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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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James' returns are a treat
By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
Published September 28, 2007
Florida's Brandon James runs past Tennessee's Denarius Moore (83) and Adam Myers-White (48) on an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown.
[Brian Cassella | Times]
[Brian Cassella | Times]
Brandon James celebrates his punt return for a touchdown against the Volunteers.
GAINESVILLE - You can see the Florida players lining up to watch like children waiting for the ice cream truck to come down the street.
They just can't help themselves when Brandon James is on the field. Because when James is back to receive a punt or kickoff, they know something special is about to happen.
With a 5-foot-6 frame and 4.3-second speed, James is currently third in the nation in punt returns, averaging 24.6 yards. He is No. 9 nationally in kickoff returns, with 332 yards in three games.
"One hundred percent, everybody gets up to watch Brandon," quarterback Tim Tebow said. "I've been doing that since high school they played at rival schools. Everybody does. Our trainers even look up to see what he's going to do. He's one of the most explosive, dynamic players in the country and any time he touches the ball he's got a chance to go to the house."
It's that confidence from his teammates that fuels James' desire to play big in a league where everyone - including coach Urban Meyer - thought he was too small to succeed.
"That's a big part of it," James said. "I know a lot of people doubt me because of my size. Each time I put on my helmet and shoulder pads, I have something to prove. So each time I touch it I want to make a big play. But if I was a bigger guy, I would be trying to do the same thing."
If being the operative word. James is so small among the majority of Gators that just before finishing pregame warmups before the Tennessee game, he had several teammates lift him up so he could say a few words to fire up the team. The fact he's on the field at all is something James is thankful for.
At 19, it took a "big mistake" and some critical self-evaluation to reveal to James what he's really made of. Four months ago, he and a former UF basketball player were arrested for attempting to buy marijuana from undercover police officers. He eventually pled no contest and was sentenced to six month's probation and community service. His debt to society had been paid, but not to his teammates and coaches. Repairing trust takes time.
"Brandon's a good guy," Meyer said. "It was just a very stupid mistake. I was hard on him, about as hard as I've ever been on a guy because I was crushed. I didn't think he would do something like that."
Florida running backs coach Stan Drayton didn't either, and he wanted to make sure James didn't make that mistake again. So they took a field trip - to the Union County Correctional Institution in Lake Butler. The message? This is where you could end up if you don't follow the right path.
"Lessons come hard a lot of times and sometimes it takes a hard lesson to wake you up and realize I really had it good before I made this mistake," Drayton said. "That's what it was for him, it was a growing experience. As much as I don't want to say it, he needed something of that magnitude for him to wake and say I need to get myself together here. He's grown up a lot since then and I would be devastated if he ever took that turn back. It's been an unbelievable switching of gears for him on and off the football field."
Last season, James led the team with 33 punt returns for 363 yards and returned 21 kickoffs for 383 yards (18.2 average). But James considers himself a running back. To play in college, he knew yet again, he'd have to find a way to compensate for his size. He went to Mickey Marotti, UF's director of strength and conditioning for help.
"In the offeseason he pushed me to try to get a lot bigger," James said. "He knew my goal was to play running back a little bit more. So in the offseason I tried to get stronger in the shoulders so I could take more of a pounding coming out of the backfield."
James has five carries for 44 yards and Meyer said he'll become more involved at running back. No matter where he is on the field, he wants to deliver what his teammates expect.
"Any time I touch the ball I'm trying to make a big play happen and make something special happen for the team," he said. "I don't want to let my team down."