Canzano: Oregon Ducks great LaMichael James keeps on scoring

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We all knew LaMichael James had great vision. We saw it on the football field. But I smiled this week when I heard the former University of Oregon running back was opening another Killer Burger franchise location.

James told me this week that he used to tell his Ducks’ teammates that if he couldn’t play another down of football he’d be just fine.

“I enjoy doing things people would never envision me doing,” he said. “Why can’t I own 100 chains of businesses? Why can’t I give thousands of people jobs? I’m more passionate about this than I ever was about football.”

James isn’t new to the burger business. He opened his second restaurant location on Monday in Lake Oswego. His flagship location is in Beaverton and he has plans to open a third one in Eugene in March.

On Monday, amid preparations for the grand opening, James shared his plans and talked burgers. He was understandably excited about the launch. But it’s where the conversation ended up that will be no surprise to his friends and family members.

We talked about Grandma Betty.

LaMichael James never met his deceased father. He didn’t live with his mother, either. Betty James was his grandmother — his rock. One of the greatest running backs in Oregon football history grew up under her loving watch at the small wooden house on Melton Street in Texarkana, Tex.

“You don’t remember?” he asked on Monday.

I confessed I didn’t.

Two decades of covering college football games in this state and telling stories sometimes leaves old details dancing in the dark. Of course I remember James darting downfield, twice earning All-American honors at Oregon. He was quick, gifted, elusive and perhaps the perfect back for Chip Kelly’s offense. He wasn’t just the right guy in the right place, right time, though.

LaMichael James was special.

I’ve never been more convinced than I am watching him operate in his life after football.

His grandmother died when he was just 17, he reminded me. Cancer killed her. It left LaMichael James living alone in that small home during his junior and senior season of high school.

“She was my world,” he said. “I was in a dark place. I struggled. But seriously, the bills still were due. I still had to eat, I still needed to go to school. This is raw, but you get my point.

“Life goes always. It never stops.”

After high school, he ended up more than 2,000 miles away in Eugene for college. People ask James all the time what it was like to play for Kelly in that lightning-fast era of Oregon offense.

It’s the wrong question, he once told me.

“(Chip) demanded accountability,” James said. “‘Are you reliable? Can I depend on you?’ And no one is bigger than the team. People always ask me, ‘Did you like Chip?’ It doesn’t matter if I like him, I respect him … no one is bigger than the team, I respect that so much.”

Employees at his Killer Burger locations will tell you the former football player is a good boss. He hires talented people, trains them, encourages them, and then gets out of the way and lets them go to work. James is also often present in the restaurants, and communicates with his staff.

I don’t remember sitting in the press box at Autzen Stadium, watching James carve up defenses and thinking, “There goes our state’s burger baron.” But that’s what the former UO running back has become.

His NFL career didn’t go the way he wanted. The San Francisco 49ers drafted him, then exiled him to the bench. It was a dark professional experience. The kind that would have likely swallowed up a man who had been through less. But James hasn’t become what he is sitting around feeling sorry for himself.

“I learned early, no matter what we go through in life — the good, bad and ugly — the world don’t stop moving for you,” he said. “It goes on. We can’t buy time. I didn’t have time to dwell.”

I’m proud of the guy. I’ll bet you are, too. But I’ll admit, whenever I see a Killer Burger location from now on I won’t first think “LaMichael James.” Nope. I’ll think about Grandma Betty instead. Her fingerprints are all over the place.

Email: John@JohnCanzano.com

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