Chris James, commonly known as C.J., came to Illinois after an outstanding career at Chicago Morgan Park High School. Primarily a receiver, he played quarterback effectively when star Demetrius Jones went out with injury.
He got playing time as a true freshman and caught 5 passes for 76 yards. Unfortunately, he tore a knee ligament in a Rantoul preseason scrimmage and sat out the 2007 season. The surgery required taking a portion of the patella tendon from his good knee to replace the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his bad knee.
When he tried to play again last year, he pushed too hard too fast. He caught only one ball in six games.
"Last fall, the problem was both knees," James explains. "It just took time more than anything. It bothered me because I was impatient and wanted to get back on the field. It was partly my fault also.
"Coming back from the injury kind of just grew on me like a bug, like a virus. As the season went along, it just got progressively worse. Now, it's so much better. It's getting treatment, making sure it won't come back. I feel a little tired at times, but I feel a thousand percent better than I did last year."
Slowed by the knee problems, James has had to take a back seat to several other receivers this fall. He has only three catches so far this season, but the latest one may have been his best ever.
With Illinois clinging to a 21-13 lead, quarterback Juice Williams hurled a long high bomb on second and 18 that sailed toward James. Leaning backward, he caught it over his shoulder, a defender's fingers only an inch away from breaking it up. He describes the play.
"He (Illinois coach Ron Zook) always says playmakers make plays. There's gonna be 7-8 plays in a game that are gonna change the whole thing. When those times come, just be ready to make those plays. I knew it was a big down, and I had to step up and make a play. Coach called on us, 'You've gotta be first.' That's what I did."
The catch put the ball on the four yard line, and one play later Williams ran into the end zone for an insurmountable lead. James is not one to exaggerate his situation.
"I'm just trying to compete and contribute as much as I can. Whether it be helping guys with the plays or contributing on the field, I'm trying to play my role as Coach Zook would say."
James may have lost a step due to his knees, but he hasn't lost his ability to make spectacular catches. He made four outstanding one-handed grabs in the two weeks of Camp Rantoul practices, and he says that is not unusual for him.
"I had a knack for one-handed catches in high school. I had a few in high school. I don't know how, just following the fundamentals of catching the ball with your eyes. That's all it is."
James has matured through adversity, and he has much to share with others going through similar problems. Fellow Morgan Park grad Miami Thomas has been sidelined for the second year in a row with knee surgery, and James has been helping keep his spirits up.
"Yeah, I've been talking to him alot. What he's going through I would wish on no one. But Miami's a tough guy, and he's gonna get through it. He'll be out here just like he was before the surgery he had before."
James has competed with 8 other receivers for four spots, so his playing time has been limited. But he keeps pushing onward, always trying to improve and help the team. The Illini have had more losses than expected in 2009, but James continues to work for better days.
"All the aspirations we had coming into the season, and to turn out like this. It's just fun to come out and play college football. That's what I try to do every day."