Jets’ Darius James overcame injury scares on road to NFL
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Darius James was pretty sure he was OK, even though he was sprawled face-first in the grass and his neck wouldn’t budge.
He wiggled his fingers and toes and had feeling in his arms and legs, giving the big offensive lineman some reassurance that he wasn’t paralyzed.
James was the starting right tackle for Auburn when his football career — and possibly much more — flashed before his eyes. It was Sept. 16, 2017, and the crowd of more than 80,000 packed into Jordan-Hare Stadium to watch the Tigers take on Mercer was silent.
“I actually was pretty scared out there because I couldn’t move my neck,” recalled James, who’s in camp this summer with the New York Jets. “When they rolled me over, I was good again.”
While blocking on a short run by Kamryn Pettway in the second quarter, James fell and teammate Mike Horton landed on James’ head. Doctors and trainers rushed out to treat James, who showed no movement initially. His neck was stabilized before he was flipped onto a backboard, strapped down and lifted onto a stretcher.
“They were like, ‘Just in case. It’s all precautionary. Don’t be scared,’” James said. “So, I wasn’t as scared when they came out there and talked to me. But it was a scary moment when it happened because nothing like that ever happened to me.”
It turned out to be a severe spasm in James’ neck, and it was relieved through treatment and massages. He was taken to a hospital and released after an evaluation.
James was back on the field for Auburn a week later for the Tigers’ game at Missouri.
“I feel like injuries, obstacles, anything like that helps you be a better player because once something happens to you, people think it’s the end,” James said. “But, nah, you can still come back from all that stuff.
“I like to think of myself as somebody who comes back, know what I mean?”
James proved his resilience just over a month later when he went down with what appeared to be a serious leg injury at Arkansas. Again, he was surrounded by doctors and trainers — and carted off the field in front of nervous teammates.
“I was just like, ‘Ahh, it keeps happening again, man. Just something else to bounce back from.’ And I always bounce back.”
Sure enough, X-rays were negative and James returned in time to play in Auburn’s next game at Texas A&M two weeks later.
“Darius has had a rough ride,” said offensive lineman Austin Golson, who was James’ teammate at Auburn and is now his roommate during camp with the Jets. “Every time he got hurt, he’d get back up and fought to get better. He’s just worked his tail off to get where he is today.”
James grew up in Killeen, Texas, and was considered one of the top high school offensive linemen in the country despite only playing in two games as a senior because of injuries.
He flashed remarkable versatility as a five-star prospect — playing center, offensive tackle, guard, defensive tackle and defensive end. Several scouting services rated him the No. 1 center in the country, while he was ranked as the top guard by another.
James ended up going to Texas and played in six games for the Longhorns during the 2014 season, including starts at right tackle against Baylor and Oklahoma. But he struggled and was pulled by coach Charlie Strong, and then James suffered a season-ending knee injury.
“I tore my ACL right before the OSU game and (Strong) was trying to bring some of his young people in and he said, ‘You can stay here and go to school or you can leave and play football,’” James recalled. “I thought it was the best opportunity for me to leave and play football.”
James transferred to Auburn and sat out a season, but then played in every game as a junior and senior — despite those two scary moments in his final year.
“The injuries I had, they weren’t that bad,” he said. “I came right back from them. I’m just ready to start this new journey.”
The 6-foot-4, 324-pound James signed with the Jets in May as an undrafted free agent. With New York, James faces a difficult path to stick on the active roster. There’s lots of competition for depth spots, and both he and Golson will need to have some standout performances in the preseason to impress coach Todd Bowles.
“We’ve been playing together for three years,” Golson said, “and hopefully we can keep it going, playing for the Jets.”
James has been used primarily at right tackle by the Jets during practice, but his versatility could help him. Bowles has typically kept backups who can be plugged in at various spots.
“It’s still early and I’m still feeling out the ropes,” James said, “figuring out where I fit in, figuring out how I’m supposed to play, figuring out the speed, the playbook. Everything’s going so fast and nobody’s waiting for you.
“To me, it’s fun because nobody else really gets this opportunity. You can’t take anything for granted.”