A year ago, a future in the National Football League looked like a pipe dream for James, who was rehabbing from a freakish, career threatening hip injury that had stolen what was supposed to be his senior year at the University of Wisconsin.
As the 2005 NFL Draft rolled around, though, there was James, one of the top-rated defensive line prospects available, coming off an All-American season with the Badgers, wondering when his name would be called.
James thought he might go to Detroit at No. 10 overall, San Diego at No. 12 or Kansas City at No. 15. But those teams chose to go another direction. Then, the Minnesota Vikings, with their second pick in the first round, No. 18 overall, tabbed the 6-foot-4, 263-pound defensive end, putting the finishing touches on James' dramatic comeback story.
"It's a new beginning but I'm just kind of happy that whole process is over with now," James said during a conference call with Madison area reporters Saturday afternoon. "But I recovered from my injury and was able to play this last year and was able to put myself in a great position to be playing for the Minnesota Vikings."
James was supposed to be the Badgers' best pass rusher in the fall of 2003, but the non-contact hip injury he suffered early in UW's training camp that August proved perplexing to the school's medical staff. James had three MRIs by the time the decision to redshirt became official Oct. 2, 2003, and the injury was getting worse, refusing to respond to treatment.
The following March, however, James flew to New York to see Giants' team physician Dr. Russell Warren, who diagnosed the injury as a partial dislocation. James did not need surgery after all; he was able to rehabilitate the hip back to health and it did not trouble him at all in 2004.
James announced his return to the field last fall in emphatic fashion, registering seven sacks in UW's first six-and-a-half games on his way to earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors and posting career highs with eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.
He was effectively unblockable early in the year, before Purdue tight end Charles Davis rolled up on James' ankle with a chop block, causing a sprain that kept James out of the better part of the next one-and-a-half games and hampered him through the end of the season.
As with all NFL Draft prospects, James had his doubters, including, he said, teams that felt he would be best suited to play outside linebacker in the NFL. But the injuries, particularly his rehabilitated hip, were examined assiduously in the months leading up to the draft.
James shrugged off the scrutiny.
"Every time they've asked that question it has been answered with MRIs after MRIs," he said. "It's been good."
James came to Wisconsin via Pembroke Pines, Fla., The Bronx, N.Y., and St. Kitts, a Caribbean island nation where his father is press secretary for the prime minister.
He grew up in The Bronx (he was born in St. Kitts) a fan of the New York Giants and of the NFL in general, but never imagined he would play in the league someday.
"I was a big fan. It never entered my mind that I would be playing for the National Football League but I definitely loved football," James said. "I grew up a big New York Giants fan. You know Lawrence Taylor, my favorite player, Michael Strahan. So I was always a big NFL fan."
James attended McArthur High School in Hollywood, Fla. A standout basketball player, James famously did not play football until his senior year. But he impressed enough in that campaign, and at an all-star game in Florida where the Badgers scouted him, to earn a scholarship to play football.
He came to Wisconsin weighing about 210 pounds, but developed into one of the most feared pass rushers in college football, finishing his career with 18 sacks, 25.5 tackles for loss, 28 quarterback pressures, seven forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, six pass deflections and 124 tackles.
An academic non-qualifier as a true freshman in 2000, James played three seasons of football in his five years at UW. He said Saturday that he needs about 14 credits to complete his bachelor's degree in legal studies, which he plans to finish with a semester of work in the spring of 2006. He will also earn a certificate in criminal justice.
About two hours after he was selected Saturday, James was on his way to an airport in Atlanta to catch a flight to the Twin Cities for his formal introduction with the Vikings.
"[My mom] is very excited," James said. "I spent the day with my whole family and family friends and my aunts and uncles that came up from Florida. So it was a lot of people in my place pretty much sitting around like myself, waiting [for me] to get picked."
The wait was well worth it.
"It was a long wait," James said. "I anticipated I was going to go a little bit earlier but I'm happy with where I'm going. I'm going to Minnesota. I'm really excited about going there."
Vikings head coach Mike Tice called James a few minutes before the pick was made official.
"Coach called me and said ‘Are you ready to be a Viking?'" James said. "I said, ‘Yes, sir, I am.'"
Wary Packer fans?
James was celebrated throughout his college football career by fans in the state of Wisconsin, who reveled in his pursuit of opposing quarterbacks. Now, however, at least twice a season the many Badger fans who double as fans of the Green Bay Packers will swallow hard at James' pass rushing exploits.
The Vikings hope James can help bolster a defense that was ranked 28th in the league last season, allowing 368.9 yards per game. And, yes, that includes pursuing Packers' quarterback Brett Favre, who James said he would have no problem lining up in the backfield.
"Oh no, not at all," he said with a good-natured laugh. "I don't take appointments. It's kind of a walk in, you know."
James will have the opportunity to compete for immediate playing time at defensive end. The Vikings are set with Kenechi Udeze on the right side, but James will challenge Darrion Scott and Kenny Mixon at left end.
"I fit very well [in Minnesota]," James said. "They've got other guys on the line right now that have proven themselves this past year. So I'm just looking to get out there and contribute."