Analy’s running back provides Tigers’ sugar rush

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Analy's Ja'Narrick James (20) makes a 50-yard kickoff return during a game against Pittsburg on Aug. 30 in Sebastopol. (Alvin Jornada / For The Press Democrat)

Analy’s Ja’Narrick James (20) makes a 50-yard kickoff return during a game against Pittsburg on Aug. 30 in Sebastopol. (Alvin Jornada / For The Press Democrat)

SEBASTOPOL – It happened in a film meeting two years ago. Analy JV football coach Jim Lewis was exhorting his offensive linemen to open some holes, noting that his low-to-the-ground running back, Ja’Narrick James, was getting all but swallowed by larger defenders. “He looks like a … like a … ,” Lewis stammered, searching for the perfect metaphor.

Then Lewis noticed the bag of junk food James was nibbling from.

“He looks like a Skittle!” the coach said.

A nickname was born, and perhaps a legend. Two years later, junior Ja’Narrick “Skittles” James is the guy who gives the Analy offense its sugar rush. He is the Tigers’ featured running back and leading ground gainer. He’s also a reliable receiver when split wide in an empty-backfield set, and a dangerous kickoff returner. James holds his own as a backup cornerback, too.

It’s an impressive job description for a kid who stands 5-foot-4 and weighs between 145 and 150 pounds. James has thought of himself as a running back since the first time he ran the ball at eight years old. Convincing the rest of the world has been a little more difficult. James says he has heard the doubts from opponents, friends, even total strangers “almost every day” of his budding football career.

“Every year, every game, I’ll be walking over to the stands for home games, and when I walk past the opposing team that sits closest to the gate, you’ll hear a lot of whispering, a lot of smirking, a lot of laughing, like, ‘Hey, look at how small he is,’” James said. “I kind of chuckle about it a little bit and just go about my way and show what I can do on the field.”

James is not the athlete you might be picturing. He is not, according to Analy varsity coach Dan Bourdon, exceptionally fast. “Shifty” would be a more apt description.

“He’s tough to tackle in space,” Bourdon said. “He’s a guy I’d definitely want on my flag football team.”

And, as it turns out, on your tackle football team. James may be short for the gridiron, but it would feel wrong to call him little. He’s a sawed-off Hercules with a bodybuilder’s physique. At a recent practice, before James knew a reporter was there to interview him, he entertained teammates by doing a crisp handstand and walking around the field on his hands.

“In pads he looks smaller than he does out of pads,” Bourdon said.

Which can lead to some awkward introductions to defensive players who dismiss James based on his height. This is a runner who can break a tackle, or run you over if you don’t establish position. James also plays for the Analy basketball team and excels at track and field; he was the Sonoma County League champion in the triple jump last year, and finished second in the long jump.

James inherited a lot of his athletic ability. His father, Ricky, was a “freak” basketball player, as Ja’Narrick put it. His mother, Swonettia, was a softball star, though both played several other sports as well.

“I came out like a built baby,” Ja’Narrick said. “I mean, it’s in my genetics.”

But it isn’t just DNA. James is a workout fiend, abetted by his father, a maintenance worker on the Analy campus. “He’s got keys,” Bourdon said. “You’ll pop in on a Sunday morning at 11 and you might see Ja’Narrick in the weight room with Dad.”

James played varsity as a sophomore last year and was a big part of Analy’s breakthrough season. He ran for 660 yards (second on the team) and was a major threat on special teams, averaging 16.6 yards on 25 punt returns and 30.4 yards on eight kickoff returns. The Tigers went undefeated until losing to El Cerrito in the North Coast Section Division 3 semifinals; they finished 12-1.

Analy’s season is off to a strange start in 2013. The Tigers opened the schedule by upsetting Pittsburg, a team so strong that it is MaxPreps’ third-ranked team in the NCS (among all divisions) despite the road loss. Analy hasn’t been able to duplicate that effort yet, though, edging Maria Carrillo 34-30 and losing to a very good Miramonte team 23-13 before beating up on tiny Stellar Prep last weekend.

“It’s not gonna be like last year,” Bourdon said. “We’re not gonna be running by guys this year, that’s not happening. We don’t have that same sort of firepower.”

Of course, the Tigers haven’t had the recommended weekly allowance of Skittles. James hurt his ankle in the Pittsburg game and was hampered against Carrillo and Miramonte. He says he’s “practically 100 percent” now.

And just in time for Analy’s SCL opener tonight at Sonoma Valley. The Dragons are a solid team with an experienced, athletic quarterback in Dan Deely, and just may be able to threaten the Tigers. Analy will feel a lot more comfortable heading into the game with their triple-threat ground gainer.

Asked which prospect excites him most — darting through a hole in the line, running under a pass in the open field or setting up to return a kick — James did not hesitate.

“I’d probably have to say opening kickoff,” he replied. “Because before every game, I mean any real athlete, you’re gonna get the butterflies before you go out and perform. Once it starts to get a little bit darker, the lights turn on, fans are cheering on their feet for the opening kickoff, and you’re back there — me and the two guys that usually go back there, two of my best friends — it’s kind of like something you dream about as a kid.”

James’ dream, and a lot of others, will resume tonight.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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