Craig James Busts Loose : Eric Dickerson's Former SMU Running Mate Has Become a Star for Patriots

Times Staff Writer

The other SMU tailback finally made it to Hollywood, or at least to a hotel in Orange County across the street from the Magic Kingdom.

This is, of course, Eric Dickerson's turf, and visiting is Eric Dickerson's one-time co-tailback, Craig James of the New England Patriots, whose fame and fortune have long since been eclipsed by the other half of the Pony Express.

James is the small, slow, poor, unaccomplished former Mustang tailback. That means only that he can't match Dickerson's 6 feet 3 inches or 218 pounds, or Dickerson's 4.4 40-yard dashes, 2,000-yard season or $1-million-a-year contract.

James is 6-2, 210. Between his old USFL contract and his present one, he is getting by on $800,000 a year. He just finished a 1,227-yard season, second highest in Patriot history and all the more remarkable because he spent six games fighting his usual battle to get noticed, in which time he was held by enemy defenses and Patriot game plans to 294 yards.

And run?

At SMU, he once went 96 yards on a pass reception, the Southwest Conference record. This season, he went 90 yards on a reception to score against the Bears. He ran 65 yards for a touchdown against the Packers and 57 against the Jets.

"People find it hard to believe I can run," James said. "O.J. (Simpson) was laughing about it. I had a chance to meet him a couple of weeks ago, and he told me I wasn't a--what'd he call it?--dump truck. He said, 'Usually white running backs are dump trucks.'

"My college time, with college coaches timing me, I ran a 4.41. Then I got to the pros where they have a lot quicker fingers. I'd say I'm a consistent 4.55 and I can run 4.5. Eric is always 4.4, 4.45.

"He and I grew up within 30 minutes of each other. He was just outside Houston, in Sealy. I decided for SMU before my senior year in high school. Eric teased everybody around the country down to the last moment.

"He really liked USC, but it was too far from Sealy. That's a long way for a country boy to go. I always used to kid him that they were still driving horse-drawn carriages around in Sealy.

"We both knew what was going on. I turned down a baseball career out of high school. I think our first year, you know, we had to mature and get used to the situation. It was tougher on us. After that, we never had a problem.

"We were the tailback. We had a fullback who just rammed it up in there. We rotated starting and alternated series. It was up to us. The coaches never said when we should go in. We had a great friendship. There was never any jealousy. It was competitive. I know inside, we worked harder because of the competition.

"When he came here, Coach (John) Robinson put him in the same situation he was in at SMU. He was the man. He was the featured guy. He knew he was going to carry the ball. It was going to be the toss off tackle, the draw, the type of things he'd always done.

"He never missed a beat. He picked up in the NFL where he left off in college. There's no telling what he'd have done if he'd been the only running back at SMU.

"Did I realize what I was up against? I don't think I ever had time to really stop and think about it. I knew he was a great player. I always appreciated what he did. But I never was intimidated by him. At that time, I was bigger than he was. I was 220, 223. He was always 215, 218."

Did Dickerson realize what he was up against? At Houston's Stratford High, James ran for 2,411 yards and 35 touchdowns in his senior season and was Texas AAAA player of the year. He turned down an offer from the Philadelphia Phillies. His brother, Chris, accepted one and is on the Phillies' 40-man roster. Craig punted at SMU one year, averaging 44.9 yards a kick, sixth in the nation.

When he left SMU, he'd gained 3,742 yards, third in Southwest Conference history only to Earl Campbell and Dickerson.

OK, time for them to turn pro. The Rams traded up for the second pick in the '83 draft and got Dickerson.

James was already gone, to the USFL's Washington Federals, who had given him about two million good reasons.

"I had a great idea where I'd have gone in the NFL," James said. "Joe Walsh, er, Bill Walsh wanted me. I'd have gone to the 49ers. They were drafting 13th."

James lasted a year-and-a-half in the USFL. That wasn't much less than the Federals lasted.

So he went north to New England, where his old college coach, Ron Meyer, had secured his rights. Everything was perfect, except for one tiny detail.

"(Meyer) and I are good friends but he was afraid of the players feeling that favoritism was being shown," James said. "I know what he was faced with. It was a tough situation. I told him I understood the situation but I never accepted it."

He didn't have to. In the middle of the season, the Patriots replaced Meyer with Raymond Berry. James started the last seven games, gained 790 yards and led the team in rushing.

Having shown the new coach what he could do, he became an established part of the offense, just like Eric, right?


Berry junked Meyer's one-back offense this season and went to two. Tony Collins was the halfback, James the fullback.

"I heard fullback and I thought fullback! " James said. "The traditional line em up and blow 'em out.

Convinced otherwise, James made it through three games before the Patriots got to the Raiders. In that one, he got his 12th carry late in the third period, with the Patriots clinging to a 20-14 lead. Brad Van Pelt stripped him, Lyle Alzado recovered in the end zone and the Raiders won.

James carried no more and exploded afterward. The ultra-placid Berry wasn't happy about it.

"I was just upset," James said. "I was hot after the game. Hey, if I'm going to be out there playing, give me a chance to do something, you know? I'm not a cocky guy. I don't do things for personal reasons. If I'm going to play, I know I can help, but give me the chance."

Two weeks later, Steve Grogan replaced the injured Tony Eason and started calling his own plays. More of them were runs, and a lot of those had James carrying. In the last 10 games, James went over 100 yards four times, and 90 three others.

So Craig James came to Southern California, a featured player, too, although still willing to concede what's-his-name pre-eminence in some things.

"I have a phone call in to Eric right now," James said. "We're going to get some Mexican food. I used to have to buy dinner when we were in school. Now he's gonna buy."

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