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Notre Dame’s Chris James

Notre Dame’s Chris James

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Updated: December 8, 2012 6:24AM

Those who’ve seen Notre Dame junior running back Chris James on the football field are well-aware of the raw talent and skill he possesses.

His stunning 47-carry, 323-yard performance in the first round of the IHSA Class 6A playoffs at Grayslake North on Friday — which included seven touchdown runs — set internet sites like Facebook ablaze with talk of his rare feat.

And although his on-field skills continue to put him in high demand among college recruiters, there is much more to this 17-year-old kid than meets the eye. In fact, the story about how he got to this point in his life is a compelling tale.

When James was 4 years old, his mother passed away from lingering scar-tissue complications following surgery to have her appendix removed. Years later, James’ family won a medical malpractice lawsuit against Mercy Hospital in Chicago, stemming from the incident.

Right around that same time, his father, who was an extremely talented tennis player, wound up giving in to many of the same pressures youths are tempted by today, and also disappeared from James’ life. Temptations that James politely and understandably declined to discuss.

That’s when his grandmother, Audrey Davis, who is currently a 71-year-old English teacher at Lake View High School in Chicago, knew she had to intervene.

“Chris would’ve had to go to a foster home,” Davis said. “I couldn’t bear to see that happen.”

So Davis successfully petitioned the court to become James’ legal guardian.

As James grew older, so did his interests. One day, while in sixth grade, he came home from a local Boys & Girls Club his grandmother had enrolled him in, and told her he wanted to play football for the Highridge Chargers youth football team, located in Rogers Park, near Touhy and Western.

“The rest is history,” Davis said with a laugh. “You should see the trophies he’s got from paying football. There’s so many of them, it’s incredible.”

That’s not to say there weren’t bumps in the road along the way. In fact, James wasn’t even viewed as a very good football player at first by some of his coaches.

“I had to stick with it, because when I was younger, I didn’t always start,” James said. “In sixth grade, I went out for running back, but they didn’t pick me. So I ended up playing nose tackle and returning kicks. I was really good at returning kicks. Seventh grade, I lost my position right after the first game. And in eighth grade, they had no choice but to put me at running back.”

It was at this point Davis knew she had to put James in a situation that would give her grandson the best chance to succeed. Her landlord was an assistant coach at Notre Dame in Niles, and eventually convinced Davis to enroll Chris there.

“Chris wasn’t too happy about the idea at first, for a couple of reasons,” Davis said. “First, it’s obviously a school that has a much different ethnic background than he had been used to growing up. But I always told him those things weren’t what mattered. People are people. It’s his education that matters. Secondly, it’s an all-boys school, and Chris loves girls, so he wasn’t too keen on that either.”

James played on the Dons’ sophomore team as a freshman, and last season, started to stand out in his first year at running back for the varsity squad.

Notre Dame coach Mike Hennessey, who is in his 26th season leading the Dons (7-4 record), makes no secret about the fact his team is putting a lot of weight on James’ shoulders.

“He carries the mail, and the kids up front enjoy blocking for him,” Hennessey said.

Each weekday, James gets on a bus at 6 a.m. to head toward school. During the football season, he spends his Mondays and Tuesdays doing full workouts, and on Wednesdays he does what he describes as a “light workout.” He also uses a personal trainer, Jack Cascio, and does additional workouts in the offseason.

Once done with his schoolwork (where he maintains almost a ‘B’ average with a 2.8 GPA), James takes another bus and two trains just to return home each night, including the ‘L’ train. Where his grandmother is always waiting with open arms.

“I pick him up every day from the train station,” Davis said. “And every day when I get home, our mailbox is flooded with letters from colleges, all wanting to talk to Chris. I’ve had to tell him, a lot of the people you encounter are going to have agendas, so you’re gonna have to be careful from now on. But I’ve also told him he has to have his own agenda.”

In the meantime, he simply wants to continue being a kid who enjoys all life has to offer. And has a message to other younger kids who see the success he’s having on the football field, and in life.

“It took a lot of hard work for me to get to this point, and I know I’m gonna have to keep working hard if I want to continue to accomplish my goals and dreams,” James said. “And I want other kids to know, they can succeed too if they put the work in. It’s not easy. But there are choices kids have if they’re willing to look for them and pursue them that don’t involve being on the streets or involved with other things.”

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