EDMONTON — Edmonton Eskimos kick returner Brandon James is making the most of his second chance at the pro game, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten that for fringe players in the NFL, one dropped ball can mean a lost career.
“Everything else is history now. I’m up here, I’m happy to be here, and I’m just ready to keep working,” James said after Eskimos practice Thursday.
The five-foot-seven, 185 pounder is turning heads at training camp while adjusting to the wide field and multiple motion rules of the Canadian game.
“I feel it’s going to be big whether it’s returning (kicks) or on offence, where I can beat a guy and just have more field, more end zone to work with,” he said.
He was brought in to fight for the job after last year’s return man, Tristan Jackson, was traded to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
On receiving routes, he’s finding holes and catching balls.
Head coach Kavis Reed says he’s making them wonder if James’ role should be expanded beyond kick returns.
“That discussion has come up because he has done quite well in the slot,” said Reed.
But he said coaches want to see some game action first.
“I’m very optimistic that he’s going to respond very well, but I’m not going to anoint him just yet.”
James, 23, was born just before Christmas in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1987, the year NFL owners used replacement players to settle a labour dispute with the players.
He was a high school star and in 2006 travelled 100 kilometres inland to Gainesville and the famed University of Florida Gators, home to head coach Urban Meyer and celebrated quarterback Tim Tebow.
Meyer said he couldn’t believe what he was seeing from this freshman “nut” who mocked 107,000 screaming Tennessee fans by scissoring his extended arms to perform the trademark Gator Chomp.
“That kid was not intimidated, so I grabbed him and told him he would be the punt returner,” Meyer said at the time.
James proved to one of the best in the nation.
He was a pure north-south runner with legs like thunderbolts. Time and again the man in the blue jersey and orange “Gator” helmet would field the kick and slowly accelerate until he saw a seam, then slash through it to daylight, kicking it into overdrive, defenders falling away as he accelerated toward the end zone.
“Any chance he touches the ball he has a chance to go to the house,” Tebow added.
Last year, the NFL beckoned, but the undersized James would have to go through the back door.
He signed as a free agent with the Indianapolis Colts, taking the training camp practice field with the likes of legends Peyton Manning and Dwight Freeney but knowing, as a fringe player, he would get maybe one chance to shine.
It came Aug. 27, 2010, as he stood on the five-yard line at Lambeau Field fielding a punt in a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers.
The ball soared high to its apex, then began tumbling down toward him.
He signalled for a fair catch only to have the ball clang off his hands and into the end zone. A pack of rampaging Packers surrounded it for a touchdown as the Cheesehead faithful roared in delight.
“James’ receiving skills are irrelevant,” local columnist Reggie Hayes wrote afterward. “What the Colts can’t afford is a return man who might fumble the ball.”
James was bumped down to the practice roster. But when injuries took their toll on the roster by November, he got his shot.
He caught four balls for 36 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Two weeks later, he was a 22-year-old rookie on national prime time TV, dressed in the famous blue jersey and white horseshoe helmet, catching balls from a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
He returned nine kickoffs for 16.7 yards on average. His longest was 24.
Not good enough. Experiment over. James was cut. Seven months later, he is on the practice field beside Commonwealth Stadium under low-hanging clouds.
Dressed in a white mesh jersey and shorts, James lines up to the left of quarterback Ricky Ray.
The ball is snapped and he explodes off the line, jukes left and curls in as Ray whistles the ball into his hands.
He catches it, tucks it in, and heads upfield as defenders close in, looking once more for daylight.