Standing shoeless in a hallway while all around his Oregon teammates celebrated clinching their trip to the national championship, running back LaMichael James was asked for the umpteenth time how he felt about all the individual accolades coming his way.
James bore a here-we-go-again grin.
"I can't think about that, man," he said. "We've still got one more game."
This has become a mantra for James, who has tried to deflect the national attention that has increased with each carry this season — even though he's constantly asked about it.
The small, yet speedy sophomore is among the four finalists for the Heisman Trophy, the only running back joining a trio of quarterbacks: Auburn's Cam Newton, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Boise State's Kellen Moore.
James is also one of three finalists for both the Doak Walker Award honoring the nation's top running back and the Walter Camp player of the year award.
While he's flattered by the recognition, James said he hasn't really considered the Heisman as a goal. And for now he's focused on Auburn, the team the Ducks will face in the national championship on Jan. 10.
"It's never been something that's even been on my mind, I can honestly say that. I just never think about it," he said at a recent news conference. "Winning the national championship, that's the main goal. I've always thought about that. I always wanted to be the guy holding up the little ball and giving it a kiss and all that good stuff."
At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, James has been compared to former Heisman winner and NFL great Barry Sanders. He made a splash last year as a redshirt freshman by necessity after senior LeGarrette Blount was suspended for punching a Boise State player in the aftermath of the season opener.
James ran for a Pac-10 freshman-record 1,546 yards and was named the league's freshman of the year.
But his reputation was tainted this spring when he was accused of assaulting an ex-girlfriend. He spent two nights in jail and eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge. James apologized to the young woman and her family.
Determined not to let the incident define him, James kept a low profile for the rest of the summer except for a bit of freelancing on Oregon's track team. Because of the altercation, however, James was suspended by coach Chip Kelly for the season opener against New Mexico.
Talking for the first time during fall camp about what transpired in the offseason, James said that ultimately he didn't fully understand the responsibility of his position.
"You're in a fishbowl. Either you're at the top and everybody's waiting for you to fall, or you're at the bottom and everybody's waiting for you to screw up," he said.
James now says about the incident: "That's in the past."
He found himself in the fishbowl again late this season when the NCAA briefly investigated reports that he was driving around Eugene in a 2003 Range Rover. Turned out he borrowed the SUV from a mentor to avoid someone who kept leaving notes on his own car.
He even joked that his plan was thwarted once the car swap made national news. "I don't know what I'm going to have to do now. I'm just going to have to get a scooter," he said.
The Texas native has always been adept at moving forward. His father was shot and killed before he was born, and his maternal grandmother, who raised him, passed away from cancer when he was in high school.
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