James never too far from his deep roots

The high school coach thinks of Edgerrin James when he looks at the football field.

"He wrote a check to upgrade our facilities, our field, a big number like $100,000," Israel Gallegos said.

The restaurant manager thinks of James when it gets crowded.

"He didn't go to New York for the big NFL Draft party — he stayed here and threw a party for everyone," Linda Lozano says at the Mexican restaurant, Lozano's. "It was packed. People waited outside."

The cousin thinks of James when she goes home, considering the house was a gift from James. And when she goes to their grandmother's home at Second Street, considering the renovations made by James.

"That used to be a nightclub," Tammy Means says, pointing at a redone stucco home. She points to the similar home beside it. "That used to be a crack house."

James bought both, re-did both and called them the "Fun House." It's a summer place where kids can lift weights, watch TV, play on computers or play basketball on the outdoor court. James bought them and re-built them years ago.

He holds a summer celebrity basketball game that brings a couple dozen NFL players to town. It was played at Immokalee High the first couple of times, but James didn't like people having to pay to watch, Means said. He moved it to the Fun House.

"It's free," Means said.

The sports world is full of people who left their hometown and never came back. Never gave back. Never even looked back, because it was too twisted and painful and rife with riff-raff. James' past is no different.

His father kept his distance. The family ate off food stamps.

Three brothers and an uncle are in prison, the result of drugs, violence or some volatile combination of the two. Immokalee isn't the land of opportunity, what with the agricultural-based economy and 46 percent poverty rate for children under 18.

Role models? James had his mother and grandmother. He also had the guys with a wad of money from selling drugs who paid him $100 for every touchdown he scored in high school.

"I scored five touchdowns a few games," he said.

Now, two hours south of the Super Bowl he'll play in Sunday, James still makes his mark. Just last week, he was in town. On Second Street, where a teenage James bought crack cocaine for addicts and watched them get high for entertainment, he paid a couple junkies $20 to spot weights for him in the Fun House. Just to get them off the street.

The stories pile up like that. He filled up a semi-truck of food and water when Hurricane Wilma buckled Immokalee in 2005, then helped pass out relief to anyone who needed it. He bought rings for the Immokalee High State football champions in 2004, then showed up to present them to the team.

A weekend for 60 kids to Disney World? School clothes for kids who need it? Uniforms for Pop Warner teams?

"Lots of things people don't need to know about, too," Means says.

She sits in her teen-counseling office and tells how she was woken up one night several years ago by a phone call from James. He had bought a home for her. She could move in immediately.

"You know how many homes he has bought for people?" she asks.

She counts seven families from his family tree he's bought homes. But here's the kicker to this: The homes are in Orlando. He didn't want to just give them a house. He wanted to give them a chance, where there better jobs and upgraded dreams.

That was finalized when his younger brother, Cherron, returned to prison in 2006. Cherron had moved to Indianapolis to live with Edgerrin, who was then a Colt. Things were going well. He then returned to Immokalee for two weeks and assaulted a police officer.

"That broke my heart, him going to prison again," James said in Tampa.

James is 30 now. He's 10 years in the league from the University of Miami. He has had the strangest of years, benched, forgotten and then rising like the city where he plays by rushing for two 73-yard games in the playoffs. Some think he's the key to the Super Bowl. James thinks of the road up I-75.

"I'd like to bring all of Immokalee up for this one," he said.

At the sheriff's office, Tim Howell, says James already has. Look who he's helped. What he's done. Even the crime rates decreased in the area since the Fun House opened. Then again, the gifts don't surprise the deputy.

He was James' high school coach, after all. When James made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, he told Howell to pack some luggage. Howell was going to Hawaii with him. All expenses paid, of course.

Dave Hyde can be reached at dhyde@SunSentinel.com