Catching up with the steadfast Kenny James

Washington running back Kenny James projects humbleness. He peers across at an interviewer with deep-set and introspective eyes, waiting to see the direction in which the next question will venture. When asked about one of his former high school coaches - Mike Sparks - James nods subtly and cracks a faint smile.

In his last two years at Dos Palos high school (2000-2001), James rushed for nearly 5,000 yards and scored 103 touchdowns. In that period, his team went 21-1. It was mentioned to him that Sparks keeps tabs on his former player via the internet.

"He was a great coach," said James in a quiet voice. "In my four years of playing for him, I had some great times. He was the kind of coach that we have at the college level. The ways we practice and watch films here, we did the same way in high school. Coach Sparks was very intelligent and knew the game and was all about winning."

James was asked what his funniest or favorite memory is of Sparks.

"In my junior year we were out there practicing," he said. "We were working on defensive drills. I was a cornerback. Coach Sparks was playing the scout team quarterback. He was running around out there. On one particular play, he rolled out to his right. One of the defensive players didn't see him, and knocked him down hard. Everybody got kind of worried, saying `Are you alright? Are you alright?' He just hopped back up and was like, `I'm good! Let's go to the next play!' That's one of the memories that will stay with me for a long time. He was just a great guy. I loved him. I loved having him as a coach."

James was asked of his recent touchdown run against UCLA two games ago.

"That was a great play," he said with another slight nod and faint smile. "The line blocked it well. It was nothing that I did. I didn't do anything spectacular. It was a basic play in our play book. The line blocked it well and created a hole and I just ran through it."

He was then asked what happened to the team that played so hard and well against undefeated UCLA, and yet played so ineptly against Oregon. Why the regression?

"I really can't say what the difference was," he said. "I don't know what happened. In the Oregon game we made quite a few more mistakes than in the UCLA game. When you're playing any team in the Pac-10, you can't make mistakes like that. In the Pac-10 anybody can beat anybody else. We saw that when Washington State almost beat UCLA the other day… This season, and my whole time here, has been going by so fast. I have had some good times and some bad times. Even though the season isn't going the way we want, I can honestly say that the good times outweigh the bad times. We've got to continue to fight. The good thing about it is that we can get better. Keep playing hard in practice and go out there and continue to fight."

James was asked about the recent departure of fellow running back Shelton Sampson. Did it surprise him when Sampson quit the team?

"Me and Shelton were real close," he said. "We had some great times our freshman year. We stayed in the dorms with each other. We shared our own apartment later. Unfortunately things didn't work out for him here. I wish him the best, whatever happens. I really can't speak to that. It was a surprise to me. I didn't see it coming. I know Shelton had a love and passion for the game. Whenever you spoke to him about the game, or about a certain play or whatever, you could see in his eyes the passion he had for the game."

For James, the golden memory of Shelton Sampson is from Washington's 42-10 rout of the Oregon Ducks in 2003. In a cold night game in Seattle, both James and Sampson went off. James racked up 104 yards on 18 carries, including a 56-yard scoring burst. Sampson had a dizzying performance, amassing 131 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns on just 6 carries. Sampson's 77-yard romp in the fourth quarter, replete with darting jukes and a jarring stiff-arm to a would-be tackler, electrified Husky Stadium.

"I wasn't in the game on that play, I was on the sidelines," James said. "I really didn't know what to say when I ran down there to him. It was one of the best runs I've seen since I've been here.

"That night was crazy," said James. "Me and Shelton both having our career highs in the same game. It was just a great feeling. I remember talking to him after the game, he was like `Man, I have never been a part of something like that before.' I told him the same thing. Just knowing what me and him can do, and then to go and be a part of something like that was great. That was one of the moments that I will cherish and I know that he will cherish it too. He was a great dude. I loved him like a brother, and I support him whatever he decides to do. I'll be there for him. Me and the whole team will support him whatever he does."

James was asked about what competitiveness exists between him and fellow running back Louis Rankin. How are they in sharing the football?

"Me and Louis are good friends," he said. "Before the season, we came to an agreement that whoever carried the ball or was getting the bulk of the carries, no matter who was doing well, we were going to support one another. I support Louis when he's out there, and I know that he supports me. We push each other. Whatever mistakes he's making I tell him about it, and he tells me when he sees mistakes I'm making. I love Louis like a brother, I see him as my brother."

James was also asked about the newcomer from Bellevue high school, freshman running back J.R. Hasty.

"I think J.R. can be a great back here at the University of Washington," said James. "He's got what it takes both physically and mentally. He's a great athlete. I believed that he was ready to go this year (Hasty is currently being red-shirted). Hopefully he'll get out there next year and make an impact. He's got the speed to take it from anywhere on the field. He's a great dude. I enjoy talking to him. When he first came in here, he was kind of quiet and didn't know too many people on the team. But I started talking to him and he's a good guy to have around. He's a hard worker. I enjoy having him at the same position as me."

In conclusion, James was asked about the strain of this season that is swiftly unraveling into another disaster. What keeps him motivated?

"This is what I want to do," he said. "I love this game. The passion that I have for this game, words can't express. I am here for my teammates. We're all going through this. We all share the same pain. We all go out there and work hard and practice hard and shed the same blood, sweat and tears. That's why I am here. I'm out there and I see those guys out there working, and trying to find a way to turn this season around. As a player, it's something to see. That even though the season is not going the way we expected it to go, there are still guys working hard and studying film hard. No matter how many wins we get, no matter how many losses we get, I will still be here. I love this game and this team. And I love being with my teammates."

Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories