Grandmother primes James for success
(From left) Audrey Davis and Notre Dame junior running back Chris James flip through an album of James' football accomplishments on Monday in Chicago. Davis is James' grandmother. | Chandler West~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 2, 2012 6:51AM
GRAYSLAKE — Audrey Davis was not able to see Chris James’ 47-carry, 323-yard performance — which included seven touchdown runs — in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs at Grayslake North because the 71-year-old Chicago resident doesn’t drive on the highway.
However, she’s been there almost every day since James, her grandson, was little.
When James was just 4 years old, his mother died from lingering scar tissue complications following surgery to have her appendix removed. Then, when he was 6 or 7, according to James, his father started spending “less and less time with him” until one day he was no longer around.
That’s when Davis, his paternal grandmother, knew she had to intervene.
“Chris would’ve had to go to a foster home,” said Davis, who is an English teacher at Lake View High School. “I couldn’t bear to see that happen.”
So Davis successfully petitioned the court to become James’ legal guardian.
“Everything happens for a reason,” James said. “If my mother and father had always been in my life, who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have been as motivated to get where I am now. But I use those things as motivation. It makes me work even harder, because I know my mom would be proud of me.”
It wasn’t until sixth grade, when he came home from attending a local Boys & Girls Club, that his interest in football began to show. That’s when James told his grandmother he wanted to play football for the Highridge Chargers youth football team, located in Rogers Park. So she spent $200 in league fees so he could.
“The rest is history,” Davis said with a laugh. “You should see the trophies he’s got from playing football. There’s so many of them, it’s incredible.”
That’s not to say there weren’t bumps in the road along the way. In fact, James wasn’t even viewed as a very good football player at first by some of his coaches.
“I just didn’t understand the fundamentals of football my first year,” James said. “And it didn’t help that I was just 5-foot-2 and about 102 pounds right before junior high.”
But James, who is now 5-11 1/2 and 200 pounds, didn’t give up.
“In sixth grade, I went out for running back, but they didn’t pick me,” James said. “So I ended up playing nose tackle and returning kicks. I was really good at returning kicks. Seventh grade, I lost my position right after the first game.”
James was given a chance to carry the ball the following year after the team’s older running backs had graduated from the program.
“They had no choice but to put me at running back,” James said.
That’s when he caught everyone’s attention.
James said he rushed for 28 touchdowns and led his team to the semifinals of the American Youth Football playoffs. That same season, he was selected to participate in the Under Armour All-American junior game.
But James isn’t bitter about being thwarted early in his career. In fact, he laughs about the situation now.
“People kept asking me why I’d never done that well before (eighth grade),” James said. “And I was like, ‘Because coach, you never gave me the chance.’ ”
Davis knew she had to put James in a situation that would give her grandson the best chance to succeed.
Auggie Genovesi, Davis’ landlord and an assistant football coach at Notre Dame, convinced Davis to enroll James at the college preparatory school.
“Chris wasn’t too happy about the idea at first, for a couple of reasons,” Davis said. “First, it’s obviously a school that has a much different ethnic background than he had been used to growing up.”
James is black, while Notre Dame’s student body is mostly white.
Continued Davis: “But I always told him those things weren’t what mattered. People are people. It’s his education that matters. Secondly, it’s an all-boys school, and Chris loves girls, so he wasn’t too keen on that either.”
James played on the Dons’ sophomore team as a freshman, and last season, started to stand out in his first year at running back for the varsity squad.
“I really grew fast when I got to high school,” James said.
Davis has helped ensure that James is at his best on game day.
“I always try to make sure when I cook for him at home, or when he eats, he’s eating healthy, because I think that’s a big key,” Davis said. “Especially for an athlete who works as hard as he does.”
Each weekday, he gets on a bus at 6 a.m. to head toward school, and doesn’t usually arrive home until at least 7 p.m. During the football season, since he has his final period free, he spends his Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays before football practice doing plyometrics and squats, lifting free weights and doing large numbers of repetitions with lighter weights to build endurance.
He’s needed it.
Playing in the rugged East Suburban Catholic Conference, James has 268 carries for 1,742 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns through Friday’s 46-27 win over Grayslake North. He also has 13 receptions for 247 yards and three touchdowns.
Heading into Friday night’s second-round playoff game against Steinmetz at Hanson Stadium, Notre Dame coach Mike Hennessey makes no secret about the fact his team is putting a lot of weight on James’ shoulders.
“He carries the mail, and the kids up front enjoy blocking for him (because of how successful he is running the ball),” Hennessey said. “It’s a nice marriage. We’ve gone into games with Chris being fully aware that we’re going to rely on him a lot, and he’s done a nice job of stepping up to that challenge.”
Division I programs have taken notice.
“I pick him up every day from the (Bryn Mawr) train station,” Davis said. “And every day when I get home, our mailbox is flooded with letters from colleges, all wanting to talk to Chris. I’ve had to tell him, a lot of the people you encounter are going to have agendas, so you’re gonna have to be careful from now on. But I’ve also told him he has to have his own agenda.”
He’s received letters of interest from programs such as Duke, Oregon, Northwestern, Oklahoma and Arkansas. And no matter what school he winds up choosing, James — who carries a 2.8 grade-point average at Notre Dame — says he plans on studying computer technology as his primary field in college. But he has an even bigger dream. One few kids will ever see become a reality — make it to the NFL.
“It took a lot of hard work for me to get to this point, and I know I’m gonna have to keep working hard if I want to continue to accomplish my goals and dreams,” James said. “And I have to thank my grandmother for all she’s done for me. Yeah, we disagree or argue about stuff sometimes, but no matter what, she’s always been there for me. And that means everything to me.”
His grandmother feels the same way.
“I love Chris so much,” Davis said. “It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been worth every moment.”