Edgerrin James gave a rousing speech during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, that celebrated Black culture and challenged everyone to do a better job of looking out for one another.
After a successful career playing 11 seasons in the NFL for teams including the Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, and Seattle Seahawks, the 43-year-old retired running back was honored with a coveted gold jacket and bronze bust, locs and all, during the Aug. 7 celebration.
James made his way through a long list of thank yous and acknowledgements before closing out the last few minutes of his speech with a lesson in Black pride. “Throughout my career, I took pride in representing my culture, my people, and keeping it real, and I did it all while doing my job,” he begins at 7:17. “In the real world, we need to think about these things and protect the people we’re supposed to protect,” he continued. “In society, we have witnessed a lot of people turning the other cheek. Since we’re in the football world, imagine if I turned the other cheek and don’t protect my quarterback.”
“Just do your job. If everybody did they job, the world would be a better place,” he added.
James, who is 13th in NFL history as a member of the exclusive 10,000-yard rushing club with 12,246 career yards, used himself as an example of how the public perception of Black men and their appearance “isn’t always reality.”
“For some reason, I always had to deal with perception. Perception, though, isn’t always reality,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t my reality. People looked at my gold teeth and dreads and were shocked and surprised I had never been under arrest or spent time in jail.”
“So many people told me that you can’t have dreads and gold teeth and be accepted in the NFL, but I never listened,” he continued. “I always knew who I was: a great football player, a great father, a proud Black man, a lion, and [the locs] was my mane, which many of those doubters would later discover once they got to know the real me.”
“Times have changed,” he stated. “Look around the league. Look at some of the young stars. As a matter of fact, look at my Pro Football Hall of Fame bust. Rockin’ the same dreads they said I shouldn’t.”
The Class of 2020 inductee closed his speech with words of encouragement for the public, before flipping the stereotype that had been projected onto him on its head.
“My closing message: Proudly represent the real you,” James encouraged, “Follow your dream, aim high, and create the life you want to live. And to all those who’ve been judged prematurely because of their appearance, the way they speak, where they come from, and, in the minds of many, should be locked up in prison, I represent us. I’m forever immortalized. Locked up in the Canton Correctional Institution. Inmate number 3-3-6 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” he said as he gestured to the number stitched into his jacket lining. “My career started with gold teeth and ended with this gold jacket.”