Josh James knows this is his second chance.
Each hamstring betraying him once, James’ NFL career began with a stint in Green Bay that ended without being able to prove himself. The former Carroll College standout remembers his last Green Bay practice well, “the first day in pads,” he recalled during a phone call on Wednesday. James was lined up at tackle as his team ran a quarterback sprint out -- a play requiring James to cover a lot of ground to protect his on-the-move passer.
“D-ends are always faster than us,” James said. “I was trying to keep up. And I felt my left hamstring go. I never had hamstring issues until reaching this level.”
James’ left hamstring gave away after completing what he estimates was two-thirds of the practice. Two weeks later, the Packers and James agreed to an injury settlement, and the 6-foot-5, 314-pound offensive lineman was out of the league. He returned back to his family in Coeur d’Alene, where he assisted his alma mater’s football program and let his mind wander away from football.
“I was thinking football was over for me,” he said.
Kansas City had other plans.
The Chiefs, after finishing the regular season as the No. 2 seed in the AFC and earning a first-round bye, were ousted in the divisional round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Chiefs finished that game with 61 rushing yards and 166 passing yards, showing perhaps a need to upgrade the offensive line.
Derrick Fox, James’ agent, informed James in January he would be signing a second NFL contract, a one-year deal with Kansas City.
“First thing that went through my mind was, 'Crap, I’m out of shape,'” James said. “There’s football shape. There’s lifting shape. I wasn’t doing as much running as I should.”
James would be on his way to Kansas City quicker than he expected, and with a Hall of Fame-caliber relationship awaiting him. Fox fostered a connection between James and 12-time Pro Bowler Will Shields, who trains athletes and remains active in the KC community through his foundation.
James drove from Coeur d’Alene to Kansas City, and thus began his transition to right guard, a position James said Shields foresaw -- but one that he wasn’t overly enthused about, personally. Shields and his training staff have “definitely helped much more than I thought it would,” James said. The former Saint has worked with Shields on his conditioning, O-line technique, lifting, hip flexibility, speed, and explosion.
“I’m in a good spot,” James said. “I’m getting work on it. Getting better, I feel. It’s still up in the air. I have no idea where I’ll end up. How I’ll work out. Hopefully I won’t make the same mistake twice.”
The first mistake happened after graduation last spring.
The All-American had very few problems during his standout career with the Saints. That changed the offseason after his senior season, when a blown right hamstring derailed a pro day at the University of Montana.
“Shot myself in the foot with that one,” James said. “I didn’t’ get any drills and any times. I had healed up by camp, so … late March and healed fully by May.”
That first hamstring injury did enough to keep him undrafted, but didn’t dissuade the Packers from offering him a deal.
His brief time with the team gave James a taste of what he’d need to do to make an NFL roster. He looked at the jump from NAIA football to the NFL like the move up from high school to college.
“Everyone is stronger, faster, and quicker,” James said. “And the speed of the game is a lot faster. It was quite the experience.”
The Packers, as most teams do, tested their rookies during the mini-camp, throwing in “more than you can possibly learn in two-and-a-half days.” James knew it was to test his resolve and how he could cope with the burden of additional stress. Once organized team activities started, everything slowed down for him, but the reality of professional football quickly set in: Everybody competes for a job.
The second hamstring issue led to his exit from Green Bay, though he doesn’t dwell on his approach during the play that ultimately battered his left hammy.
“You can’t focus on it,” James said. “It’s healed up. It’s 100 percent now. I don’t even think about it. I focus on it while I’m stretching. Warming up. It doesn’t ever come to mind during play.”
While James knows a second chance in the NFL isn’t always guaranteed, he’s not anxious or worried his body will fail him again. Even as he stood on the sidelines at a pair of Carroll College football games this past fall -- an experience he said “was rough being there and not doing it” -- he didn’t allow his mind to go down the path of “what ifs.”
What if this is his future? Watching games instead of playing.
What if his legs don’t hold up?
What if this second chance doesn’t lead to a third?
James doesn’t think about what could happen and only controls what he can. His head is in the right place.
“You have to stay in the moment and live to play,” he said. “Series by series. You can’t have any distractions or second thoughts or hesitations. You get beat once or twice, and then they say, 'He’s not the guy.'”
James’ life in Kansas City involves studying, playing Xbox and little else. He wants to learn every position on the offensive line and become an indispensable part of the Chiefs’ future.
The temptation to dive into KC’s famous BBQ hasn’t hit him, yet. His hotel, just a couple blocks away from Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium (sometimes the fireworks after Royals games wake him up at night), could serve as a premiere destination for a sports fan.
James said he hasn’t been to a baseball game yet.
He’s busy studying and preparing.
Should the Chiefs call a QB sprint out this spring during training, James won’t hesitate.
He’ll be sprinting, too.