Heart Over Height

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Plenty of people have lost a job before. I just happen to be one of the few who lost his on national TV.

You might know me as that guy who was on last year’s Hard Knocks with the Texans. I was the defensive back with the jokes and the silly socks.

On the show, I was portrayed as an underdog — the guy with no shot of making the team. I was quick, aggressive and … just a little too small. Story of my life. Regardless, I left it all out there on the field. I made plays and even saw a little action at running back. Hell, I even ran 73 yards for a touchdown in a preseason game against the Saints. The play was called back for a holding penalty, but it was still dope.

In the end, none of that mattered. My fate with the team was determined by the fact that I didn’t have long enough arms and legs. I know that because I got to watch the conversation between Bill O’Brien, the coach, and Rick Smith, the GM, when they decided to let me go. Reality TV is something, man.

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Many people might have thought my story ended when I was sitting in Coach O’Brien’s office and he told me that the team was going to release me. I was happy with how I responded. I kept my cool and thanked him for the opportunity.

But in the back of my mind? I was straight pissed. Of course I was. This wasn’t the first time I’d been told I was too small. I’ve been hearing that shit my whole life. And I think that’s why I was able to hold my head high in that office, because this wasn’t new to me.

I understand that God hadn’t blessed me with the measurements that most football coaches look for. But I also absolutely understand what God had given me: A personal drive that’s always helped me to overcome my shortcomings.

My story began long before I stepped foot in Houston for training camp. In fact, if you knew my whole story, you’d know that it was a small miracle that I ever made it to an NFL training camp in the first place.

Apostrophe_Break

 

You know, I can still hear them laughing at me.

That’s what other people do when they’re scared of your ambition. They laugh at you so they can feel better about themselves.

I was an 18-year-old freshman at Charleston Southern, sitting in the cafeteria with my friend, Gerald Young, who was a star receiver on the football team. I was not a star on the football team. In fact, I wasn’t on the team at all. But that didn’t stop me from ticking off my career goals to Gerald while we were eating lunch.

“First, I’m gonna get my scholarship. Then I’m gonna start. Then I’ll get all-conference, and then I’m gonna break all the DB records as a corner.”

Some of the older guys on the team heard me talking and started cracking up. They thought I was a joke. Like, This freshman ain’t shit.

I get it. They didn’t know who the hell I was. They didn’t know the sacrifices I’d already made just to be sitting in that cafeteria.

They never saw me play for Mandarin High in Jacksonville, where I played on the same team as future college and NFL stars — and was on their level every single day. They weren’t there when I was standing in line at the post office, waiting to mail tapes to every school in the country, and then personally following up with a phone call to make sure the school had gotten my package. They didn’t see my frustration when no schools took a chance on me, even as a walk-on. And they didn’t know I had taken out $40,000 in loans just for the opportunity to attend Charleston Southern and attempt to convince the football coaches there that I was worth a look.

They didn’t know who the hell I was. They didn’t know the sacrifices I’d already made just to be sitting in that cafeteria.

I think my desire to prove people wrong has always been my greatest strength, because my entire life I’ve been told there are things I can’t do. Coaches and players alike have always dismissed my abilities as a football player as soon as they got a look at me. I lack “the measurables,” as they say. Whatever, man.

I’ve never let the opinion of others dictate my goals because, in my mind, I’ve always known that I’m good enough. You see, when there’s a big divide between what other people think you’re capable of and what you know you’re capable of, you’re going to have to put up with some bullshit.

But in the end, if you can prove them wrong and gain their respect, it’s all worth it. The truth is, my measurables are off the charts. You just have to look really closely to see them.

I’d never even been to South Carolina before I decided to attend Charleston Southern. I wasn’t even invited to be a walk-on there.

My thought process went like this.

  1. My friend was going and I trusted his opinion.
  2. I was offered admission
  3. They had a football team.

That was all I knew. It was on me to figure it out from there. So I took out some loans and packed my clothes, my Xbox and a couple of pairs of cleats, and went on my way.

