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Monday, September 25, 2006
Updated: April 15, 3:22 PM ET
Get In Line

By Carmen Renee Thompson

Larry Fitzgerald is trying to keep his focus on Lane 29 at Kyrene Lanes bowling alley in Phoenix. Edgerrin James has just bet the Pro Bowl wideout $50 that Fitzgerald can't bowl a strike. Suddenly, 10 little pins never loomed so large. "Come on, Fitz!" James yells in between eating chicken fingers. Teammates, among them fellow wideout Anquan Boldin, are gathered behind Fitzgerald, laughing. "Seventy thousand, baby!" shouts James. "You're in a packed stadium of 70,000!" Although Fitzgerald rolled several strikes earlier, his aim abandons him as the pressure mounts. He throws ball after ball, with James betting a little more every time. A couple crash into the gutter, and with each one the group gets rowdier. "Way to blow the lead, Fitz!" James yells, calmly munching behind the scorer's desk. Fitzgerald is quickly down $180, with everyone hooting and hollering as he grows more frustrated. He tries to erase his debt and show up James by wagering $1,000, but the vet won't bite. "That's a fool's wager," James says with a smile. A few errant rolls later, Fitzgerald says, "I'm done." He packs up his custom ball and takes off his shoes. "Man Law!" shouts James in a booming voice. "You can't quit!"

Welcome to the Edge Era in Arizona. Since James signed a four-year, $30 million deal last March, he's been welcoming everybody to the New Cardinals—including the Cardinals. It may look like the former Colt jumped from luxury liner to rowboat, but James is a betting man, and he likes the odds he sees in Arizona: a Super Bowl QB with a Heisman-winning understudy, the best receiving tandem in football and a roster full of players just dying to be led out of the wilderness. All this mix needs is a little stirring up, something James has a special gift for.

ON A bright June morning in Tempe, before the sun has started to broil a minicamp practice, one voice can be heard above all the grunts and yells, the chatter of a man who likes his teammates to stay on their toes. It's James, and in one sequence he catches a short pass from Matt Leinart and sprints up the sideline yelling, "Who want it? Who want it?" Later, jogging off the field after practice is over, James boasts to no one in particular. "I just murdered these dudes. I just killed these boys! It's not on film, it's in their minds!"

His teammates quickly got used to James' sense of humor, got used to hearing him shout, "What up, baby?" to anyone who happens to walk by. And they like what they're hearing. "This game is a business, but he has fun," Leinart says. "He gives off this vibe of positive energy and enthusiasm. It comes off him and onto the other guys. He talks a lot, but that just makes him more fun."

Publicly, James has often been perceived as a mercenary, a brooding and intimidating one at that. He is a broad tree trunk of a man, with thickly muscled neck, torso and legs. He is also handsome, with a strong jaw, high cheekbones and dimpled chin. But his appearance (dreads, gold teeth, hip-hop wardrobe) puts some people off, and his refusal to go clean-cut for Madison Avenue has made him one of the most accomplished players in the league not to currently have his own shoe deal. But while James quips that he may remove his gold teeth, he says he believes that the endorsement deals will come around if he keeps true to his formula. Many fans, especially kids, dig his mix of star power, street cred, originality and pure talent. He's like 50 Cent, scary and cuddly at the same time.

In short, James was the perfect bridge to the fan base of a team with a sad-sack history (to put it mildly), an out-of-touch owner (to put it kindly) and the worst rushing game in the NFL (to put it bluntly). James is not only a 28-yearold four-time 1,500-yard rusher and Pro Bowler, he's also a man's man, a pusher, an instigator, the kind of guy who inspires a little awe, a smidgen of fear and a lot of respect. He's an alpha male (see Top Dogs on page 46) whom teammates very much want to impress and desperately don't want to let down.

Says Kurt Warner: "He gives us instant credibility."

Says running backs coach Kirby Wilson: "He's one of those guys who, when he comes out of that tunnel, always runs around the field. It reminds me of the lead dog going to each corner of the block and doing his business to let everyone know, This is my territory."

James marked his territory quickly in the Cardinals' locker room. He requested that the team switch from white to black cleats, to bring some edge to their look. And he had a flatscreen TV and iPod stereo system installed near his locker, to make the place homier. "It's created a different feel," Boldin says. "Guys are more upbeat, as opposed to just coming to work and getting the job done. They actually want to hang out."

James knows these are just aesthetic changes. They might improve morale, but they won't make the same guys who finished 5—11 last season any better. Which is why he asked that coaches make everyone's practice and game errors known to all the players. "My style of coaching is, Don't make no f—ing mistakes," James says. "We keep so everybody can see what you did wrong. It's not just, Sorry, and then you brush it off." He wants the Cardinals to play with more pride, no surprise from a father who tells his kids, "You don't embarrass home."

It's also not surprising that Cardinals coaches fairly salivate when talking about their new lead back. "It's one thing for me to say something, and it's another thing for Kurt to say it," Denny Green says. "And it's another thing when Edgerrin James says something."

Still, team leader is a tag James is only getting used to. Despite his gregariousness, he was content in Peyton Manning's shadow while in Indy. In Arizona, though, James is already alternating between ringleader, teacher, confidant, psychiatrist, student and bully. But he mostly sees his role as leader by example, not giving locker room speeches. "I ain't going to be pumping guys up or none of that," he says. "I'm not confident with it, and I'm not ready for that yet."

