Coming out of college Edgerrin James didn’t know which NFL team would draft him.
He didn’t care, either.
“It didn’t matter who drafted me,” James said. “I just want to be on a team.”
The Indianapolis Colts selected James with the fourth pick in the first round of the 1999 draft.
Now, he cares.
James played seven seasons in Indianapolis. He finished as the team’s all-time rusher. He combined with Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison to form a winning foundation.
He went on to play for two other NFL franchises — Arizona and Seattle — in his 11-year career but James isn’t shy about his loyalty.
“No matter where I go or what I do, I’m always a Colt,” says James, who will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor today. James joins owner Robert Irsay, Bill Brooks, Chris Hinton, Jim Harbaugh, Ted Marchibroda, the 12th Man, Tony Dungy and Harrison in the team’s unofficial hall of fame.
James’ journey from Immokalee to Indianapolis is one some football experts didn’t see coming.
Three quarterbacks — Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith — were taken to start 1999 draft, and Texas standout and Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams appeared to be the obvious choice for the Colts. The team needed a running back to replace Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.
Colts running back coach Gene Huey said he remembers watching film of both Williams and James before the draft and realized James’ talent “fit the system.”
“There was no doubt in my mind he would be a better choice,” Huey said. “Edgerrin was an all-around back, a strong runner with good hands and a solid pass blocker. He had all the tangibles we were seeking.”
Straight from the University of Miami, James made the Colts look like geniuses. He led the NFL in his first season in rushing, tallying 1,553 yards and was named the Offensive Player of the Year. He topped his marks in year two, totaling 1,709 yards, to become the last player to lead the NFL in rushing in his first two seasons.
“I wanted to prove it wasn’t a fluke,” James said about the motivation behind his second season in Indy. “I didn’t want people to say I was a one-year wonder. Proving people wrong always inspires me.”
James became the unheralded versatile back, setting the team record for rushing yardage (9,226) in a career while being the ultimate compliment the Manning-to-Harrison aerial attack. Huey described him as a Jim Brown throwback who used his body and the lost art of the stiff-arm to pick up extra yards and punish defenders. Huey said James didn’t go down easy and proved it in his second season by picking up 500 of the 1,700 yards after contact.
“He was a machine,” Huey said. “He had great strength and grace as a runner and determination to get the most out of every carry. He certainly didn’t go down easy.”
Manning said defenders got tired of trying to tackle him.
“They didn’t understand just how strong and stout he was,” Manning said. “His playing weight was around 215, and linebackers, corners and safeties in the fourth quarter got to saying, ‘Enough’s enough.’ He started turning 6- to 7-yard gains into 20- to 25-yard gains.”
But Manning appreciated James for more than just carrying the ball.
“Edgerrin was one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” he said. “I always felt real secure with him back there in the backfield behind me or standing next to me in the shotgun. He was an extremely smart player. He was unbelievably well-conditioned. He had incredible strength and balance, along with excellent hands, and he was an outstanding blocker.”
And it’s blocking James is most proud of. He says it’s the skill that doesn’t show up in the stat charts that should get him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He says his numbers — No. 11 all-time in rushing with 12,246 yards and 80 touchdowns, complied with his four 1,500 rushing seasons (tied for second-most in NFL history) while having 433 receptions for 3,364 yards and 11 touchdowns — should be enough to punch his ticket to Canton, Ohio.
But he hopes the Hall of Fame voters consider the team he played on, the fact he never came out of the game even on third down and that he was willing to sacrifice his body to protect Manning.
“If you look at all of the guys on the list in front of me, none of them played for passing team like the Colts,” said James, who was named to four Pro Bowls. “I took a lot of pride in blocking. I was willing to do whatever was needed to win.”
James’ presence definitely translated into wins for the Colts.
In 1998, the Colts won only three games, finishing with 13 losses. But with James providing balance to Manning’s arm the Colts’ record went to 13-3. At the time, it was the greatest one-season turnaround in NFL history.
James said being drafted by a team with a losing record gave him motivation.
“I wanted the challenge. I wanted to prove they made the right choice and I could make a difference,” James said. “I always like to take the hard route. It’s boring if you don’t have a challenge.”
With James in the lineup, Indianapolis compiled a 70-26 record in seven years. Sure, the Colts also had Manning and Harrison but when James missed 10 games in 2001 due to a knee injury, they posted only a 3-7 record in his absence.
“He was huge to the club’s winning tradition,” Manning said. “I certainly never took Edgerrin for granted. I knew how special he was.”
James’ most significant contribution came in the locker room. Manning said James was liked and respect by his teammates. James was unselfish, too, Manning said.
He proved it in 2004 when Manning headed toward breaking Dan Marino’s single-season mark for touchdown passes. James was supposed to catch the record-tying 48th TD. Instead, he switched positions with backup James Mungro to allow him to catch the 3-yard shovel pass and share in the glory.
About Mungro’s moment, James said, “You don’t want the spotlight just to be on you, or on just one player. You have to spread it around so everyone has something to hang their hat on. James (Mungro) for the rest of his life is going to remember that play, how it exactly went down.”
“As a teammate, Edgerrin was the heartbeat of our locker room,” said Tarik Glenn, former offensive tackle and teammate with the Colts. “He made playing football fun. As a player, Edge was a blue collar, hard worker that loved to let his playing do the talking.”
Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne also called James a great locker room guy who didn’t say much, if anything, on the field.
But when James did talk, people listened.
In 2003, a majority of the Colts players were not fans of the outdated pregame music. James took their concerns to management. The next week, the Colts were warming up to the most current hip-hop tracks and making other teams jealous, James said.
“I didn’t mind being the voice of the team,” James said. “I had a comfort zone in the locker room because everything the owners and the management did in Indy was about winning.”
James still raves about the Colts owner Jim Irsay calling him the best in the NFL.
Irsay proved it by awarding James a Super Bowl ring even though James left for Arizona the year before the Colts won it all.
James says he appraises the ring at $1 million. That’s what the gesture and the Colts organization means to him.
“I’m never surprised by anything that happens in that organization,” James said. “They’re all about doing the right thing, all about doing whatever it takes to win. The Colts have always been and always will be nothing but first class.”
James may have not cared who drafted back in 1999 but he’s forever thankful it turned out to be the Indianapolis Colts.