At 16-years-old, Robert James was an unhappy cornerback at Maryvale High School in Glendale, Ariz.. In fact, he was so disgruntled he almost walked away from the game during his junior year. But eventually he learned to embrace the defensive side of the ball, and sticking with it has paid off. A fifth-round pick in April’s NFL draft, James is now fighting for a spot on the Atlanta Falcons depth chart. He spoke with Times sports editor Brent Holloway recently about his football history, overcoming concussion migraines and his family in Mississippi.
Question: You came into college as a DB, right?
Answer: Yeah, I came in as a safety. I played receiver, cornerback and safety in high school and I got recruited as a safety. Then after I got to Arizona State and redshirted, they moved me to linebacker. I was just 190 pounds, but I kind of liked it. I had played cornerback in high school when we were playing a team with a top receiver; I would just go out and bump him and play man, but other than that I was a strong safety. I was in the box, though, so it was kind of like another linebacker anyway. So I got in there in college and they taught me how to read the plays and read the guards, and I just put on weight and started to get a better concept of the game.
Q: After battling to get a starting spot your first few years in college, at this time last year did you think you’d be where you are now, working with an NFL team?
A: At this time last year I was in Mississippi training with my dad. We went and looked at some lots and some properties out there and I was like, ‘I gotta get one of these dad.’ So I set my goals for the season: I said, ‘I’m going to get over 100 tackles, I’m going to get five interceptions and I’m going to be first team All Pac-10.’ I thought if I did that, maybe I’d be able to go somewhere as a free agent or something. So I got over 100 tackles, I got four interceptions, but I did go first team All Pac-10. Now I’m here and I’m just trying to get better every day.
Q: You had played quite a bit in your career, but to what do you attribute your ability to go out and achieve those goals as a senior?
A: I became a better student of the game. My sophomore year I was playing linebacker and I’d never played linebacker before, so I didn’t really know ‘stack, I’ve A gap; under I’ve got B gap,’ you know? I was just out there playing. So after the year I’d go back and watch the film, and I’d be like, ‘what am I doing?’ Then my junior year, I thought that was going to be my breakout year, and when I got in I did good, but I couldn’t ever get in a groove. But I really became more of a student of the game before my senior year. I had a better feel for what was happening when the linemen were pulling and what the opponents were trying to do against us.
Q: I understand you had some problems with concussion migraines. How scary was that for you?
A: It was a very scary situation. Coming into my junior year, I was the linebacker with the most experience on the team, but in practice I strained my hamstring. So I came back and I was playing, but I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to be, and they moved me to (middle linebacker), and I was frustrated about that. But then I was like, ‘just forget it. Where ever they play me, I’m just going to do my best at it.’ So I came out and was practicing, and I got a concussion on a Tuesday. But I was like, ‘I’m not telling them anything, because I’m not playing enough as it is.’ So I played with it for like three weeks, and it just got worse. Then, as a result of that, I ended up missing the end of my junior year, so it was very frustrating. I wanted to play and show my toughness, but nothing good came out of it.
Q: When did you start playing football?
A: When I was eight years old — Pop Warner football in South Phoenix. I was always an offensive player up until high school. I was always a running back. Then they moved me to cornerback my sophomore year (of high school) and I was like, ‘what is this?’ I actually wanted to quit my junior year because I wanted to play running back and I wasn’t getting any chances. But I kept playing corner and hitting and hitting when they ran the ball against us, so the coach moved me to strong safety. Since then, I’ve just loved defense.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your family.
A: I’ve got a son. His name is Robert James III and he’s two. He’s in Mississippi right now, and he’s a bad little rascal; real physical. When I first got him, before he could even walk I was wrestling with him and playing with him and tugging on him. And now he’s just real physical, tackling other kids when they’re playing and stuff. We’ve got to get him signed up for football real soon so he can get that aggression out.
Q: So what’s in Mississippi?
A: My dad, my brother, my son’s mother and my aunts and everybody lives there. My mom lives in Arizona — I have six sisters and two brothers. Pretty much, my grandma moved to Mississippi, and all her kids came to visit her and liked it and ended up moving there. Good eating down there. I gotta stay away from it or they’ll be moving me to defensive end.