TAMPA, Fla. - Edgerrin James was a legendary high-school running back in Immokalee, Fla., where folks from neighboring towns used to leave their own Friday Night Lights to check him out. He went on to star at his forever school, the University of Miami, and now he's back in his home state, preparing to make his Super Bowl debut against the Steelers.
It's too perfect, right? Ordinarily, it would be the quintessential local-boy-makes-good story, the crowning moment in his borderline Hall-of-Fame career, except it's about the local boy who got benched and unbenched in the same season - a season like no other for James.
It's not often a player with 12,000 career rushing yards is asked to step aside for a rookie, but James suffered that indignity at midseason.
James out, Tim Hightower in.
James grumbled, asking to be traded (even though the trading deadline had passed), but he quieted down and went back to work. From all indications, he was a good teammate, supporting Hightower.
"It just blows my mind away to think that someone could be so selfless," Hightower said.
A funny thing happened on the way to the glue factory. James became relevant again when Hightower slumped, as Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt - not afraid of how the move would be perceived - returned to James as the feature back. Since the change, James has rushed for 303 yards in four games, including three playoff contests.
Whisenhunt looks like a genius and James looks refreshed, displaying some of his old giddy-up. He's one of the feel-good stories of Super Bowl XLIII. There's a lot to choose from, but James' rebirth is something the country can appreciate. These are tough times, and a second-chance story always makes for a good headline.
It's what makes Kurt Warner so appealing. Heck, it's what makes the Cardinals so appealing. They're the ultimate second-chance team because they're been waiting on this opportunity for ... oh, about 60 years. Their last championship was 1947. Since then, they've had more re-locations than titles. The Steelers? Boooooring. They win all the time; this is their seventh Super Bowl appearance.
The Steelers like to talk about their steely ancestors, but the Cardinals are the team with the real mettle - and one of the reasons is James. When he re-emerged, the team re-emerged.
The Cardinals played November and December like they didn't care anymore, losing four of five and getting blown out in back-to-back losses to the Vikings and Patriots. They already had clinched the NFC West, but they needed something - anything - to provide a pre-playoff spark.
Hightower out, James in.
James rushed for 100 yards in the regular-season finale, an easy win over the Seahawks, allowing the Cardinals to re-discover their mojo. Whisenhunt reverted to his blue-collar roots, trying to balance his pass-heavy offense with a smash-mouth running game. He turned his desperate eyes to James, who gave everybody a lesson in humility.
Instead of pulling a Stephon Marbury, refusing to go in and turning his back on his team, James showed his resolve.
"Edge has a lot to prove," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "He's a prideful guy who's never lost confidence in his abilities."
Warner, for one, believes James could be the X-factor, a possible MVP candidate. The game could use a hero like James, who returns home with three brothers and an uncle in various prisons across the state of Florida. He survived a dirt-poor upbringing in Immokalee, where he worked in the fields and made money by filling trucks with watermelons.
In a month, the X-factor could be the ex factor - a likely salary-cap casualty - but James gets one more night, on one stage to remind people of the runner he used to be. During his years with the Colts, he was a two-time NFL rushing champion, Peyton Manning's rock in the backfield.
James took the free-agent money and ran to the desert - four years, $40 million - hoping to make winners out of a franchise that has known only losing.
"No matter what happens," James said, "my time in Arizona won't be for nothing."
Stats aside, he will be remembered for being a good teammate. He already has made a positive impression on Hightower, who presumably will respond the same way in a few years when the next hot shot comes along to take his job.
- Rich Cimini writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the New York Jets for the N.Y. Daily News.