Clichés are tired, but they’re often fitting.
Ask Ja’Wuan James. He lived one. His life was once literally turned upside-down.
James, the Dolphins’ first-round pick in the NFL Draft and Ryan Tannehill’s new bodyguard, was just a boy growing up in New Jersey. A friend from the neighborhood owned a miniature motorcycle. James, already big for his age, wanted to give it a try.
Minutes later, he busted through his front door, crying, scraped and breathing heavy.
“He had been coming down the hill, but the bike was too small for him,” said his mother, Nichelle James-Mickens. “He hit the brakes too fast, and it flipped him.”
So yes, the 19th overall pick in the 2014 draft was once head-over-heels, flying through the air — and even worse, without a helmet. It was a small miracle that he wasn’t seriously injured.
But it wasn’t the bumps and bruises alone that upset him. He was more worried about the consequences.
His first words to his mother after the accident: “I broke it, now I’ve got to pay for it.”
If a man must have a code, as The Wire’s Bunk Moreland believed, then James learned his at an early age: Treat others — and their property — with respect.
That credo might have made him a rich man.
In the wake of the Dolphins’ bullying scandal, the team was determined to replace its toxic offensive line with “quality” people — the term general manager Dennis Hickey used to describe James shortly after selecting him May 8. By all accounts, James is just that — and part of the reason the Dolphins took him as high as they did.
If sports in the 21st century have taught us anything, it’s that nobody truly knows anyone. Teams are littered with character issues — many unexpected. All scouts and coaches can go by are a player’s personal history and the words of those who know him best.
Here are a few of James’ best references:
• Mother, James-Mickens: “We taught him accountability and responsibility for his actions. It’s stayed with him most of his life. … He’s always been a good decision maker. I’m not saying he’s perfect, but for the most part, he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
• Tennessee coach, Butch Jones: “He has great demeanor about himself. When I talk about consistency and performance, that’s Ja’Wuan. He’s never too high, never too low. You know what you’re getting with Ja’Wuan each and every day. He’ll always have a smile on his face.”
• Agent, Bill Johnson: “He has all the tools to be productive and exceptional in the league. There is not a single red flag that I could uncover, or anyone could share. He has great family upbringing without being soft.”
‘Right kind of stuff’
Any doubts about his toughness should have been erased in January at the Senior Bowl, an all-star showcase for NFL-bound prospects. James was an excellent collegiate player, starting 49 consecutive games. He earned second-team all-Southeastern Conference honors.
Still, James was viewed as a second- or third-round pick, in a tier below the elite. He knew the Senior Bowl was his chance to stand out. Fate had other plans. He sprained his knee — an injury that would have knocked most anyone out of commission.
“He wanted to keep playing. [Senior Bowl executive director] Phil Savage had to take his helmet away,” said Johnson, who, along with business partner Pat Dye, also represents Tannehill. “As a player and a competitor, he wanted to push forward. I knew right then, he was the right guy with the right kind of stuff.”
For that, he can thank his mother, a human resources manager who moved the family from New Jersey to Atlanta when her son was in middle school.
Basketball was James’ sport as a youth. But James’ heart wasn’t always in it. His effort wasn’t what it should have been during one game, and Mom let him know about it.
“Don’t stand here taking up space,” she told him. “You need to make a difference. If you’re not going to give it your all, give the uniform to someone who will.”
And according to James-Mickens, he has ever since.
Giving it his all
The lesson carried with him when he was the new kid in town, and switched from basketball to football because that’s what kids play in the South.
It helped earn him a slew of scholarship offers, including one to the University of Tennessee he ultimately accepted.
It kept him in Knoxville for all four years, even though the team had more head coaches (three) during that time than bowl appearances (one).
James was tempted to jump to the NFL last year. His good friend and fellow lineman Dallas Thomas had exhausted his eligibility (the Dolphins, coincidentally, took Thomas in the 2013 draft). And the Volunteers were starting over with yet another coach — Butch Jones.
And yet, James stayed, and got his degree in arts and sciences.
“Right away, he and I formed this special bond, this special trust,” Jones said. “He has an extremely open mind about change. He embraces change.”
All along, James hoped the Dolphins would draft him. When they did, he sent Jones a text of gratitude. Characteristically, it was full of humility, the coach said.
Another story his agent likes to tell: the ladies in Johnson’s firm took a maternal liking to James during the draft process. He made it a point to wish them all a happy Mother’s Day last weekend. They don’t have kids.
Of course, none of this will matter to Dolphins fans if James doesn’t perform well. Danny Watkins was one of the nicest people in Miami’s locker room last year, but he never saw the field because he couldn’t block.
The Dolphins clearly believe James can. He was just one of five tackles in this year’s draft assigned a first-round grade by Miami. The Dolphins stayed at No. 19 to draft James, partially because they were concerned that he wouldn’t be available if they moved back.
They need him to play like a first-round pick. Tannehill can’t survive another 58-sack season.
But James told the Miami Herald he wants to be far better than adequate. He wants to be one of the all-time greats at his position.
“That’s definitely a goal,” James said. “I was taught to focus more on the right now, focus on the process, and the end goal will take care of itself. As long as I can work as hard as I can every day, or work on the things that I need to, I’ll like the results in the future.”
Mom has one more piece of advice: stay off the motorcycles.