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Green Bay Packers running back James Starks blossomed at exactly right time


For now, it is easy to enjoy the sweet story of James Starks, the kid who ran from nowhere.

Soon, the defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers will try to send him back.

They are spoilsports, these Steelers. They have little time, and little tolerance, for the tales of the plucky underdogs who dare to run toward them. For a long time now, the Steelers have provided a painful final chapter to the warmest of stories.

As the Super Bowl gets closer, there are those who think Starks' story will end up the same, that he will run into the line and disappear somewhere between Casey Hampton and James Harrison, never to be heard of again. After all, the Steelers have spent seven straight years — and nine of the past 10 — among the top three defenses against the run in the NFL.

As for Starks, well, he sees it differently.

After all, a back has to have vision, doesn't he?

• • •

"I imagine Sunday's game all the time. I visualize myself breaking a 50-yarder, taking it the distance and scoring. I see myself looking up into the stands and seeing everyone smiling, and me going back and slapping teammates' hands and saying 'Let's go, let's go,' and just having fun. I've visualized it a million times."

— Starks

• • •

The kid sees things. Give him credit for that.

Even earlier this season, when he was an afterthought on the fringe of the NFL, he believed his chance would come. He had gone from shoulder problems to a nagging hamstring, and the 2010 season was running out, and still, he was confident.

For 11 weeks, he watched and he waited while other running backs took their turns. It is fair to suggest that most fans didn't exactly see him as the answer. After all, Starks was only a sixth-round draft pick, and he had spent his college days at not-exactly-a-powerhouse Buffalo, and even there, he had missed his senior season with a shoulder injury.

Yet, Starks swears he never had doubts. He doesn't do doubt. To this day, Starks will tell you that if he had remained at quarterback at Buffalo, he would have made it to the NFL. And if he had stayed at wide receiver, he would have made it to the NFL.

Instead, he became a running back. And, yes, he has made it.

Starks is one of those rare players who has blossomed at exactly the right time. During the season, he played in only three games, none of those before the 12th week of the season, and he finished with only 101 yards. In the playoffs, however, he has become a threat. He has rushed for 263 yards, the most in this postseason.

As it turns out, there is nothing wrong with being an overnight success, provided it's the night before the postseason begins.

"I'm making my own story," Starks said, grinning. "It's happened fast, but isn't the NFL a fast league?"

The NFL never saw Starks coming. It is as if he was invisible one day and materialized in the Packers huddle the next.

In the playoffs, Starks has been the dream of every understudy who got a chance to perform. It is easy to imagine every other running back in the league looking at Starks with envy and thinking that if they had the right chance at the right time, they could be the right back, too.

The thing is, Starks could have told everyone.

• • •

"When I wasn't playing, I would visualize coming in and helping my teammates become a better team. I visualized showing everybody that I'm a good back, the commentators saying 'James Starks? Who is this kid?' I called my family many times and said 'It's okay. They're going to know my name.' "

— Starks

• • •

It is a running back's town, Green Bay. It was made that way by Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung, by John Brockington and Clark Hinkle and the old Packers sweep.

As for Starks, there is more proving to do.

At this point, he is still somewhere between fluke and force. Remember Timmy Smith, who starred for the Redskins in the '87 playoffs? Smith gained only 126 yards all season, but in the postseason, he had 342 yards (including 204 in Super Bowl XXII.) He disappeared a year later.

"I don't want to be a one-game wonder," Stars said. "I want to hang around. I don't want to be good. I want to be great."

Is greatness in him? Starks thinks so. If so, Sunday would be a fine time to start. And, yes, he has heard of the Steelers defense.

"They've got a great defense," he said. "They're fast, and they're physical. But you can't surrender. If I can establish some running yards, it's going to help our receivers."

In the meantime, Starks studies other backs. He has been to the Packers Hall of Fame to watch old footage. He has watched ESPN Classic. He has watched YouTube clips.

"I like Gale Sayers," Starks said. "And Robert Smith and Ottis Anderson and Clinton Portis. I try to take some things from all of them."

And, again, Starks looks into the future at the back he will become.

• • •

"I see a person who is physical, who is going to get downhill. Someone who is passionate about the game. I want to be a total back. I visualize people saying 'James Starks is a great back. He's special to the Green Bay Packers.' "

— Starks

Green Bay Packers running back James Starks blossomed at exactly right time 02/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 7:07am]
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