Craig James stands almost no chance of winning his long-shot Senate race, and his campaign has given his many detractors yet another occasion to attack him. So why is he running?
David Dewhurst stared blankly at the fist. The February 1 Republican senatorial debate was halfway over, and Dewhurst had just finished making a point about unemployment benefits. His point was that there were too many of them. The candidate to his right, former football star and ESPN commentator Craig James, had nodded in agreement, then balled his hand into a fist and stuck it in front of Dewhurst. An agonizing second passed. Apparently, the lieutenant governor’s former career as a CIA agent had not included training in the communication arts of a football studio show. Slowly, deliberately, Dewhurst made his own fist and gave James a weak pound. The crowd roared.
James, who is 51 and conventionally handsome, connected with Dewhurst again a half hour later. Ted Cruz, the most conservative candidate in the race, was whacking the lite guv for being deficient in hard-right bona fides. It was a typical tea party noogie. James, who knows what a public thrashing feels like, snapped into action. He scribbled a message on a sheet of paper and pushed it in front of Dewhurst, who glanced at the paper, then raised his head and looked upon his opponent with a perplexed smile. As James later told me, he had written, “You are a good guy.”
Craig James would love to find even a couple of Texans to say that about him. A February Public Policy Polling survey of the GOP field had him getting just 4 percent of the vote, and his favorable rating topped out at 11 percent. (“That’s Donald Trump!” one Texas Republican told me.) Yet for sports fans, who know James as one of the most vilified creatures this side of LeBron James, even these numbers seem high. Most of the hatred for him is tied to one incident: James is blamed for the destruction of Mike Leach’s vaunted Texas Tech football program. He’s a punch line on the Internet, where pranksters have seeded so many different websites with the phrase “Craig James killed five hookers at SMU” that this bit of fiction is now one of the most frequently encountered results of a Google search for his name. Deadspin.com tracks James with posts like “Craig James’s Senate Campaign Is Going About as Poorly as You Expected It to Go.” Meanwhile, the vitriol directed at him on Texas college football message boards is typified by this recent comment: “He’s a narcissistic ass, but at least he’s a Republican.”
A reasonable person might ask, Why on earth is this Republican running for office? Yet what the reasonable person would fail to understand is that James, in a surprising way, actually craves inspection. “He wants people to know the soul and the foundation of the man,” explains Roy Bailey, a friend and business executive in Dallas. Perhaps James hopes that by submitting himself to the media’s probe, he can correct what he sees as a terrible misconception. Perhaps he’s using the campaign not just as a way to get to the Senate but as a way to clear the air.
The James campaign is highly personal, drawing on the biographical journey of a man who says he comes from “Real Street.” James was born in the East Texas town of Jacksonville, in 1961. His dad was a farmer. “If anyone wants to play a woe-is-me game,” James told me, “I’ll sit down and saddle up with ’em.” By third grade, James’s parents were divorced, and he and his younger brother had moved into an apartment in Pasadena with his mom, who often had trouble making ends meet. One day, he came home after school to find a yellow eviction notice pasted to the door. His father would come around to verbally and physically abuse James’s mom, and the sounds of this haunted him. “I peed in the bed until I was thirteen,” he offered. For the rest of his life, James has been on the lookout for—this is his word—“evil.”
Football became James’s escape, his obsession. As a senior at Stratford High, in Houston, he broke the state’s single-season high school rushing record. Every college coach—Bear Bryant included—wanted to give him a scholarship. This is where the first hitch in the James narrative occurs. In his book Game Day, published in 2009, James revealed that a coach from the Midwest offered him a condo, $1,000 a month, and plane tickets so that his mom could see all his games. That was probably a low bid. James wrote that blue-chip recruits—of which he was certainly one—typically got a new car and a $50,000 cash payment up front. James maintains that he turned down large enticements to follow his girlfriend (and now wife), Marilyn, to Southern Methodist University, in 1979.
Four years after James left SMU, in 1983, the football program was shut down completely for paying its players. At the outset of his Senate campaign, James admitted that he took money at SMU but said the sum was “insignificant.” When I asked him if it amounted to hundreds of dollars, he hemmed and hawed. “Yes,” he said. “Probably. I don’t know what the number was.” James’s half confession is understandable given college football’s absurd commitment to its players’ amateur status, but it’s still a bit of Clintonian hedging—the NCAA equivalent of “I didn’t inhale.”
“There are a lot of people who want it brought up, because they know I am a threat to them,” James said.
James played five seasons in the NFL, starting for the New England Patriots the season they got routed in Super Bowl XX. Then he became an analyst at ESPN, where he was a founding cast member of College GameDay. (Full disclosure: I write for Grantland, which is owned by ESPN.) He started the Craig James School of Broadcasting, launched craigjames.com (a short-lived NFL news site), and accumulated 10,000 acres of farmland in North Texas that in a good year produces 30,000 round bales of hay.
Like a lot of Texas farmers, James took a pounding last year. “My hay business went to heck in a handbasket because I was living in a drought,” he told me. “Instead of having a near-million-dollar revenue in hay, I went down to a hundred [thousand]. That’s a big number. That’s a big impact. That’s feeling it, dude.”