My first year on campus I needed to get my academics in order, and so I focused on that. Honestly, it was brutal. It was the first time since I had been a really little kid that I didn’t play football. But I attended every single home game that year just to sit in the stands and watch the guys playing corner. I measured them up and envisioned myself out there playing. I could do it. I knew I could do it.

At the beginning of my sophomore year, I got invited to training camp. There was no guarantee that I’d make the team, or even that I’d get to walk on — it was just an invite. When camp opened, I found myself at No. 8 on the cornerback depth chart. Perfect. When I saw that I was like, Somebody in trouble. Because I didn’t just want to make the team, I wanted a scholarship. More accurately, I needed a scholarship. I didn’t want to take out any more damn loans. And it was around that time that I had been sitting with Gerald in the cafeteria listing out my goals, only to hear those guys laughing at me.

I didn’t try to check them or anything like that. I just took it in and thought to myself O.K., that’s what’s up. And in a small way, I think I was thankful to have heard them, because now I knew exactly what I had to do to shut them up.

I was on the sideline most of the time during the first few practices. I mean, reps are hard to come by when you’re eighth on the depth chart. So I waited and waited — then one guy gets injured, and then another guy gets benched for taking plays off, and suddenly I was on the field.

I played like my life was on the line those first few reps. I was balling out, man.

Somebody in trouble.…

I remember I played like my life was on the line those first few reps. I was balling out, man. I deflected some passes, even got a pick. And suddenly, I got moved up to the scout team. And I’m like, Oh shit! They should not have let me show what I can do! I ain’t ever coming off this field!

On the scout team, my job was to make the offense look bad. Period. So that’s what I did. The quarterback would see this walk-on and try to go after me. And I busted their asses. I tried so hard to make picks and bat down balls. If I had an opening, I laid people out. And each day, I inched a little further up the depth chart.

Near the end of camp our coach, Jay Mills, gathered the team around and made an announcement. It was something I’ll never forget.

He sat us down and said, “Guys, I’m big on rewarding hard work. And this guy’s been working his butt off. Charles James, you’ve earned yourself a scholarship. Not only that, you’ve earned yourself a starting spot on this football team.”

I was in shock. Just utter shock.

And just like that, nobody was laughing anymore.

Apostrophe_Break

 

I was happy to have gotten the scholarship (also my bank account was happy; no more loans — Yeaaah, boy!), but that really was just the start. Now the real work was about to begin.

The first game of my college career was at The Swamp against Florida.

By that point, I was very familiar with the Gators not only because I had grown up a Florida fan, but also because I played with them all the time in NCAA Football on Xbox. Remember that game? It was so sick. In that year’s game, the Gators were basically a cheat code. They had Tebow, who couldn’t be tackled, and Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps at running back — the two fastest players in the game. They were a truly legendary video-game team.

But the video-game experience was a little different than being on the field for the first play of my college career, with thousands of fans screaming. And then my coach called a corner blitz I was like, Really? Fortunately, I didn’t have much time to think about it. When the ball was snapped, I put my head down and went after it. I gave Tebow my best Hit Stick impression. Holy hell, he’s a big dude. I remember I hit him and brought him to the ground just as he released the ball, and it felt like I tackled concrete. He completed the pass and tapped me on the helmet: “Good hit.”

And like that, I was officially a college football player.

I got better with each week I played my redshirt freshman season and my confidence continued to grow. For four years, I matched up against the other team’s best receiver in every single game. And just like I always knew, none of them were that much better than me. Of course, early in my college career a quarterback might see me lined up across from a taller receiver and think it was a mismatch, and so they’d throw it my way. That didn’t happen for long. My sophomore season, I was near the top of the nation in picks. Now I wasn’t just a real college football player, I was an FCS All-American.

At that point, I started thinking, Why the hell can’t I play in the NFL one day? Pretty much everyone had been wrong about me not being cut out for college football. Why couldn’t I take it up one more level?

