Lose the dreads, they told him. And for heaven's sake, get the gold out of your mouth. Nobody in the NFL has gold teeth anymore. You're a businessman now.
Edgerrin James is a polite person and humble by nature. So he listened. When they finished, he touched a place on his chest. "But this is me," he said.
His closest confidant is his half-brother Edward German III, a 32-year-old student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. German thought E.J.—as James is known—would be better off with a more traditional look: hair clipped close to the scalp and regular-looking teeth (more white ones, in other words). James's coaches at Miami and at Immokalee (Fla.) High agreed. In the days before the Indianapolis Colts drafted him in April with the fourth pick in the first round, and in the days since, James's most trusted advisers have pulled him aside and implored him to listen. Look, E.J., they've said, do you want people thinking you're some kind of thug?
It was true: He scared people. They hesitated to talk to him. So, to disarm those who prejudged him by his appearance, James approached them first. He showed that he was a gentleman. Invariably he saw the anxiety wash out of their faces. Their bodies seemed to uncoil. He enjoyed the effect, enjoyed dispelling their wicked imaginings by the simple act of being kind. "Next thing you know, they're apologizing," James says. "They're saying, 'Damn, E.J., I'm sorry. I just didn't expect you to be like this.' 'Like what?' 'Well, you know, nice.' "
Those he didn't scare he confused. This, too, was a problem that his advisers believed he could easily eliminate. People mistook him for Texas running back Ricky Williams. "Ricky!" they said, running up. "How you doin', my brother?"
Then James let them have a closer look. He stood there with all the poise of a man having his portrait done. Then he gave a smile. "I'm the one with the gold teeth," he said. "Ricky's got gold other things."
"I call him Little Ricky" says Colts rookie linebacker Mike Peterson, "and he just shakes his head and says, 'No, man, Ricky's his own person, and I'm my own person, too.' He tries to downplay the resemblance. Then he goes about his business."
Somebody asked James if he understood that by looking like Williams he was encouraging more comparisons. James thought about it. Tapped his chest. "But this is who I am," he said.
In Indianapolis on draft day, Colts fans cursed and threw things at their TV sets when NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced James as the team's top pick. The fans wondered about the mental stability of Colts officials and glimpsed the future as a terrible white-hot blur of regret and recrimination. "You guys have to draw straws to see who starts my car tonight," Colts president Bill Polian joked that day with interns in his scouting department.
Maybe Edgerrin James knew who he was, but all anybody in Indianapolis seemed to care about was who he wasn't. He wasn't Williams, the most prolific rusher in college football history, whom the New Orleans Saints gobbled up with the fifth pick after bartering away eight draft choices to the Washington Redskins. And James wasn't Marshall Faulk, the three-time Pro Bowl running back, whom the Colts traded to the St. Louis Rams just two days before the draft. In 1998 Faulk accounted for nearly half of the team's total offense, but when he threatened to hold out of this year's training camp unless his contract was fattened, Polian swiftly dealt him.