Texarkana, Texas — Drive west down the road where 49ers rookie running back LaMichael James grew up and the direction this story is headed seems obvious.
The windows of the first two houses on Melton Street are covered by plywood; the splintering Century 21 sign in front of the fifth house on the right is partially obscured by spray paint; and many of the remaining 63 homes feature sagging porches, peeling paint and weed-dotted or beer-can-littered dirt yards.
Some of the vacant homes have “No Trespassing” signs near the door. Tellingly, so do some occupied houses – a nod to the danger and criminal activity of Texarkana’s Beverly neighborhood.
James, who never met his deceased father and didn’t live with his mother, grew up at 210 Melton St. in a white wooden house that looks out on a now-abandoned parking lot. He was the only male in a home that included his late grandmother, his sister and a cousin. When his grandmother died when he was 17, he lived alone in the house for much of his senior year in high school.
Of course, it all sounds familiar – a fatherless professional athlete whose success was fueled by the bleakest of circumstances.
But it’s here that James’ story moves in an unexpected direction.
Raised by a team of doting and devoted women, his motivation to attend the University of Oregon, 2,200 miles away, wasn’t inspired by a desire to escape danger. Rather, it was a realization that he needed to flee the cocoon of safety provided by his forever-fretting support system.
“They weren’t really babying me all the time,” James said. “But they’re women. They’re always emotional and always checking up on me. It was something that I needed to do in order to mature and grow up and be my own individual.”
‘King of the house’
James has a close relationship with his mother, Rosemary, but it was his grandmother, Betty James, and his sister, Tasha Galloway, 16 years his senior, who raised him.
Well before he was a second-round NFL draft pick, a two-time All-American, or a two-time All-State selection at Liberty-Eylau High, little LaMichael had a devoted fan club.
“He has aunts and they’re just crazy about him and worship the ground he walks on,” Galloway said. “He was the king. When he was born, he was the king of the house. I can remember LaMichael making touchdown after touchdown and we were like ‘Oh, he’s a superstar. Oh, you’re going to the NFL, baby.’ We would tell him that at age 7, 8, 9. We would tell him that all his life.”
Galloway laughs. Yes, she says, LaMichael was aware he was family royalty and took advantage of his exalted status. As he got older, he’d cry poor to his sister, who’d hand him $25. And then seek out an aunt, who’d pull out $20.
“We’d get together and say, ‘Did you talk to LaMichael? The poor thing, he didn’t have any gas money,’ ” Galloway said. “… Then we’d be like ‘Hey, wait a minute, he’s hustling us.’ ”
James acknowledged that it helps explain why he had more than most of his peers in a poverty-stricken neighborhood: “I had a car. I had shoes. I had clothes. I had everything I possibly could want,” he said.
This is not to suggest his childhood was all backslaps and handouts.
Dad slain in L.A.
His father, Herbert Blacksher, was murdered in Los Angeles before James was born, and he grew up without a strong male influence. He has a close relationship with his mother, Rosemary, but she initially gave LaMichael to her mother, Betty, and he never wanted to leave his grandmother’s house, even after she died at 77 from cervical cancer in 2007.
While he didn’t lack for love, James also didn’t lack for opportunities to get caught up in the drugs and violence that permeated Beverly. However, he was loath to disappoint Betty James, who worked two custodial jobs, cleaning a bank at night and a jail during the day.
He called his grandmother Madea, a title African American families often bestow on the matriarch. And Madea was his compass.