I put in paperwork with the NFL after my junior year to find out where I was projected to go in the draft, and got back a grade of late round/undrafted. I decided to stay in school one more season, and Coach Mills decided to put off his retirement by one year so he could coach me as a senior. That meant a whole lot. It was a gesture I’ll always appreciate. Unfortunately that season didn’t go like I’d hoped. I fractured my hand against Stony Brook in our fifth game and wasn’t able to put up the numbers I knew I was capable of.

I started thinking, Why the hell can’t I play in the NFL one day? Pretty much everyone had been wrong about me not being cut out for college football. Why couldn’t I take it up one more level?

Even though I was an All-American and a three-time all-conference player, and broke the school record for career interceptions, I wasn’t invited to the NFL combine. It was the same old shit I’d been told my whole life: I wasn’t tall enough to compete.

I watched the 2013 draft at home with my mom, stepdad and brother. There wasn’t any party. I figured I would get drafted, but I also figured it would be a long wait. So I sat there and watched a bunch of cornerbacks — most of them with fewer interceptions and accolades than me — get taken off the board one by one.

Then, sometime in the fifth round, my phone rings. It’s the Bears. Oh shit.

“Hello, Charles, this is [so-and-so] with the Chicago Bears. How are you doing?”

I’m jumping up and down in my living room.

“Good! It’s good, man! A little better now that you guys are calling!”

“Well Charles, we got a pick coming up and, you know, hopefully you could be that guy.”

And I don’t hesitate; I’m like, Yeah!

I’m ready. I start picturing myself in that Bears uniform, balling out at Soldier Field. It’s perfect. What a dream.

Then the Bears pick flashes across the screen and I hold my breath.

It’s an offensive lineman.

I didn’t realize NFL teams could mess with guys like that. I thought maybe it was a mistake or something. So I tried to call the guy back. No answer. Never heard from him again.

The exact same thing happened again with the Jaguars in the seventh round. I got a call saying that they were interested, but then, nothing.

Twenty-nine corners were drafted that year, and I wasn’t one of them. Yeah, I was pissed, but I was also determined. It was just like when those guys in the cafeteria laughed at me. Now I knew what was up, and it was on me to prove everybody wrong.

It was actually really interesting after the draft was over because I had six teams trying to sign me as an undrafted free agent. It was the first time I’d ever had teams actively recruiting me. That never happened in high school. Ultimately, I decided to sign with the Giants since they had been one of the only teams to come to my pro day.

I mean, what better place is there than New York?

I thought maybe it was a mistake or something. So I tried to call the guy back. No answer. Never heard from him again.

Early on, I really appreciated the little things about the NFL. I still do actually, but the difference between college ball and the pros really blew my mind.

Charleston Southern used to give us one pair of New Balance cleats at the beginning of each season that had to last us all year. So I was shocked when I walked into the Giants locker room for the first time and I saw I had two badass pairs of cleats, three pairs of gloves and all sorts of other stuff just waiting for me.

I turned to the equipment manager thinking there must be some mistake, “You know you have two pairs of cleats in my locker?”

He looked at me and said, “Yeah I know. They are yours.”

I was like, “For real?”

And he said, “Yeah, just tell me when you need a change and I’ll give you some more.”

My mouth jaw dropped, I couldn’t believe what he was telling me.

And he said, “Where’d you go to school?” And I tell him Charleston Southern. And he just laughed.

At Charleston, asking for another pair of cleats would have been like asking for another scholarship. I sure as hell wasn’t in Charleston anymore.

I was put on special teams duty as a gunner for the Giants. It’s an effort position, which was perfect for me because that’s what I grade out best in. I busted my ass all pre-season. By then, I knew how to stand out when nobody was paying attention. If you do your job to such a degree that nobody can deny that you’re good at it, you’ll eventually get noticed. I ended up getting signed to the Giants’ practice squad.

Then, during Week 5, I got bumped up to the active roster to fill in on special teams. I did well enough to be activated again the next week for Thursday Night Football against the Bears.

Now if someone verbally offered you a job, and then took it back without giving you a reason, how would you feel about them? That’s how I felt about the Bears.