That’s the free market, I pointed out. On the campaign trail, James has thundered against government intervention of all kinds, which he believes to be a perversion of the American way. His straight-shooting slogan is “The Constitution is the Constitution.” I asked him if he was okay with the market exacting its toll in the event of a drought.
James paused again. He doesn’t like government subsidies—and wouldn’t quite endorse one here—but the idea of a rancher’s livelihood being decimated hits close to home. “I fear for the cowman,” he said.
Much to James’s horror, the Texas Tech incident, which has been snaking through the courts for more than two years, has become the defining issue of his career. His eldest son, Adam, was a little-used Red Raiders wide receiver for two seasons under Mike Leach. As Tech coaches later testified, Craig James would call and leave them long, haranguing voicemails about Adam’s playing time. On December 16, 2009, Adam suffered a concussion. For the duration of two subsequent practices, either Leach punished Adam by ordering him to stand in a shed and a small, dark closet (as the James family claimed), or Adam walked into the darkened rooms himself (as Leach claimed).
When the story first broke, Leach was the heavy. At best, he’d reacted to a player’s concussion with something less than alacrity. But then Tech fired Leach. (Leach is currently suing Craig James, Texas Tech, and ESPN.) At that point, columnists and bloggers, perhaps thinking Leach had been treated too harshly, made James the bad guy. “The villain!” James says with disbelief. As emails revealed, James had previously complained about Leach to Tech chancellor Kent Hance; he’d also hired a public relations firm, Spaeth Communications, which posted a video Adam had made in the closet on YouTube.
James thinks his mistake was lobbying the Tech administration behind the scenes. “Had I gone out there and just been a maniac dad and just gone crazy, I’d have been like a cult hero.” But what interested me was a speech James gave last year at Prestonwood Baptist Church, in Plano, in which he described his battle with Leach as a “spiritual war.” I asked him what he meant by that. “There’s a lot of people who don’t have a faith and don’t believe what I believe, who want to rip me up,” he explained. “They don’t like the fact that I go home to the same lady every night and have for twenty-nine years. They don’t like that I’ve been a dad and I’ve been there for my kids. They don’t like that I’ve been in the spotlight but haven’t stumbled. I think there’s a group of people who would like to see me come down.”
When James is pushed into a corner, he wraps himself in his faith. “I won’t start my day without going to the Word,” he told me. “Especially in what I’m doing right now. I need God’s armor on me to make it through the day.” James described a period a few years ago, when the Lord came to him and planted within him a desire to seek office. “I don’t want to sound like some wacko,” he said, “but I do have faith and I believe that.” After the message from God came “restless nights when I started thinking far more about foreign policy, freedom, the size of the government, the bailouts,” he explained. The campaign trail beckoned. “I knew I was hooked, man.”
James pulled out his iPhone and showed me an email he had sent to one of his employees. James signed it with the saying “If a person’s Bible is falling apart, their life isn’t.” He signs all his emails that way.
It is James’ staunch belief in his own moral compass that has led him to run such an unconventional campaign. He eschews numbers—say, how much “Obamacare” might have added to the federal deficit. “Anyone can get those numbers,” James says dismissively. He confidently waited until December to enter the race, long after his opponents had spent months scooping up money and endorsements. “Who defines late?” he said. “The career politicians.” When I visited the Texans for Craig James website in January, I couldn’t find a phone number or email address. So I mailed the campaign a letter. A few days later, James’s daughter Jessica, who doubles as his scheduler, called me and offered to set up an interview with her dad.
James’s mind, once crammed with football marginalia, is now filling with foreign names. “I’m thinking about Ahmadinejad,” James told me. “I’m thinking about the Strait of Hormuz. I’m thinking about the Gulf Arab states. I’m thinking about the four Asian tigers of the economy.” I didn’t have a chance to ask their names. “Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong,” James said proudly. “I’m thinking about free-trade agreements!”
He smiled through nearly every one of my questions. For it’s a public cross-examination Craig James wants. Roy Bailey called his friend’s character “Roger Staubach–esque”—by which he means a leader, conservative in nature and morally beyond reproach. “I would be like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” James said. “I’m a citizen. That’s who I am.” He said his message to Texans is “Here’s my life’s résumé.”
James calls the people he has already touched with his message “the dots of my life.” Who are the dots? “Celebrities, head coaches, pro football players, pro basketball, Major League Baseball—my brother played ten years,” he said. “All my high school buddies, my elementary school buddies, my family . . . all of those people who have come up to meet me at movie theaters, malls, grocery stores, the airports.”
So he started with the dots. And then he journeyed from Dallas to Midland, answering whatever questions reporters asked about Mike Leach. It was reminiscent of Newt Gingrich’s trudging through diners from Iowa to South Carolina, only to get grilled about his extramarital affairs at every stop—an exorcism via GOP primary. Soon, James hoped, Leach would be but a single line in the Craig James story, buried between peeing the bed and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Soon, Texans would see the real James—the real guy from Real Street. “I might not win an election,” James told me with absolute conviction, “but I’m not gonna lose.”