CELINA, Texas - Craig James remembers his first carry in the NFL. The former Patriots tailback was crushed by Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in an August 1984 exhibition game.
“I got kind of a semi-thigh bruise,’’ he said. “And I jumped up and I was, ‘All right, buddy, that’s cool. Excellent.’ I got a 10-yard gain and a first down.’’
Now, as a Republican candidate in Texas for the US Senate, James is being hit hard again, right out of the gate. On Jan. 12, the day of his official announcement, he admitted he received “insignificant’’ amounts of money from Southern Methodist University boosters as an 18- and 19-year old.
“It was wrong,’’ said James of accepting handshakes from boosters palming $20 bills when he was part of the fabled Pony Express (1980-82) with running mate Eric Dickerson. But he insisted he had nothing to do with SMU receiving the NCAA’s “death penalty’’ in 1987 for slush fund payments to players.
Later that evening, James was ambushed in the primary debate. In what he termed a “gotcha’’ question, he was asked if he knew the name of the US Secretary of Defense.
“You know, this is the problem with our country,’’ said an agitated James, who quickly named Leon Panetta and then, for good measure, his predecessor, Robert Gates. “Ask us what we believe, these people want to know what I believe in. They don’t know me.’’
The crowd in Austin applauded loudly. But even with his high-profile name, the conservative James is a long shot in the 10-candidate field that is seeking the seat of retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.
His message is not complicated. James believes in God, family, and the Constitution, which he calls “the playbook.’’
“I want to stand for right, against wrong,’’ he said.
But so far, he is having trouble getting past the political line of scrimmage. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling had James receiving just 4 percent of the vote. Seven of 10 polled said they did not have an opinion of him.
He has never sought elected office before.
“Looks like I jumped off the high board on the first try,’’ said James, 51, who resigned as an ESPN analyst after 20 years.
But this tough Texan is no stranger to a battle.
“I come from Real Street,’’ he said of his upbringing by a battered single mother and his post-playing experience as a Texas rancher, cattle producer, and real estate mogul. “You can’t know Texas if the only people you know are people that have money and power and can do something for you.’’
The primary is tentatively set for April 3, but it is likely to be delayed because the US Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on redrawn voting maps.
“The longer I have, the better my chances,’’ said James.
Told that one national columnist dismissed his candidacy as “ridiculous,’’ James gets annoyed.
“That dude has not a clue,’’ he said. “I’m not a rich, spoiled kid from upper city. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it all.’’
The son’s ordeal
James believes his football career was great training for politics.
“We were all together,’’ said James, who played five seasons in New England (1984-88). “Hey, here’s a guy that played with all colors and races and backgrounds, and we had a mission to win.’’
He adds that he has no political baggage, and that he will not be in awe of calling out anybody in Washington who supports reckless spending.
“Either party,’’ he said. “I’m my own man. I’m going to be me.’’
James said he hasn’t been in awe since he was a rookie in his first huddle at Patriots minicamp in 1984.
“[Steve] Grogan called a play, but I wasn’t paying attention,’’ he recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, wow. I’m actually in the huddle with Steve Grogan.’ I had to ask him what the play was. He told me, ‘Pay attention. ’’
Asked about James’s candidacy, Grogan said, “He’s very smart. But I don’t know why he’d want to put up with all the abuse.’’
There have been some upbeat moments for James, including a Tea Party straw poll in Houston that had him in second place after a speaking appearance there. But the highs have been overshadowed by the venomous fallout from the December 2009 firing of popular Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.
Leach was fired for the mistreatment of James’s son, Adam, who was then a Red Raiders wide receiver. A doctor diagnosed the sophomore with a concussion.
According to James, Leach went on an expletive-laden rant against his son that questioned Adam’s manhood. Then Adam was locked for hours in a dark equipment garage and media room during successive practices.
“He said, ‘If I had a coffin, I’d put him in a coffin, that’s how dark and tight I wanted it,’ ’’ said Craig James, quoting Leach. “There was a guard placed outside the door to make sure he didn’t come out.’’
Multiple lawsuits are pending.
Craig James also denies Leach’s claims in the coach’s new book, “Swing the Sword,’’ that James lobbied for his son to play more and then used his powerful position at ESPN to force Texas Tech to fire Leach.
“Heck no,’’ said James. “Adam would have disowned me and it would’ve broken his heart if I called and did any of that junk. Does that justify putting a concussed kid in the dark and punishing him? No, not in the US of A. It is barbaric.’’
Efforts to reach Leach, now head coach at Washington State, were unsuccessful.
Craig James grew up in the Houston suburb of Stratford, where he saw eviction notices posted on the door. He sometimes ate mayonnaise-only sandwiches or ketchup-only sandwiches. He said his deadbeat dad beat his mother. His mother remarried but their problems continued.
