Mike Ekern/St. Thomas (Minn.) Athletics
Often accused of playing "trumped up high school football" Division III players struggle to get recognition at the national level. There have been, however, a number of players who dominated the division and have had an impact in the National Football League. Curtis James hopes to be one of them
"I'm aware that at any moment this journey could end"
For the thousands of prospects who hope to crack the rosters of NFL teams every year, respect for—and complete disregard of—the odds of fulfilling their dreams is a common refrain. With over 250 drafted rookies and 500 undrafted free agents hitting training camps every year, the competition for scant roster space is ferocious.
At the onset, Curtis James' story seems no different.
The distant promise of a berth on the national stage has been made shockingly real as he's remade himself for the past five years to be exactly what NFL scouts want to see. The struggle, as it is for any draftable prospect, is to find ways to stand out.
Curtis has always been unique. The youngest of six children, Curtis was the only one to show any real adeptness for athletics. One sister and two of his brothers were very active in the Minnesota high school debate community, and Curtis himself was drawn to an associated activity: high school speech.
His family has quite the competitive pedigree—one of his brothers, Drew, was a semifinalist at the Minnesota State High School League State Debate Tournament, and finished third in the National Forensic League National Debate Tournament.
Another sibling built upon Drew's success and won the Minnesota State Tournament that same year. Both have coached successful debaters, including a brief stint at a summer debate institute where I was able to benefit from the quick-witted teaching of the James clan.
The family's fairly academic leaning presented some fairly odd challenge as Curtis was entering his final year of high school, highlighted by dominant tackle play. Acclimated as they were to intellectual success, the sudden interest in the athletic prowess of their youngest took them by surprise.
"We're figuring it out as we go along," he told me. "No one in our family has done this route."
Top-tier debaters do not get the same treatment.
Colleges will scout local and national debate tournaments and make soft offers to debaters they see as fits for their team, but these discussions happen between rounds and without the sense of urgency that permeates college football. Ultimately, Curtis' accomplished brothers at Edina chose to attend the University of Minnesota, that time without a debate team, instead of the more powerhouse programs at places like Northwestern or Emory.
Certainly, coaches don't come around to a debater's house to make a sales pitch.
"You look at my parents, and they don't know how to handle it. Colleges were coming in and wanted to sit down in our living room; the Air Force head coach is sitting in our room and my mom made lemon bars."
Transition may very well be a theme for the former Edina Hornet, who has gone through quite a bit of change in his short time as a competitor. His abbreviated stay at the University of Minnesota was marked with surprising performance and participation for a walk-on (and redshirt) freshman—he was traveling with them to away games—but also with some unease.
James chronicled his issues with his fit at the Minnesota program with Dennis Brackin at the Star Tribune:
"There were a whole bunch of reasons, but the biggest problem, I think, is that I just wasn't mentally tough," he said. "The easiest way to put it is that I was thinking negatively about the situation. I was like, 'Ah, these workouts are too tough. Oh, I don't want to wake up at 4 a.m.'"
When offensive line coach Phil Meyer, who persuaded him to walk on, left after the 2008 regular season, James decided to leave.
That wasn't the only problem he had with Division I football. While he hadn't yet transformed himself into the determined workhorse he is today, the workload he faced at Minnesota was merely one of many reasons to leave the program.
Phil was the one to initially convince Curtis to join the Golden Gophers. After a generous scholarship from Minnesota State University-Mankato, Curtis thought the decision was easy.
"I was ready to commit to Minnesota State-Mankato ... and Phil Meyer, head offensive line coach for the Gophers at the time, called me up and was like 'yeah, you're not doing that.'"
"Come up, bring your family; we'll have a sit-down meeting," he told the prospective lineman. Minnesota didn't offer any offensive linemen a scholarship that year, but were selling recruits the opportunity to earn that scholarship after two years of hard work.
"I fell in love with his personality, fell in love with his coaching style. I sat there for an hour, ended up leaving and being like 'I'm going to be a Minnesota Gopher'."
Like Brackin mentions in his article, Phil left after that year to be the head coach at Southern Illinois (who ended up immediately improving their record upon his hire, from 9-2 and a first-round FCS exit to 10-1 and a quarterfinal appearance).
Combined with Meyer's departure was a mid-season collapse of the Gopher football squad—once ranked 17th in the country before a tailspin started by a loss to Northwestern. Further losses to Michigan and Wisconsin were followed by a thorough beating from an Iowa squad led by Shonn Greene and Ricky Stanzi. Minnesota lost that game 55-0.
