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