TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -What to make of an NFL running back who looks fitter the longer his career stretches out and fresher the more hits he absorbs?
Consider ``The Curious Case of Edgerrin James.''
One look at the Arizona Cardinals' 30-year-old running back, on paper or in person, would make you think he has a nutritionist whipping up every meal, a personal trainer following him around and a team of health professionals on 24-hour call. Not even close.
James boasts the same lean, sculpted muscles, gaudy stats and durability that were the hallmarks of many of pro football's best all-purpose backs. But the story of how he came by those things - and how 'The Edge' stays razor-sharp a decade after leaving college early and winning the rushing title in his rookie year with the Indianapolis Colts - does not include the usual cast of characters.
no bones or excuses about it. James grew up in Immokalee, a town of 20,000 some three hours south of where the Super Bowl will be played Sunday, in a family with several addicts. He spent backbreaking summers working alongside several more, harvesting watermelons at $20 a truckload.
James said a few years ago that's why, when he showed up at the University of Miami to begin his college career, ``I was hardened in every way.'' Besides, when you do your best conditioning work at 3 a.m., as he has been doing ever since college, pickings can be slim.
``You find some interesting people at that hour,'' James said, ``and they're plenty happy for the chance to make a few bucks.''
Running with crackheads? Makes sense, maybe. Having them spot you while bench-pressing a 400-pound barbell? Not so much.
But James laughed off the idea that could be dangerous. ``Everybody knows me because I'm around so much. ... Racking weights, spotting me, doing the things I need is not a problem.''
Neither, apparently is finding a meal at that hour.
Toward the end of his appearance at media day, a reporter from a children's TV network asked James to list what comprised his own nutritional game-day breakfast as a way of getting viewers off to a healthy start each morning.
lpful, James added a moment later, ``But I like to have a nice late-night meal.''
That erratic schedule, coupled with all the punishment a feature back like James takes, is hardly the only reason many people doubted he'd last this long. More than a few thought James was done when he left the Colts the season before they won the Super Bowl. And his critics note he was so lightly used in the second half of the season, being benched after losing the starting job to rookie Tim Hightower, that James' resurgence in the regular-season finale against Seattle, and in playoff wins over Charlotte and Philadelphia, should have come as no surprise.
What all of them underestimated was his desire.
Because of his contributions over seven seasons in Indianapolis, the Colts sent him a Super Bowl ring after their win in 2006. He accepted it gratefully, but would rather have one he earned on his own.
``You've tried to put yourself in a position to be in games like this, and it didn't happen. It's not that I didn't do something, or that I didn't work hard enough, or that I didn't put up enough numbers. It's just,'' James said, pausing, ``that everything has to work out.''
To a man, teammates call James an inspiration and one of the hardest workers on the squad, even though most still marvel at how much he accomplishes out of their sight.
``He's always willing to teach and share things, and he's got knowledge of every single business, skill, hustle - whatever you can name,'' Hightower said. ``Everything.''
What lesson stood out the most?
``How to be a pro, how to carry myself,'' Hightower replied. ``But I feel I'm doing a disservice to compare myself to him. He's already earned his. I've got a long way to go to earn mine.''
Hightower will get his first real opportunity to do just that, and James will get the chance he's waited for after accomplishing everything else a running back can: two rushing titles, four Pro Bowl selections and nearly an entire page in the Colts' record book.
His resurgence at the end of the season came as the Cardinals realized they would have to balance an offense built around veteran quarterback Kurt Warner's arm with some power on the ground. They'll need James and Hightower to pile up carries and yards to have any hope of slowing Pittsburgh's fearsome pass rush.
Willie Parker, James' counterpart on the Steelers, would be surprised by anything less.
``He's a guy I've looked up to,'' Parker said, ``because he's been doing it so well for so long. And believe me, I know a little bit about what it's like, because you take a lot of hits in this job.''
y in his career for his dreadlocks, gold tooth (since removed) and his rough past. So while no one had to ask who owned the sparkling white Lamborghini parked in the driveway of the Cardinals' hotel, that's about as wild and crazy as James gets these days.
``I really don't drive, I'm always in the passenger seat,'' he protested, chuckling, ``But I said if I ever get to the Super Bowl, I was going to do something I wouldn't normally do.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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