TAMPA — When Bucs rookie running back Mike James wants to see his late mother, Elgusta, he doesn't have to look very far.
Etched on James' bulging left biceps is a tattoo of her likeness, holding him as a young child. Above it is an angel with wings, and just inside the arm is a fitting inscription for the sixth-round pick from Haines City: "Mama's boy."
While Elgusta is gone, having died in a car accident just before Christmas 2010, James said he has been shaped — and continues to be inspired — by the longtime teacher. You can see it in his constant smile, a positive mind-set that has others wondering if he ever has a bad day. You notice it in how much the 21-year-old gives back, spearheading a bone marrow drive and feeding the homeless while at the University of Miami.
Bucs general manager Mark Dominik compares James' selfless character to that of former Tampa Bay running back Earnest Graham.
James just wishes his mother were here to physically witness the patience and persistence she taught him paying off in him living his NFL dream. Dominik says James, a powerful and versatile 5-foot-10, 225-pounder, can play all four downs and has a chance to back up Doug Martin.
"She's definitely looking down on me," James said. "My mom was my biggest fan and biggest support system. I'm just glad I got to spend 19 years with her."
• • •
Like most single mothers, Elgusta, who ran an after-school program in Haines City, had to juggle. James recalled her tireless work ethic, getting home late after night shifts at the local grocery store.
She made sure James got to every practice, and she watched every game, from peewee on up. That included college road games with James' older sister, Jasmine Ansley, and Elgusta driving all Friday night in their Ford Explorer to Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina, with the farthest to Ohio.
"When he'd have (youth league) games, she'd be running along the sidelines," said Ansley, a teacher at James' alma mater, Davenport Ridge Community High. "They watched football together. One of their favorite players was Bo Jackson. She played as much football as him."
James said on days he wanted to stop playing or stay home, his mother kept him going. For his 17th birthday, all he wanted was a ride to Gainesville for a Nike football camp, a key showcase for high school recruits. He remembers his mother gassing up their 1994 pickup and finding time to drive him there.
"I had my first couple of (scholarship) offers," he said. "And it was on from there."
James waited his turn at Miami, serving as a reserve until his senior season, when he rushed for 621 yards and six touchdowns and caught 30 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Having learned from his mom to share, he focused on being a "puzzle piece," finding any way to help the team, even if it was special teams.
"Everyone wants to be a Heisman Trophy candidate when they're in college," he said. "But I had to look at the bigger picture."
Many considered James the most active Hurricane in community service, including taking the lead on a bone marrow drive to help a longtime friend, Jeff, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 25. The week before the draft, James spoke at his former high school and attended a youth camp.
"What I learned a lot growing up is it's not who you are. It's what you give," he said, "because I would be nothing without the people around me."
• • •
Considering the thousands of miles Jasmine and Elgusta racked up in the Ford Explorer attending James' games, their Monday morning drive on Dec. 20, 2010, should have been a breeze.
With school off on break, they were going Christmas shopping with Jasmine's then 5-year-old son, Jayden, in the back seat.
As they passed through a Haines City intersection, Jasmine said a Toyota Corolla ran a stop sign and hit the rear driver's side of the Explorer. Elgusta, 47, who was not wearing a seat belt in the passenger seat, was ejected and died at the scene. Jasmine and Jayden, both wearing seat belts, suffered broken bones. Jayden was in a medically induced coma for a few days.
"They didn't think he'd make it," Jasmine said. "But he's made a complete recovery. He's a normal 8-year-old kid."
James' life has not been the same since getting the call after a practice. He returned home to be with his family for several days but decided to play in the Sun Bowl against Notre Dame that Saturday, which took place at the exact time of Elgusta's funeral. He would say it's what his mother would have wanted him to do.
James said he couldn't have gotten through it without the help of support staff at Miami, his friends and his family, especially Jasmine. He got the tattoos as a tribute a few months after his mother's death. He says not an hour goes by without him thinking about her. When James does, he smiles.
"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "I'm just happy to say that she's at peace."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]