CANTON, Ohio – On the brightest night of his athletic life, Edgerrin James buried the lead. But it was from the heart and worth the wait.
Jim Irsay pulled the cover off a bronze bust that showed the determined face of Edgerrin James and those so-very-familiar dreadlocks, and the crowd at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium roared its approval Saturday night.
James used the first portion of his acceptance speech – it was supposed to be eight minutes in length, but stretched to roughly 10 . . . and no one seemed to care because of its authenticity – to thank those so impactful to his journey to NFL immortality.
There was his mother, Julie, and his six children. There were his coaches at Immokalee (Fla.) High School and the University of Miami. There was Irsay and Bill Polian with the Indianapolis Colts and so many outstanding teammates, including two who also were sporting gold jackets on the stage (Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison).
But then, Edgerrin James spoke from the heart and delivered a message that transcended even something as special as the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He spoke of perception and reality, how they often are diametrically opposed. He spoke of how protecting the quarterback always was an integral part of his job description on the football field, but should be taken more seriously outside the white lines.
“Throughout my career I took pride in representing my culture, my people and keeping it real and I did it all while I did my job,’’ James said. “In the real world we need to think about protecting people we’re supposed to protect.
“In society we have witnessed a lot of people turn the other cheek . . . imagine if I turned the other cheek and don’t protect my quarterback. I played with two Hall of Famers (at quarterback) and I played against my brothers, people I went to school with. What if I intentionally missed my blocking assignment and one of our boys did damage to my QB? What happens to my team if I don’t do my job and protect him?’’
James drives home his point.
“Now think about what happens to our culture and to our families if we don’t give the protection we’re supposed to,’’ he said. “It tears us down. It kills our confidence. It divides us.
“Do your job. That’s what I did. I put my body on the line and I protected my quarterback. We’ve got a lot of things going on in this country. It’s only right that we keep the light shining on these issues. Just do your job. If everybody did their job the world would be a better place.’’
That includes not allowing perception to become a debilitating reality. Remember, the Colts used the 4th overall pick in the 1999 draft on an intriguing running back out of The U who flashed gold teeth and dreadlocks.
He credited Polian for “shocking the world and putting his faith in me.’’
“For some reason I always had to deal with perception,’’ James said. “Perception, though, isn’t always reality. It definitely wasn’t my reality.
“People looked at my gold teeth and dreads and were shocked and surprised I had never been under arrest or spent time in jail. So many people told me you can’t have dreads and gold teeth and be accepted in the NFL, but I never listened. I always knew who I was: a great football player, a great father, a proud Black man, a lion and (the dreads) was my mane, which many of those doubters would later discover once they got to know the real me.’’
James was just getting warmed up.
“Times have changed,’’ he said. “Look around the league. Look at some of the young stars. As a matter of fact, look at my Pro Football Hall of Fame bust. Rockin’ the same dreads they said I shouldn’t.
“My closing message: proudly represent the real you, follow your dream, aim high and dream the life you want to live. And to all those who’ve been judged prematurely because of their appearance, the way they speak, where they come from and in the minds of many should be locked up in prison, I represent us.
“I’m forever immortalized, locked up in the Canton Correctional Institution.’’
James paused and looked at the inside lining of his gold jacket.
“Inmate No. 3-3-6 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,’’ he said. “I started with gold teeth and ended with this gold jacket.’’
To mom: special thanks
James was quick to thank his mom, Julie, who raised him as a single mom. She stood and waved to her son when he singled her out.
“No blueprints,’’ he told her of his journey to this city of icons, “no manual and most importantly, no man. I’m your man. Ever since you told me I was the man of the house, I took that role seriously.’’
He praised his mom for doubling up and helping him raise his six children when his long-time girl friend, Andia Wilson, died of leukemia.
“God gave you the assignment two times,’’ James said. “When God took Andia, you stepped in without hesitation to help us raise our kids and I can’t thank you enough.
“To my children, you all make me proud to be your dad. Watching and helping you pursue your dreams is a beautiful thing. Family is important to me.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.