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.
James rushed for 2,043 yards and 26 touchdowns his senior year at Liberty-Eylau High School in Texarkana. Considered a four-star recruit, he was lured to the Pacific Northwest in large part by Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell. He chose the Ducks over offers from TCU and Nebraska.
James recently admitted he didn't even know where Oregon was when he was being recruited.
This season, James is the nation's leading rusher with 1,682 yards, averaging 153 yards per game. He's also averaging a national-best 12 points per game.
At Oregon, he ranks second with 3,228 career rushing yards and 36 touchdowns. His 22 touchdowns (21 on the ground along with one touchdown reception) this season are a school record.
While James has a quick sense of humor, he'll be the first to say that off the field he's reserved. A Christian, he is tattooed with Philippians 4:13, which says "I can do all things through him who gives me strength."
About the only individual honor that James has ever said he'd like to earn is Academic All-American. He didn't make that list this season, but he was named to the Pac-10's All-Academic first team. James, a sociology major, has a 3.01 GPA.
"That was one of my main goals. I really worked hard to do that," he said. "It's kinda tough to balance school with games and all that stuff. I really take pride in doing both."
James said he still has time to win national academic recognition. He also said he plans to run on the track team in the spring.Comment on this story
"My career at Oregon is not done," he said, effectively answering whether he has immediate plans to leave Eugene for the NFL.
His apparent desire to stay in school and his view on the Heisman hype begged the question that if he did win it, if not this year but in the future, what would he do with it? Donate it to the university, he replied.
But when a reporter pointed out that Oregon gets one too, James was quick with a retort and a smile.
"They'll have two," he said.