TAMPA — Mike James has felt the warm glow of the spotlight, the joy of rushing for 158 yards in an NFL game, that feeling of belonging at the sport's highest level.
Much more recently, he has known the doubt of extended time on the fringe of the NFL, on rosters but inactive on Sundays, on practice squads and cut loose.
But James is back in a Bucs uniform. His No. 25 could be back in the spotlight Sunday as Tampa Bay continues to endure a wild rash of injuries that has four running backs on the sideline. That moment could be his again.
"It's been tough, just trying to persevere through it," said James, 25, a sixth-round pick for the Bucs out of Miami in 2013. "I'm happy to be back."
The first time starter Doug Martin was sidelined by injury, James grabbed the opportunity, rushing for 158 yards as a rookie in a loss at Seattle. He never rushed for 100 yards in four years with the Hurricanes, but he was thriving, even throwing for a touchdown against Seattle.
A week later, he broke his ankle and was done for the year. The next season, with a new coach and new role in a new offense, he gained 32 yards on 20 touches.
In 2015, he never played, inactive for his five weeks on the Bucs' roster and spending the rest of the year on their practice squad. This September, a late hamstring injury forced the team to waive him days before the season opener.
After three years playing an hour from his hometown in Polk County, of calling Tampa home, James got a call from the Lions for their practice squad and moved his young family to Michigan, only to be cut three weeks later.
One man's injury is another man's opportunity, as Bucs coach Dirk Koetter says. The same back who lost his job due to injury in September got it back after another injury in November, and now he has coaches and teammates again pulling for him.
"Mike's one of those guys that's just a joy to be around," Koetter said. "He always has a smile on his face. He always brings energy. Mike's one of those guys you cheer for. He's the right kind of guy."
The Bucs likely will continue to be without Martin on Sunday, with Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith also injured. Rookie Peyton Barber got a shot last week but having another week to get his bearings could have James in a major role Sunday against the Bears.
"I knew when we cut him at the beginning of the season that it hurt him," running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "He works his butt off. Mike's an intelligent football player. He fits well with what we're going to do. He got hurt right at the end, and it was unfortunate. But he's persevered."
James' opportunity validates four seasons of hard work and hope.
"If you work hard enough, you put the time in, your work doesn't go in vain," he said. "It's hard. You have that internal battle each day: 'Is something going to happen now?' It was a struggle, but I'm happy with the outcome. It's humbling to be brought back by an organization that thinks you can play. I'm thankful."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.