Mike James arrived at the University of Miami as a running back with a smile so radiant, an attitude so positive and a work ethic so unflinching that his teammates couldn’t help but be drawn to him.
That he has endured excruciating heartache in his four-year journey and come through it with those same attributes speaks to the character of the man he has become in his 21 years — and the woman who brought him into the world and raised him.
Elgusta James was 47 years old on Dec. 20, 2010, when she was ejected from the front passenger seat of a Ford Explorer that had been struck in the rear of the driver’s side by a Toyota Corolla. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Mike’s older sister Jasmine — the driver — was pregnant. Jasmine broke her arm and sustained a neck injury. Her then-5-year-old son Jayden — Mike’s nephew — broke his jaw in three places and was in a coma-induced state for five days before making what doctors told Jasmine was a “miraculous” recovery.
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Jasmine’s unborn baby, Lauren Elgusta Ansley, is now a healthy 1-year-old.
Elgusta James was a football junkie and devoted mother who would drive with Jasmine to every one of Mike’s games, no matter how far, then by Monday be back at work as a site manager for an after-school program. She watched and played and talked football constantly with her son, who has spent the past 20 months getting through his loss day by day.
Their father “was in and out of our lives, so you could say we were raised by a single parent,” said Jasmine James Ansley, 27, who teaches math at James’ alma mater, Ridge Community High in Haines City. “She did an excellent job. Looking back on some of the things we’ve gone through, remembering conversations, seeing pictures and holding little artifacts, finding books she wrote our names in and songs we wrote together, it’s almost hard to put into words.
“But I know she made us strong individuals, and now we realize how well she prepared us. I honestly didn’t know if Mike would be able to stick it out this long, but he’s been as strong as I could have ever imagined.”
James the football player, who will begin his senior season Saturday at Boston College, would love nothing more than to end his four years with the Hurricanes as successfully as James the man. Though he is as much a team player as anyone who wears the green and orange, James would savor the opportunity to break out as an individual and make it to the NFL. For now, he understands that to get there, it’s all about what he can do for the Hurricanes, his second family.
One thing matters: wins
“People are looking my way and I’m doing the best I can to take those expectations, turn them into opportunities — and conquer,” said James, who rushed for 275 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns last season in the shadow of current Miami Dolphins rookie Lamar Miller. “I have to run hard, finish games and put the Miami Hurricanes in the best situation to win.
“Mike James’ stats don’t matter, [quarterback] Stephen Morris’ stats don’t matter, [linebacker] Denzel Perryman’s tackles don’t matter, [cornerback] Brandon McGee’s interceptions don’t matter. The only thing that matters is [wins].”
Coming out of high school, James was rated the 18th-best running back prospect by Scout.com and No. 21 by Rivals.com. He rushed for 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior, and returned one punt and two kickoffs for touchdowns. He played most of his UM freshman year at fullback, then returned to tailback in 2010, rushing for 398 yards and three touchdowns for a 5.7-yard-per-carry average.
Last year, James played all season with turf toe, but neither complained nor mentioned it to the media. He and Miller dubbed themselves “Smash and Dash,” saying they would each surpass 1,000 yards rushing. Only Miller succeeded. So James, the 2011 UM strength training athlete of the year, vowed to do what made the most sense: get better. He rehabilitated his foot and built his already powerful body into an even sturdier machine. His bench press went from 375 pounds to 400, his squat from 500 to 523 and his power clean from 310 to 320.
“I’m in the best shape of my life,” he said.
With Miller gone, James — who also has good hands — will start the season as the featured back. Close behind: junior Eduardo Clements, freshman phenom Randy Duke Johnson and redshirt freshman Dallas Crawford.
“Mike is faster and more physical than he’s ever been,” UM offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said. “We’ve always known he takes great pride in how he finishes plays and the passion he plays with, but he is seeing the game really well. His vision has been excellent.”
James’ teammates and coaches say they have been inspired not only by the improvement in his play, but also by his mental toughness and leadership. Clements said the running backs are among the closest of position groups.
“Every day we go in the meeting room and it’s fun,” Clements said. “Duke brings a lot of energy because he’s just like us, down to earth and funny. Dallas, too. In our room, it’s all help. If somebody does something wrong, we help him. If somebody does something right, we applaud him. It’s all love with the running backs.”
When James’ mother died just days before the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, Clements sent a text message to his friend and told him he loved him and was there for him. “He texted me back and said, ‘I love you, too, bro. Thank you.’
“He’s always had an amazing attitude. We’ve been there for each other through everything.”
UM coach Al Golden believes James “has all the tools” to succeed on the field and said that James inspires him. “Extraordinary person,” Golden said. “They say a negative attitude is contagious. I think a positive attitude and someone that brings energy and passion and respect and humility every day like he does can be equally as infectious. He’s a blessing for the Miami program right now.”
James’ sister, who gave birth to Jennifer on July 31, will be at Mike’s first home game Sept. 15 against Bethune-Cookman. Mike’s aunts and uncles will be there, too.
Grieving on the field
People still talk about how James missed his mother’s funeral to play in the 2010 Sun Bowl. Both were at the same time on the same day. Jasmine, closer than ever with Mike, said she completely understood.
“You can’t tell someone how to grieve,” Jasmine said. “Football has allowed him to get back to doing what he loves and what he and my mom did together. It allows him to find some connection.”
A few months later, James explained his decision to play in the bowl game. “I knew the relationship my mom and I had and what she would have wanted me to do,” he said. “And personally, I don’t think I could see her like that for the last time.”
James now has two tattoos on the front of his left biceps, one with a reproduced image of his mother holding him as a child — it says “Mama’s Boy” — and the other of an angel’s wings.
He said the memory of his mother drives him.
“I knew that quitting was not an option,” James said. “She instilled a lot of great things in me — hard work, honesty and loyalty, and that’s what I try to display in everything I do.”