Ultimately, the straw that broke the camel's back was the regimented lifestyle of a Division I football player.
"It wasn't really coaching staff or anything that really did me in. What ended up doing me in was just that I didn't like the way D1 controls your life. Nothing to do with the ‘U', just D1 atmosphere. They picked your schedules, you had to be there at specific times, there was no flexibility—football came first—and I was like ‘I love football, but that makes it a job, and if I'm not getting paid for my job, it's a tough bullet to bite.'"
A tough time in his life plagued with personal issues, Curtis needed to refocus himself. Moving on from Minnesota, he decided, didn't mean he needed to move on with football or the things he felt passionately about.
It didn't take long for Curtis to segue from this part of the conversation to effusive praise for his coach and coaching staff at the University of St. Thomas.
And well he should. Glenn Caruso, now a two-time winner of Division III's Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award, knows talent when he sees it. He convinced James to switch positions to center, a position Caruso knows quite a bit about. A former center himself, Caruso has frequently coached centers to the top of their game in their division.
The Rimington Award is given annually to the top center in each division of NCAA football, except FBS—where centers like Barrett Jones and Maurkice Pouncy have instead won the Rimington Trophy. In his time coaching FCS, Division II and Division III schools over the past eight years, Caruso has coached five award winners, including James himself.
The Vikings' own Brandon Fusco won the award in 2010 for his play in Division II football.
More than that, Caruso has also consistently surpassed milestone upon milestone when improving the Tommie program, a huge turnaround. Had it not been for Caruso, it's safe to say that the redshirt freshman would have gone elsewhere.
In fact, when initially recruited in 2008, James found himself less than impressed by St. Thomas' sales pitch.
"St. Thomas was recruiting me without a head coach."
Indeed, after a disastrous 2-8 season, decade-long coach Don Roney chose to resign, having never taken the University of St. Thomas to the NCAA playoffs or a conference championship. In fact, St. Thomas had to stew while cross-state rivals St. John's—a team Roney never beat at St. Thomas—made the playoffs.
Glenn Caruso turned that around, winning seven regular season games in 2008 for a 7-3 record, and improving every year. In 2009, the Tommies went 9-1 in the regular season and advanced to the quarterfinals to finish 11-2. In 2010, they had an undefeated regular season but were again stymied in the quarterfinals.
With a revitalized and more mature roster, Caruso, James and the rest of the St. Thomas squad were able to replicate their undefeated season before falling to eventual champions Wisconsin-Whitewater in the semifinals.
In James' last year with the program, however, Caruso was able to lead St. Thomas to an undefeated regular season and an appearance in the Championship game, merely four years removed from firing an underperforming head coach.
So how did James end up playing for St. Thomas throughout the majority of their rise?
Merely 20 minutes after signing and faxing his release papers from the University of Minnesota, Caruso came calling.
St. Thomas went from trying to sell James on a team struggling to maintain a middling standing within their conference and without a coach to aggressively recruiting him with one of the best offensive line coaches in the country. The decision was a lot easier this time around.
On an early Saturday morning in 2005, I walked in to a high school lunchroom. Approaching a table, I was unfazed as a young high school student laugh maniacally at a wall, as if to celebrate some dastardly deed. Behind me, another student was pacing, repeating stuttered solutions to approaching reconstruction in Iraq. His whispers to himself went unheeded by those around him, all lost in their own worlds.
In this bizarre reality of competitive high school speech, it wasn't uncommon to see 16-year-olds in suits perfecting their dramatic monologues or lengthy orations while glaring balefully at the lamppost in front of them. It was here I first met Curtis James.
The speech community in Minnesota—and very probably many other states—is somewhat divided between students who perform theatrical interpretations of literature and students who engage in public address. Edina was well-known for its dominance in the latter, rostering a squad of student experts on current events, all of whom were fiercely competitive (and successful) in providing well-reasoned arguments for or against international and domestic policies.
So when my girlfriend introduced me to her partner in duo dramatic interpretation, I was a bit surprised and skeptical that the big man in front of me had the chops to do well in the most competitive speech state in the country.
A few weeks later, I saw the two of them perform at a national qualifying tournament and came away very impressed, particularly knowing the circumstances surrounding their team.
