James selected to AP's first team

Badgers star defensive end continues to pile up awards

A year ago, Erasmus James' career was in doubt. Monday, the University of Wisconsin senior defensive end added a first-team Associated Press All-American selection to his considerable résumé.

James, the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year, has also been named a first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America, the American Football Coaches Association and the Walter Camp Foundation.

"Good things happen when you work hard," James said recently. Wisconsin players and coaches were not available for comment Monday. "I think during the off-season up to now, I think I've worked hard on and off the field. Good things happen when you work hard and they've been happening. I've been pretty happy with the outcome."

Before an ankle injury took away some of the burst and strength that made him a star this season, James was nearly unblockable, constantly camping out in opponent's backfields.

"He's as good as I've been around," Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said in October. "We've had some pretty good D-linemen here. Tom Burke was an All-American and I believe led the nation in sacks. Wendell Bryant was an early first-round pick and an All-American but they can't do the things that Erasmus can do."

The 6-foot-4, 275-pound athlete's big year came a year behind schedule. He was supposed to be Wisconsin's best defensive player last season but a hip injury that confounded doctors forced him to miss that entire year and take a medical redshirt. The injury occurred in August 2003 and was not properly diagnosed until the following March, when James traveled to see a New York Giants team physician. That was when James learned he would be able to play football again.

"I was excited, I was excited," James said in August of this year.

He rehabbed and returned to the field 20 pounds heavier, not to mention stronger and faster than he was before the injury.

"I think I'll be a better player because I'm driven," James said presciently in August. "It's motivated me a lot, just sitting there, not being able to do anything, seeing everyone out there having fun… I don't take life for granted any more."

Opposing quarterbacks were far from anxious to see James this fall. He led the Big Ten with eight sacks and had seven in the Badgers' first seven games. He earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors on back-to-back weeks during that span and was one of Wisconsin's defensive players of the week the first four weeks of the year.

James was a finalist but did not win the recently awarded Lombardi (top lineman), Nagurski (defensive player) and Bednarik (defensive player) honors. He is still a finalist for the Hendricks award, which goes to the nation's best defensive end.

"‘Ras' was not on the radar when the season started," Alvarez said after James was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. "No one knew Erasmus James. He wasn't on any checklist. He wasn't on any preseason All-American teams or anything else. It was how he played that separated him from everyone else."

James, though, injured his ankle in the second half of the Badgers' win at Purdue Oct. 16 and was not the same player afterwards. He missed all of Wisconsin's next game and played only five snaps against Minnesota Nov. 6. But even on a still injured-ankle, James was a disruptive force on all five of his opportunities against the Gophers. He expects to be completely healthy for Wisconsin's Jan. 1 Outback Bowl matchup with Georgia.

As James thrived this season, so did the Badgers' defense, which spent much of the season ranked at or near the top of the nation in total defense and scoring defense. As Wisconsin soared to a 9-0 start and No. 4 AP ranking, prior to dropping to 9-2, James said that his plight the season before was a blessing in disguise, allowing him to live out a dream season a year later than expected.

"I'm just as surprised as probably he is," defensive line coach John Palermo said earlier this season. "The thing that was amazing to me was that when he did come back [from the hip injury], he picked up right where he left off."

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