TAMPA — This time last year, Mike James spent most of his Sundays wearing a Dolphins polo shirt, getting to Miami's Sun Life Stadium at 7 a.m. to set up and run an interactive truck that engaged fans.
James, 22, then a University of Miami senior, was a Dolphins marketing intern for six months, working a couple of days a week behind the scenes along with fiance Aubrey Gregorakis preparing for life after football.
James soon, however, will have a leading role against the Dolphins on one of the NFL's biggest stages, Monday Night Football, continuing his unlikely journey to becoming the Bucs' No. 1 running back. The sixth-round pick wasn't a regular starter at Miami until his senior year and never had a 100-yard rushing game there. But James finally got his shot three weeks ago when Doug Martin went down with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. And he racked up 158 yards — and the first passing touchdown of his life — Sunday in Seattle.
And with Martin going on injured reserve Friday, it's James' show the rest of the way.
"It's exciting," said James, who had 39 yards on 10 carries in his first start, Oct. 24 against Carolina. "But it's a humbling experience at the same time."
The Bucs say James earned the opportunity through his tireless work ethic and ability. The 5-foot-10, 223-pounder is a physical runner, as shown Sunday when he ran over Seahawks defenders.
"When he's on the field, he's got the attitude that nobody is going to stop him," Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said.
"He's got that eye of a tiger."
Running backs coach Earnest Byner said the seemingly always smiling James has a "natural charisma," maturity and smarts; he's a sponge for information who gets upset if he misses a question in a meeting. Veteran running back Brian Leonard said James watches film more than anybody on the team other than rookie quarterback Mike Glennon and has a rare ability to read defenses and pick up protections.
"He can be one of the better backs in the league," Byner said.
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James wishes his mother was here to see it.
Elgusta, who died in a car crash just before Christmas 2010, is the reason James is playing football. A single mother who ran an after-school program in Haines City, Elgusta loved the sport, with Bo Jackson her favorite player. She made sure James got to all of his practices and games.
"When he'd have (youth league games), she'd be running along the sidelines," said Jasmine Ansley, James' sister. "She played as much football as him."
When James played at Miami, Elgusta and Ansley drove all Friday night to North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia — even Ohio — to see all of his games.
James wasn't the star with the Hurricanes but was glad to be a "piece of the puzzle," playing a lot of special teams and even fullback while leading them in community service. Randy Shannon, one of James' coaches at Miami, said he had the talent to be the No. 1 back, but injuries seemed to get in the way. But they never got him down.
"He's got a strong mind, strong will," Shannon said. "No matter what, he's going to outwork everybody. He may not be the prototype fast guy or prototype this guy, but in the long haul, he always has more energy than the other guy because he's driven to be the best. And I think he's doing whatever he's doing for Tampa Bay, he's doing a lot of that for his mom."
James has a tattoo of his mom's likeness on his left biceps. She's holding him as a young child with an angel above. Inside is an inscription, "Mama's boy."
"We talk about that every day, how much we wish his mom was here to see her son playing Monday Night Football," Gregorakis said.
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James has a child of his own now, 6-month-old Michael James III.
His son is a reason why, no matter how much success he has had recently, he says his life hasn't changed a bit.
"I'm the same old, simple guy," he said, smiling.
Gregorakis said when James gets back from One Buc Place, he takes over all of the work at home, from diaper duty to the dishes. James often heads out to the driveway to grill dinner and does all of the troubleshooting.
"He's Mr. Fix it," she says.
The couple met 2½ years ago in a sports leadership class. James offered to turn in one of her papers to find out her last name, and the rest is history. Gregorakis said while James is a tough runner, he has a softer side.
"He's a big kid," she said. "We went to a family member's 10th birthday party recently with miniature golf, Laser Tag, all that, and he was the life of the party."
Gregorakis said any plans for their big party, a wedding, are on hold until after the season. After all, James has a big job to do.
"He's gone through so many ups and downs and has been through some tough times," Gregorakis said. "But he's the most resilient person that I know."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]m. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_JSmith.