By TIM REYNOLDS
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Miami running back Mike James is almost always smiling.
When talking about facing Notre Dame this week, he was not.
“Notre Dame is a big game,” James quietly said, “for a lot of reasons.”
The Fighting Irish (4-0) are unbeaten and ranked No. 9 in the nation. Saturday night’s game at Soldier Field in Chicago is the resumption of one of college football’s most overheated rivalries that helped decide at least five national titles in an eight-season span from 1983 through 1990. And it’s a chance for the Hurricanes (4-1) to reclaim a piece of the national spotlight that has faded considerably in recent years.
For James, it’s also personal. Very personal.
The last time these teams met was the 2010 Sun Bowl, a day he’ll never forget for reasons that have nothing to do with football. That bowl game started at the same moment as the funeral for James’ mother Elgusta James, who died in a car crash 11 days earlier. Mike James wasn’t at the funeral; he played in the bowl game after family members convinced him that’s what his mother would have wanted.
And when it comes to the importance of this game, his thoughts are clear.
“The biggest game I’ve ever played,” James said last Saturday, after Miami beat North Carolina State. “I would say so. I’m serious about this one. … Last time we played Notre Dame, they were burying my mom at the same time as the game. So anybody can do the math.”
James’ senior year is off to a strong start. He’s rushed for 278 yards in five games — three more yards than he managed in the entirety of the 2011 season. He’s scored four touchdowns this year, all of them coming in Miami’s wild 42-36 overtime win at Georgia Tech two weeks ago. He says he’s healthier and happier than he can remember being in some time.
The pain of that phone call on Dec. 20, 2010, however, lingers, he said. Every day.
“It was a devastating moment, a tragic moment for Mike,” Miami defensive back Brandon McGee said. “When he first heard the news, I was right there with him. When a guy like that shows that type of resiliency, shows that type of mental toughness, you only want to go out and play hard for him.”
Elgusta James was the passenger in a vehicle driven by her daughter that day, when another car collided into the driver’s side. Elgusta James was ejected from the vehicle and police said she died at the scene. For months, Mike James said he cried every day, and not long after the crash got a pair of tattoos — one image of his mother holding him as a small child, the other an angel.
He said that he wished it was him who died in that crash, not his mother.
“Coming back off of that, Mike James is probably the strongest man I’ve ever met, physically and mentally,” Miami quarterback Stephen Morris said. “It was a rough situation and that’s really all I can say about my freshman year when that incident happened. But he’s a stronger man. He’s capable of taking care of himself and I’m very happy with where he’s at right now.”
James has made his peace with what happened that day.
He’s not over it, he said, wondering aloud how anyone could truly get over something like that.
“My mom was a single parent and she did a lot for me,” James said. “Throughout my whole life, you fight to try to put the person you love in a better position. You fight for who you love. You get to the point where you spend 18 years, 19 years pushing to make someone’s life better after seeing them struggle for so long. … It’s hard to live without somebody that you’re fighting for each day.”
Even back in May, James said he had this game in Chicago circled on his calendar.
“It’s got nothing to do with them,” James said. “They were just there. I’m just looking to get back and redeem. I get a second chance to relive a moment. That’s something that’s very special to me.”
As if this game won’t be tough enough for Miami, James and the rest of the Hurricanes’ running back corps are about to face one of the nation’s best run defenses.
Notre Dame gives up 3.3 yards per opponent rushing attempt this season, and is the only team in the nation not to have allowed a rushing touchdown.
James’ teammates aren’t betting against him.
“I think it definitely means something to him,” McGee said. “It means something to all of us.”