Vikings wide receiver Cedric James is ready to shed the label.
In only his second year in the NFL, James already feels as if he's playing the role of that dented can of corn in the grocery store shopping cart filled with damaged product, all marked 50 percent off.
James insists he isn't damaged goods, just victim to a couple of unfortunate circumstances that, admittedly, many professional football players experience.
James, 23, already knows more about physical therapy than he cares to. He majored in marketing at Texas Christian University, but ever since, he's been taking lessons from the Vikings training staff on sports medicine.
First came the hamstring injury last year in minicamp. James, a fourth-round draft pick of the Vikings, was placed on injured reserve and was out for the season. Last month, he suffered another hamstring injury during training camp, this time to the other leg. The good news was there was no tear, so after minor rehabilitation he remained on the roster.
During the Vikings' first exhibition game this season, James' year-long comeback was complete. He was on special teams, returning kicks against the Cleveland Browns. James caught a kickoff, started running at the wedge, then tried to avoid a tackler.
"The guy kind of tripped me up," James said. "I was trying to catch my balance by putting my hand down on the turf. I stuck my finger in the turf the wrong way and it just snapped my fourth metacarpal in my hand."
Translation: A broken hand.
James was given two choices: Have surgery, which would lead to a second consecutive season of having his name below the active 53 players on the roster in a section reserved for those on injured reserve. Or rehab it, wear a soft cast and attempt to play through the injury.
"They recommended surgery, but they also made me feel confident that if I didn't have surgery I'd be OK," James said.
Any wonder what he chose? "I wear a soft cast on the back of my hand during games," he said. "It doesn't limit me at all right now."
The Vikings possess an arsenal of receivers. Randy Moss, D'Wayne Bates, Derrick Alexander and Chris Walsh are mostly involved in the offense. Rookies Kelly Campbell and Nick Davis join James as the supporting cast.
He doesn't want to get lost in the background, which is probably why — if he would break a leg tomorrow he might ask if he would be allowed to play with crutches.
"Durability is very important to me," James said. "It's like a miracle that they kept me around last year. I came in pretty much banged up. It's all about having your teammates and head coach have confidence in you. If I can keep that, the sky's the limit for me.
"It's very important for me to stay healthy. They want me to play a big role eventually. It's all about the future. They see a lot of potential in me, and I just have to do my thing."
Potential is the operative word. Over-used in professional sports, the term "potential" truly applies to James.
Under-used in a run-oriented offense at Texas Christian, James had just 40 catches during his college career. The Horned Frogs had a running game built around Heisman trophy candidate LaDanian Tomlinson, who since has emerged as a star with the San Diego Chargers. Still, TCU had a talented receiver in James, who had just 19 catches and three touchdowns in his senior season.
College statistics aside, the Vikings were intrigued by James. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he ran a low 4.4/high 4.3 40-yard dash. Not only did he have size, he had speed, Vikings scouts felt.
"To this day, I always say I'll never let a guy catch me from behind. If I get open field, I'm gone," James said.
"I think I could be a total deep threat some day, considering my speed and my size," he said, admitting he carries somewhat of a bias. "Not too many guys hold me up on the line because of my strength. That's my goal, to be a contributing receiver some day. Right now, I'm accepting what I need to do for the team now."
What he needs to do right now is return kicks and make tackles on special teams. For that reason, James never relocated to his home in Texas during the offseason.
He spent the spring and summer working out in Eden Prairie. "I didn't miss a practice or a camp or anything. I was productive," James said. "They didn't want to send me to (NFL) Europe. They wanted me to stick around and learn the offense. They see the potential and they're ready for me to do something. They don't want to wait for me forever."
Taking into account he sat out all of last year and knowing life in the NFL isn't guaranteed made James' decision this season to play with pain an easy one.
"It's not frustrating because I'm the type of guy that doesn't get frustrated," he said. "It's all about taking care of the smaller things. If you do that, the other things will come later. I'm totally excited to be on special teams. I know bigger things will come, especially if I make a name for myself on special teams. That's my goal. That's my role right now. I'm just accepting it and going with it."
He knows the alternative. He knows if he would have opted to have surgery and spend another season on IR, he may never be afforded the opportunity of playing in the NFL again.
Spending last season on IR, James began to feel like he was nothing more than a backdrop. The Vikings went ahead with out him. They would have done the same again this season.
"At times, when you're hurt you feel like nobody cares about you, and everybody puts you on the backburner," James said. "If you're not tough mentally, you could just crawl in a hole and hide. That's no good. But it's all about perseverance, and that's my message to anybody — I've had a couple of injuries, I know more about it.
"But I thank God they saw the potential in me and wanted to keep me around."
Even though he's been tested, James maintains a calm, peaceful demeanor, often a rarity in professional sports. Football isn't his life, rather part of it. It's a high-profile occupation that complements the other components.
"I have a big heart for music. I have my own keyboard, guitar and drum set," he said. "I spend a lot of time playing. After being over at the (Winter Park) facility all day, I go home and play a couple of hours and it just totally relaxes me and releases my tension and stress."
Game days are a highlight for most football players. The Vikings' bye this weekend will be special one for James.
"I've been a drummer the last six years at my church — Liberty Church in Kennadale, Texas," he said. "I'm going back there during the bye week to play and speak at church.
"That's been a big part of my life. I pray often, thanking the Lord for my life. I pray often that I don't take the small things for granted.
"I'm so grateful for everything. Everything."
Getting To Know: WR Cedric James
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