“I’ve seen my dad and my stepdad in the middle of the night square off with guns drawn ready to shoot each other,’’ said James, who still keeps a handgun and a shotgun under his mattress at home. “I saw things in my life that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.’’
He credits his high school football coach with helping him.
“He was a phenomenal mentor and he wanted me to be more outspoken,’’ James said. “I wasn’t confident. He said, ‘Do you pray to God? Is there anybody bigger in life?’ ’’ He was 15 years old when he saw his future wife, Marilyn, standing in her front yard on a summer’s day. He never dated another woman. They have been married 29 years and have four children.
“I went, ‘Wow,’ ’’ said James. “It was puppy love from the beginning.’’
At Stratford High School, James, running from his demons, rushed for a Texas 4A record 2,411 yards (9.9 yards per carry) and led his team to a state championship win in the Astrodome in 1978.
But scouts questioned his toughness after contact.
“That scared me and motivated me,’’ he said. “Marilyn was going to SMU, and if I didn’t get after it, I wouldn’t get a scholarship and follow her. All my drive in life comes from when I fear not being able to provide.’’
Spend a day with the blue-eyed fifth-generation Texan and one thing is certain: He is passionate about his beliefs.
On Martin Luther King Day, James is cutting it close for a live, nationwide morning interview with Fox, his first since he declared his candidacy. A nervous engineer worries that he does not have a plastic earphone that will fit James.
A phone call to his scheduler - James’s daughter Jessica, a Wall Street hedge fund chief operating officer on leave to help her father - makes everyone relax. He carries his own, Jessica says.
James arrives at KDFW, where he started as a sports anchor more than 20 years ago, driving a white Ford truck. A touch of gray at the temples matches his gray pinstriped suit.
“I used to worry about the Dallas Cowboys defense,’’ he said, awaiting the live broadcast. “Now I worry about the defense of the Straits of Hormuz.’’
He says that when he gets to Washington he will “shake the skunks out of the bushes’’ and cut federal spending.
Broadcast over, he jumps into his truck and heads for his campaign office. There’s a worn Bible on the passenger seat.
“If a person’s Bible is falling apart, their life isn’t,’’ he said with a smile.
He spends the next several hours in his Dallas office hand-writing personal pleas on form letters asking for support. He also receives praise from legendary Republican consultant Norman Finkelstein in a conference call. Finkelstein advised Benjamin Netanyahu after he had an affair with one of his campaign workers in the early 1990s. Netanyahu was still elected Prime Minister of Israel.
“We got through it. It’s never easy,’’ said Finkelstein with a laugh. “I’m not suggesting we have an affair to divert attention from SMU. Everybody has things, better or worse.’’
Super Bowl memories
On the drive out to his 15-acre home in Celina, a small Texas prairie city that boasts eight state high school football championships, James reminisces about the 1985 Patriots. They were a wild card team and won three postseason games on the road to get to Super Bowl XX.
“There were a lot of cool people on that team,’’ said James, who rushed for 1,227 yards and five touchdowns and was a Pro Bowl selection. “Grogan, John Hannah, Irving Fryar.’’
The best part for him was the AFC Championship game, in which he raced for 105 yards as the underdog Patriots shocked the Dolphins, 31-14, in the “Squish the Fish’’ game, ending the 0-for-18 Orange Bowl jinx.
James is also an answer to a trivia question: Who gained the first Patriots first down in the team’s first Super Bowl appearance? But overall he gained just a single yard in five carries as MVP Richard Dent and the Chicago Bears smothered the Patriots, 46-10.
Afterward, he just grabbed his shoes and walked to the team hotel with Steve Nelson.
“It was miserable,’’ he said. “I didn’t agree with the game plan. Running got us there and then we didn’t run. Just run the ball. But it showed our fans we could get to a Super Bowl and that we’d be back.’’
He led the Patriots in rushing his first three seasons, but his career was cut short by injuries and he retired after the 1988 season.
At home, James dons his blue jeans, cowboy hat, and boots, and an old Pat Patriot sweatshirt, and retreats to his study. It is lined with a dozen footballs, a “James Gang’’ poster, his old Patriot helmet, a Super Bowl poster, and two prized bucks he shot, one with bow and arrow. George Bush’s autobiography is on his desk. No. 32 is a big fan of No. 43.
As the sun dips low in the big Texas sky, James saddles up his horse, King, and goes for a ride.
“It’s therapeutic,’’ he said with a grin.
He also picks New England to win the Super Bowl, although he acknowledges the Giants are red-hot.
“It’s an emotional thing,’’ he said. “They’ve got Tom Brady and these tight ends that are too good. You’re blessed if you have one. If you go small, they run over you. If you go big, they run by you. They are just too unique.
“I think the Patriots win. I’m old school. That’s my team.’’