Early in the third quarter we punted to Devin Hester, and I made a play.

Flipped him right on his head. Oooooh man, I was juiced! And you know, for all the hustling and setbacks, in that one moment, it really all felt worth it. To make a play — really make a play — on a fantastic football player was like an affirmation. It was a sign that I truly belonged amongst the best doing the thing I’m most passionate about in this world.

I felt good going into my second season with New York. The team had a lot of depth, it was clear that I was the odd man out. But it wasn’t anything new. If I got spooked by depth charts, I would have hauled my ass back home to Jacksonville from Charleston when I was 19. I went out there and competed my ass off.

Made it to the last week of camp, too, but then I got the phone call to turn in my playbook. I was basically told, Thank you for the hard work, but we have some veteran guys we’re happy with. I still think I should have made that team. Even Antrel Rolle, a guy I’ve always looked up to, hit up Instagram to make a case for me.

 

This picture explains it all. My Lil Bra/ Protege/ Energy Booster… You never see this guy have bad EVER. You never hear him complain. All you see is HARD WORK, SMILES, DEDICATION,and MAKING COUNTLESS PLAYS. In this league you witness many things. Something you agree with and some you don’t but no matter what you have to keep fighting and keep driving to be the player you can be and the best teammate you can be. BUT THIS ONE HURTS! Charles James has the heart of a lion and is exactly what any organization should have on their team. 8 interceptions in OTA and Training Camp I think speaks for itself. The best training camp amongst cornerbacks in my eyes but today he was released. Not to worry Lil Bra I promise you this is not the end of Charles James II. You are one hell of a player and that much more better of a teammate. I love you bra. Just keep your drive attitude and more than anything your personality. DONT NEVER LET ANYONE CHANGE WHO YOU ARE. God made you that way for a reason and your energy and personality has helped me way more than words can ever express. Blessing homie! I will see you on the opposite side of the ball. #grindmode #teammate #lilbra #energy #baller #mydog

A photo posted by @celious26 on

After that went down, I was… heartbroken. That’s really the only word for it. I had trouble eating. I couldn’t sleep. I thought I’d finally made it, I’d found my place. But that’s not how this business works. Any security you feel is an illusion.

After the season started, for the first time in my life, I hated watching football on Sundays. It just made me feel restless. I knew I should be out there. Then I felt dejected, like my window had closed and it might actually be over. I was depressed. I had trouble eating, and spent a lot of time with the windows covered and the lights off. It was hard to motivate myself to start working out again. But after being down for a few weeks, I knew it was time to get off my ass. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself.

I started waking up at 5 a.m. and hitting up this small park next to a Popeyes that the vets on the Giants used to make me go to for late-night fried chicken runs. As the sun rose, I would run sprints on the short track around the park. After that, I’d lay down some cones and, for hours and hours, I’d do agility drills. As I did all the exercises, I kept remembering what my stepdad used to always say, “Stay ready to keep from getting ready.” The more I worked, the more I started feeling more and more like myself again.

Then, one day in November, my phone rang. It was my agent.

“Charles, let’s get you to Houston. The Texans want to work you out. It’s going to be a practice squad opportunity. It’s a step towards where you want to be. It’s a job.”

It didn’t take me more than a second to respond.

“Let’s do it.”

I flew down to Houston with one bag and no plans for returning home without a job. I killed that workout, ran a 4.4 40-yard dash. And not long after, the Texans assigned me to their practice squad for the remainder of the season. It was actually the best feeling ever, just to know I wasn’t done with football. It was really satisfying just to get back to that point. Obstacles are just tests to see how badly you really want it.

If you watched Hard Knocks, you have some idea of how training camp went the following August. Honestly, I didn’t operate any differently in front of the cameras than I do otherwise. If I put any of my focus on putting on a show for them, I wouldn’t have played very well. It was fun being able to watch the show as camp went on. After that first episode, my Twitter blew up. It was weird, but it was also fair. The show didn’t just show me killing it, but it also included my low moments, like when I had a bad day of practice. When you’re trying to get a job, training camp isn’t a sprint, it’s a rollercoaster. You can sense your stock going up and down at any given moment.

