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Such stories make James seem eminently mature, but there are moments when his pride and immaturity take over. As James drives through Kendall, he recalls an earlier visit to the bowling alley with a group that included his four-year-old daughter, Edquisha. It seems Edquisha, who lives with her mother, Andia Wilson, in Immokalee, camped out in the alley's game room and "outdrove" some of her father's friends in video races. "Finally," James says, "I went in there and kicked her ass. She was mad, too. She was practically crying, and she wouldn't talk to anyone." Did James even think about letting his daughter win? "Hell, no," he says. "She always has to know I'm the dominant one."
James won't discuss his relationships with women, but he does say that marriage doesn't interest him. "My mom never married, and I don't think I'll ever have a wife," says James, who has maintained a good relationship with his father, Edward German. "I mean, if I'm with you, I'm with you. Why can't we just chill and be cool? If you want a big party, I'll throw you a party. If you want a ring, I'll get you a ring. If you want my last name, be like the Muslims and just change it on your own."
"We're going to breakfast," James announces, squinting as he finally emerges from the bowling alley after a nine-hour visit. "I'm buying." No one argues. James, who, thanks largely to an incentive-laced contract, says he has made $20 million during his brief pro career, is now another $3,720 richer. Hustling is second nature to James. For instance, he says he bought the car he drove in college, a Chevy Caprice, "in the middle of the night, from some white lady in Immokalee, after I won a bunch of money shooting dice."
Driving north through rush-hour traffic in his Mercedes-Benz 500, James pulls into an old haunt, the Denny's across from the Miami campus. He removes his sweat-drenched undershirt and tosses it into a Dumpster, then slips into a sport shirt before entering the restaurant. Digging into a Grand Slam breakfast, James talks football. "My first year in the league I was so damn sore all the time," he says. "But I learned. It's cool to run over those smaller guys, but those big dudes—the guys who've been working in the weight room all week, just waiting for their chance to smack you—now I don't even try [to run through them]."
The big dudes see it somewhat differently. "If you overplay him, he's going to make you look ridiculous," Zach Thomas, the Miami Dolphins' Pro Bowl middle linebacker, says of James, the back he least enjoys facing. "He doesn't so much cut as he stops on a dime and then takes off again at full speed."
Just ask the Seattle Seahawks, who flailed helplessly last Oct. 15 as James ran for a career-high 219 yards and three touchdowns. New San Diego Chargers defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who faced James four times as a member of the Buffalo Bills, says, "He's a blend of Marshall Faulk and Eddie George." Rolle, the Titans' All-Pro, describes his friend as "a fast Emmitt Smith." Like Smith, James is remarkably consistent: In 32 career regular-season games he has been held under 70 rushing yards only six times.
James also has otherworldly stamina, as evidenced by his post-Denny's behavior. Despite having been up for 20 straight hours, James heads back to his apartment, hooks up with a fresh set of friends and shoots pool for another five hours. Finally, at 4 p.m. he takes a four-hour snooze that's interrupted by a dozen phone calls and 26 pages. Then he showers, dresses and gets right back in the mix.
Just after 11 p.m. James enters the fitness center in his apartment complex, surveys the empty room and smiles, revealing his five gold teeth. "A lot of times I come down here to work out between 2 and 4 a.m.," he says. "I call it getting right while the haters are sleeping." In truth, not much hatred is thrown James's way. Yet the player whose selection generated sneers on draft day—after the Colts, who had traded Faulk to the St. Louis Rams for the fourth overall pick, took James over Heisman winner Ricky Williams—still feels somewhat slighted. Of last year's MVP voting, won by Faulk, James says, " Marshall's the best. He's got the game all figured out, but come on, man, I led the league in rushing and total yards from scrimmage [2,303]. At least give me half a vote. It's funny, the politics that go into these things."
There are times, James says, when he thinks his coaches misunderstand him. He says he barely talks to the no-nonsense Mora, the league's oldest head coach at 66, and he bristles at the old-school teachings of running backs coach Gene Huey, 53. "He's a straight-line guy, and we go at it all day in the meeting room," James says. "Sometimes I don't think he really knows me. He thinks I'm going to slack off or let success get to my head. I want to tell him, 'Man, I'm into this.' Because, trust me—the day I'm not into football, I'll walk away."
That day, James promises, will come sooner than most people think. Once his portfolio is sufficient, he says, "to create a foundation of economic prosperity for my family," he'll be ready to leap headlong into retirement. "There's somebody in high school waiting to take my job—and in a few years, I'll be waiting to give it to him," James says, laughing. "Maybe I'll play out my contract, take a year off, get totally relaxed and then come back for one last season. I just want to live like a full-time tourist, to show up at the airport, pick a destination, walk up to the counter and say, 'Do you have any first-class seats?' "