence in Canton, Ohio would simply enhance that.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51