Getting cut by the Texans, took a lot out of me. It would be one thing if I had been let go the first week of camp, but this was the second franchise in a row that thought I was just barely not good enough. Being the first cut for a team is a little easier to swallow than being the last. It reminded me a lot of how things went down with the Giants, but it was also slightly different in that I had another team, the Ravens, willing to offer me a spot on their practice squad shortly after I was let go. I stayed on Baltimore’s practice squad for the first six weeks of the season, just putting in the work, and then I was finally moved up to the active roster for Week 7, a game on the road against the 49ers.

I was really excited for that opportunity. Here was my chance to just get on the field and show what I could do.

I was at the team breakfast in San Francisco the day before the game, when someone on the staff tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to step outside. I’m thinking to myself, Uh-oh, what did I do? I walk in the hall and I see the team’s GM, Ozzie Newsome, waiting for me. That’s when I sort of froze. I knew what was about to come.

“Look Charles, we’re going to have to cut you, man.”

I had no words.

It was a numbers game. Forsett got injured, so the team needed to add a running back. He explained that if I cleared waivers, they’d look to sign me on Monday to either the practice or the active roster.

After I got the news, I knew I needed to get out of there. I had to clear my mind. So I ordered an Uber and told the guy to just drive. I didn’t care where we went. I put some earbuds in, and we drove around all of San Francisco to nowhere in particular. I can’t remember how far we went and for how long, but by the time I got out, the fare ended up being more than $100.

I was able to fly back to Baltimore with the team but I wasn’t allowed to watch the game on the sidelines or anything like that because I wasn’t on the roster. I had to watch from the trainer’s room and go into the stadium’s concourse to grab food.

The entire time, I felt almost numb. I really thought that my career might be over. I’ve never told anyone this, but I really considered retiring. Coming that close and having it taken away again was just a little too much.

When I got back to my apartment in Baltimore, I cried. I was crying to God because it was just like, I don’t know what else to do. I had given everything I could up to that point. I tried to so hard, man. My passion for football runs so deep, that it made those setbacks hurt that much more. Football is what I take pride in. It’s my identity. The money thing is cool, but that’s not what motivates me to play this game. If I was motivated by money, I would have tried to find a more stable job a long time ago. But football has always meant more to me than a paycheck.

That Monday my agent gave me a call to say I was going to hit the waiver wire and we would have to wait and see what happened. Then, a few hours later, he called me again and he was… laughing.

“Holy shit, Charles, you won’t believe this.”

“What?”

“The Texans. The Texans just claimed you.”

I was stunned. I got on the phone with Rick Smith, the Texans GM, and he told me I was coming home. My Twitter exploded with people wishing me well. It was one of the best days of my life.

And Rick was right. In Houston, I do feel at home. Last season I even started a few games at nickelback and made some plays that helped our team win some big ball games. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do — just go out there and be good enough to help my team win.

Aug 7, 2015; Richmond, VA, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Colin Lockett (15) attempts to catch the ball in front of Houston Texans defensive back Charles James (31) during morning practice as part of day eight of training camp at Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

I play football because it’s my favorite thing to do. On the morning of every game day, I wake up smiling because I get to play football.

Now going into my fourth season as a pro, I’m in training camp again. I’m working as hard as ever, because now I know that people have heard of me. So I realize that I’m not just representing myself. I’m out there for all of the zero-star walk-ons who have been told they’re not good enough.  If you need a story to give you hope, I want you to lean on mine. As long as your most valuable measurable is your work ethic, there’s no reason you can’t be successful at whatever you wish to do.

Scouts are losing out on players every day because they’re looking at height and weight. But I’ll always value heart over height. Yeah, I understand that this is a physical game. Your size can be a limitation in some cases. But if I have to choose between having an athlete or a football player on my team, I want the guy who truly loves to play this game.  More than anything else, I think that’s what matters most.

Like I said, I’ll take heart over height every day of the week.

And especially on Sundays.

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