Sept. 1, 1997
A Tough Loss for a Terrapin
Wide Receiver James Gets Late Start After Father's Untimely Death
By Anthony Cotton, Washington Post Staff Writer
Ever since his father coached him when he was nine years old, Bruce James's first instinct upon leaving a football field has been to talk to his dad -- in person or by telephone. Asking for advice. Reviewing the day's work. Trying to get a handle on things.
Today, competing with a half dozen other wide receivers for a starting position with the Maryland Terrapins, that instinct is just as strong as it was 13 years ago. At some point, however, James catches himself and remembers that the daily sessions are no longer possible.
"It's a really eerie feeling because every day I still want to call," said James, whose father, Bruce Sr., died in July at age 45 from a brain aneurysm. "We were really good friends, we had a really good relationship. . . . It's still a little rough right now."
Trying to cope with his loss, James missed much of Coach Ron Vanderlinden's first training camp, returning to practice earlier this week. During his absence, James, a junior from New Orleans who has caught more passes than any returning Maryland player, considered transferring to a school closer to home and his mother, Judith. After some soul-searching, he decided to stay because he said he "found out that this is still what I want to do -- play football and get my degree from the University of Maryland."
In the meantime, though, a number of other players have caught the coach's eye, meaning James will have to fight his way back into the lineup.
"There are certainly some things that are more important than football," Vanderlinden said. But he added that, because of the time James missed and the work done by the other wide receivers, "It will be harder for him. We won't just give him a position -- he'll have to pay a little price."
James finished the 1996 season with 21 catches for 170 yards, this after a sophomore year in which he caught 16 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown. Combined, all of Maryland's other wide receivers have just 10 catches entering this season.
At the end of spring practice, James was listed with the first team at one wide receiver spot, and he was hoping to solidify his position with a strong showing in the fall camp.
All that changed when his father was stricken while driving home with his wife from a family reunion. James reported to camp on time, but said he found himself "busting rocks" -- an expression for a player with hands of stone -- and missing assignments.
"A couple of the guys came up to me and said that wasn't me, and when I thought about it, I realized that my mind really wasn't in it," James said. "My teammates and coaches were great, being very supportive, and I thought I was okay, but things were still foggy in my head."
After talking with Vanderlinden, James received permission to take some time off, and his mother came from Louisiana to spend a few days with him in College Park. Although all the kind words and love were welcome, James said he still struggled to understand what he was feeling.
"I think the biggest thing was that through the funeral and everything, I never had one day by myself to gather my thoughts and really think about what was going on," he said. "I came back here and camp started and then you're with everyone else. Even after my mom came, that was great, but I still needed to do my own soul-searching.
"I guess I'm really just going through the grieving process now. I used to be a guy who thought he could take everything on by himself. I tried to handle all my problems alone, but lately I'm finding that that's not the way to do things. This has changed a lot of things."
James is sure he'll come back around. A criminal justice major (his father was a corrections officer who worked with juveniles), James has caught up in the two summer school courses he was taking. Now he's planning on doing the same on the football field at a position that is regarded as the weakest part of Maryland's offense.
"I don't question what the coaches say or what they do -- it doesn't matter what the depth chart says right now," James said. "The coaches are giving each player ample opportunities to make up any ground they may have lost. . . . The most important thing anyway is the team. I feel we have a lot of guys who can make big plays. If everyone on the offense does their job, then things will click."