49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

May 14, 2012
LaMichael James: Tough neighborhood made me who I am


I wrote a story Sunday about LaMichael James' relationship with his grandmother, who raised him since birth and who still guides him five years after her death. I could just have easily written about the Texarkana neighborhood in which he grew up. James, in fact, credits both his grandmother and his home town with forging him into the man and the player he is today.

That neighborhood is on the Texas side of town and is known as Beverly. James described it as a virtual war zone. In fact, he used the words "war zone. You saw it so much that it was regular," he said. "It didn't bother me - gunshots or someone getting killed or drugs deals or police. That type of stuff was happening everyday, all day. ... There wasn't a day that went by that something didn't happen. It's part of the culture. It's what it was."

I talked to one of his coaches and asked him if he thought James was embellishing a bit. No, he said, Beverly was that bad. His sister, Tasha, who is 16 years his senior and who is extremely protective of her little brother, wanted him to get as far away from Texarkana as he could.

"My sister was always the one who was telling me to leave," he said. "Like, 'I want you to go as far as you can. I want you to leave and don't come back.' I think she was looking out for my best interest."

Texarkana is unique in that half of it is in Texas and the other half is in Arkansas. And that creates a Hatfields-vs.-McCoys feud. James, however, was able to steer clear of that trouble. For one, he had a connection to both sides. His grandmother lived on the Texas side of town. His mom was on the Arkansas side. This gave him a bit of carte blanche everywhere he went.

Mostly his grandmother kept him from the violence that dotted the neighborhood. A deeply religious woman, she made her grandkids go to church three or four times a week, James' sister reported. But other family members, coaches, teachers, etc. also made sure James didn't stray off course, especially after his grandmother passed away when he was 17 and he lived in her house alone.

What struck me was that, according to James, even the trouble makers in the neighborhood made sure he didn't end up with them. "Those are the guys I grew up with, that I've been around," he said. "Everything has been positive with them. They want to see me excel. They don't want to bring no trouble my way. They want to see me make it. That means a lot to me coming from them. ... It's like I'm playing for everybody."

In 2010 James was arrested after an altercation with his girlfriend. He ended up pleading guilty to physical harassment and was suspended for the season opener later that year. The story received widespread publicity. I wrestled with whether to include that in The Bee's Sunday newspaper story, which, after all, was about James' character. In the end, I decided it would have seemed forced into a piece that was about his youth and high school years.

There's also a sense - from folks at Oregon and Texarkana and certainly James and his family - that the 2010 stories were overblown. Here's the court memorandum of the incident, so you can judge it yourself.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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