Instead, James sets the performance bar in more subtle ways. He studied film of all 16 Cardinals games last season and saw an offensive line that shot off in five different directions. "There's no way you look at the film and say they're all on the same page," he says. "It's more like somebody's running free and mistakes are being made." So he approached guys on the line to understand the hows and whys. "I'm not a person that walks around with all this pride like I can't ask a question," James says. "I call it like I see it. I just want to know. If I've got a suggestion, I say, Okay, I think you can do it this way. Just try it out. If it works, cool. If it don't, we'll go about it your way."

The approach seems to work. "The day I got drafted, the coaches said, 'Edgerrin wants you to call him,'" Leinart says. "I called him later that night, and since then he's helped me every day. He played with the best quarterback and he's a smart guy. For me, it's a great situation."

Adds James: "Everything I've learned from P, Matt Leinart will know. He's supercool, and when we go through practice, I tell him, Okay, man, this is going to be your team, right?"

Until then, there's little doubt who's in charge.

JAMES TOSSES a thick handful of dollars into the air near the stage at the HiLiter strip club in Phoenix. The bills float down through the darkness, over several dancers' heads onto the purplish carpet beneath their white pumps. Their heels, along with James' white T-shirt and Air Force Ones, are aglow under the club's wall-to-wall black light. James is glowing too. Hey, the guy never claimed to be an angel.

It's the middle of the afternoon, and minicamp has just ended. James spearheaded this field trip as a send-off before the team returns for training camp. Carloads of Cardinals caravanned in crosstown traffic to get to this spot, where, as luck would have it, the table dances are free all day. The parking lot is packed, and so is the club, but the handlers move quickly to rearrange tables and chairs to accommodate the large guests of honor. Topless dancers gyrate all around them, and at the center of it all James alternates between tossing dollars and checking his Treo for messages while the other guys enjoy the entertainment. This is his idea of quality time, another way of bringing his new team together. Says James: "You just feel better when you play with people that you can hang out with."

His move to Arizona was definitely business, but it was personal, too. Despite his rep as a badass, you never heard stories about James being a bad teammate. Despite being one of the best at his job over the past three years, he never griped about getting less credit than Marvin Harrison and Manning. Instead, he routinely gained a spectacular number of yards, only to find himself deemed expendable when his new contract came up. He's still not quite over the hurt. "You work hard, you do well, but then they say, No, you can't get this money," James says. "I'd even see comments where coach is like, 'Yeah, he is the motor.' Well, you just threw out the motor! I'm not putting the team down. I tell them, I'll see you on ESPN. I know you're going to be there, and I'm going to be there too."

With his appetite for a worthy contract sated, James is anxious to prove he can make a dollar out of 15 cents—that is, get the Cardinals to the playoffs. James says Manning forced players to come up to his level if they wanted the ball; James is trying to bring the same sense of urgency to Arizona. "P wasn't going to throw it to you if you weren't open," he says. "You always had to be on your game. Absence creates that. If you don't have that ball, then you have more respect for it. When it comes your way, you want to do more with it."

And James wants to do a lot with it. Throughout his career he's sought advice on running the ball from guys such as Barry Sanders. He keeps his stats from every season in a notebook, along with the weight he maintained throughout the year, so he can track when his performance peaks. He's 20th on the NFL's list of all-time leading rushers, 108 yards behind Earl Campbell. And he keeps the top 20 and their yardage in his Sidekick, so where he's headed is never far from his fingertips. Then again, it may take James longer to crack the top 10 with the Cardinals, where last year's primary backs—Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington—combined for 685 fewer yards than James did all by himself in Indy. "Back there, everybody was on the same page," James says. "When you have that, it's ridiculous what can happen."

Thus, James' constant efforts to recreate in Arizona the chemistry the Colts had in Indy. He's gotten more Cardinals together at more cookouts, parties, restaurants, nightclubs, pool halls and bowling alleys than anyone can remember. But like any good gambler, he's hedging his bets. The Cards, especially the O-line, won't jell just because they're playing nice off the field. Which is why James asked Green to tweak his playbook. Gone

are the last-second shifts Green prefers on a lot of his plays. Instead, James will be able to settle in and get as much time as possible to read the defense. "A lot of runners try to make everybody react to them," Warner says. "But the great ones are patient enough to understand what the defense is doing, wait for them to commit and then make their move."

Not that James can't see room for improvement in his game. "He's on me every day," says Wilson, the running backs coach. "'Hey, what did I do wrong? What about my footwork? What about my ball security?' That's the greatness in him."

Cardinals fans see it too. In late July, there's a long line waiting for James' autograph in a Phoenix Sam's Club. A Hispanic teen comes up to the table, flashes his own ice-grill smile, throws a peace sign and walks away. A blonde mom brings up her kids for pictures. Then a middleaged white guy comes up to get his red No. 32 jersey signed, his face beaming. Before departing he tells James, "Thanks for coming here—we need you."

"Hey," James counters. "I need you."

Then he laughs and welcomes the next person in line. Because everyone matters on James' new team.