IMMOKALEE — When his glistening bust was formally unveiled – complete with trademark dreads, I was already trembling. And by the time former Indianapolis Colts star running back Edgerrin James finished his from-the-heart acceptance speech, tears were flowing. It took extra concentration just to hold the video camera steady.
At last, it was official. No more ifs or whens. A moment of relief. James stood among football’s immortals, a most improbable journey complete.
Though time restrictions didn’t allow James’s entire success story to be told, my having chronicled it from the time he first suited at Immokalee High School made his hall of fame induction especially striking.
Looking back, it was nearly impossible to grasp the full measure of his accomplishment.
Immokalee, Florida: a migrant town, a melting pot of minorities struggling each and every day to endure. A kid from a large family and a cramped house, who, aside from his “man among boys” athleticism, had nothing much to brag about. Not that “Edge” ever was the braggadocios type.
Many contributed to his success: his mom, a steadfast figure in the school cafeteria, his coaches, an unrelenting high school guidance counselor who made him understand the value of a college education and steered him through the tedious paperwork for enrollment at the University of Miami.
Much of his success can be attributed to a work ethic that would lift him to the pinnacle of a vocation that would provide a comfort zone for family members present and future.
“If everybody did their job, the world would be a better place,” James said in his well-structured speech, articulated center stage at Tom Benson Stadium.
Not bad at all from a private guy who never sought the spotlight, who never wanted to be a public figure. A workhorse who passed up millions by turning down endorsements and who had never delivered a public appearance anything close to the one he pulled off with all those other legends wearing gold jackets monitoring every word; And let us not forget a national television audience.
Those who know James best know that all he really ever wanted to do was his job: play football and build a future for the people within his private circle. Clearly, the Colts, having released Marshall Faulk prior to the start of training camp, were banking on big things from James.
Yes, there’s a bias in play here. And to my way of thinking, James’s far-reaching message was the most riveting of all the abbreviated speeches delivered during back-to-back nights of Enshrinement Week orations.
The stimulating occasion reminded me of something one learns as a life-long journalist: no matter how good a story seems, there is, almost without fail, a backstory just as engaging.
Before there was Edgerrin James in Immokalee, before there was Edgerrin James at UM, before there was Edgerrin James ripping through would-be tacklers and blocking for Peyton Manning in Indy’s RCA Dome, and before there was Edgerrin James in Canton, there was another young man of similar circumstance and stature who paved the way.
A warrior named Albert Bentley preceded James’ noteworthy foray into gridiron greatness. A few years earlier, Bentley also had graduated from Immokalee High, moving on to forge new horizons at the University of Miami as a mere walk-on.
“They gave me jersey number 69,” Bentley joked during his induction into UM’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. “I guess they didn’t think I’d be around long.”
Like James, Bentley showed the naysayers a thing or two. In his third season as a Hurricane, he was awarded a full scholarship after the spring of 1982. Coach Howard Schnellenbeger named then No. 16 the starting halfback for the 1983 season -- a season that will never be forgotten by Hurricanes fans.
Though Bentley’s overall numbers paled in comparison to James, he led the ‘83 Canes with 722 yards rushing on 144 attempts (5 yards per carry average) and five touchdowns. He also caught 32 passes for 294 yards and another touchdown. Always wanting to contribute in any way possible, Bentley returned five kickoffs for 74 yards.
In the 1984 Orange Bowl Classic national championship game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Bentley had his usual all-around outstanding performance, with 46 yards on 10 carries, three receptions for 36 yards and a 24-yard kickoff return. But his most important contribution was scoring on a 7-yard touchdown run to put Miami in the lead, 31-17. That trip to paydirt proved to be the winning touchdown as the Canes held off a furious Husker comeback to win the game, 31-30 and claim the school's first football national championship.
A determined Bentley spent two years in the United States Football League and then, having been chosen by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1984 National Football League Supplemental Draft, he went on to play eight NFL seasons – seven as a Colt -- amassing 2,350 rushing yards, 2,250 receiving yards and 3,200 kickoff return yards.
It could be said that had Bentley not boldly barged through the door, James might never have experienced a college/pro career for the ages. Bentley put Immokalee on football’s map when previously, recruiters rarely ventured farther inland than Lake Okeechobee neighbors Clewiston, Pahokee and Belle Glade.
One man who witnessed the evolution was John Weber, who coached football 14 years at the alma mater of Bentley, James, and a gaggle of others who have made it to Sundays in the big-time. Among them are current Cleveland Browns utility running back D’Ernest Johnson and defensive back J.C. Jackson of the New England Patriots. IHS grad/defensive lineman Deadrin Senat was waived this week by the Atlanta Falcons because of injury.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of visits we had to our school every year. We had more coaches come through than any other school in the area,” Weber said Monday. He guided the Indians to a 2004 state championship and undefeated regular seasons in 2000 and 2006. For 11 years, Weber worked Coach Bobby Bowden’s summer camps in Tallahassee.
So it was with tattered emotions that Weber watched the recent festivities in Canton, reveling in James’s enshrinement while lamenting the weekend death of the 91-year-old Bowden.
“I considered Bobby a good friend,” Weber said. “He taught me a lot. He was a great coach and an even better man.”
Like Bentley, James, and Bowden, Weber joined underachieving programs and helped turn them into winners.
“I started with gold teeth and ended with a gold jacket,” James said at the conclusion of his HOF homily.