"The program kept switching hands," he elaborated. "Throughout my five years at the program, every year I saw it get worse and worse, to the point where my senior year, we had somebody who was coaching it who really didn't care. We basically were a four person speech team."
More shockingly, he tells me, "We went to one tournament without a coach."
Without institutional support, Curtis—a team captain by then—was still able to perform at a high level, and they kept bringing home awards.
Even cumulative team awards.
In speech, programs at every tournament are rewarded for accumulating "points" towards an overall sweepstakes award. With 13 or 14 categories at every tournament, it's difficult to keep track of which schools have done the most at the tournament. So the tournament awards points to the school for each well-graded overall performance by an individual student in their category. As you can imagine, schools with more entries (some with upwards of 90) often win the award.
That tournament that Edina showed up without a coach? They won a sweepstakes award.
Curtis' highlight film from St. Thomas showcase a dominant center who's a force in the run game. But what else would he be if he were not good in the transition?
Eric Galko at Optimum Scouting told me that James was just that. "James became one of the premier players, regardless of position, at the D3 level. Possessing good interior strength thanks to a solid base, James flashes the ability to transition between blockers and readjust himself well."
This isn't judgment isn't unique to Galko, however. Small-school scouts have also recognized that he's dominated his division with his level of play. Josh Buchanan at JBScouting—a website devoted to small-school scouting—went on to say much the same about how James has been solid at the Division III level. "James was the 2nd best lineman in D3 from the tape I saw," he said. "James is a solid player. He was consistent, smart, and has good size."
The capability to adjust to what's around him, a talent he has shown on and off the field, has also caught the eye of Joe Everett at Rookie Draft. Like Buchanan, he agrees that James has good size, but was more impressed with what he did with that mass.
"He flashes great speed ... and gets out to next level defenders very quickly. James has a great understanding of angles and leverage which allows him to wall off larger defenders, buying his ball carriers extra time. He is hyper active and is capable of making adjustments at the LOS [line of scrimmage]," echoing the sentiments of the other scouting services I talked to. He went on, "[James] offers position and scheme versatility but would fit best in a zone blocking scheme that would favor his mobility."
Curtis has heard the same on his end. "Agencies like my ability to move up to the second level, and I never really had an issue with it in D3"
Like any football player, Curtis is proud of who he is. "Physically ... one of my biggest strengths is that I get shit done. I'm a quick learner when it comes to that. I know how to react, and I respond well to coaching," he says without a hint of hubris. "I can learn new styles, I can figure that out"
He's willing to talk about flaws in his game, however. In fact, he opens the conversation about how well he plays with a discussion of his weaknesses.
"I don't have traditional 'perfect-set' form," he tells me bluntly. And he's right.
Everett expanded on what he saw of James to me, "He's a waist bender on the move that has difficulty against the pass rush, often lunging and getting turned around too easily. He does not play controlled and can get ahead of himself quickly, as evidence of his two holding plays in the team's championship game."
Perhaps his ability to adjust on the fly gives him the ability to overcome it, but it's clear that run blocking is his strength. More worrisome to Galko, however, was the consistency of play. Despite identifying James as one of the top Division III players in the country, he wasn't confident that he would be drafted.
"Playing at the D3 level, however, doesn't do much justice for James becoming a 2013 draftable NFL prospect, especially since he didn't consistently dominate at the level the way small schoolers need to."
Traditionally small-school players have been able to overcome that sort of knock is to put up good numbers at their Pro Day. Pierre Garcon, for example, ran a 4.42 40-yard dash and had 20 bench reps. Most recently, Chris Greenwood from Albion college ran a 4.41 40-yard dash, and had an astonishing 43 inch vertical leap (paired with an 11'2" broad jump).
Curtis doesn't seem to have that advantage. His pro day numbers, from NFL Draft Scout, aren't all that special. When I read off the numbers to Curtis—a 5.44 40-yard dash most prominent among them—he was unperturbed.
"They're not good. But here's the situation. I'm not going to mention any teams, but we talked to a couple of other teams when they were done, and the numbers they had were nowhere close to the numbers they ended up with here. They all had numbers that were relatively similar."
Most galling to Curtis was the 10-yard split. Listed at 1.87, he was confident that the speed listed on the website was nowhere near the speed he ran at the Pro Day. "I could run a 1.88 10 backwards."
He offered an intriguing and plausible alternative explanation.
"It's a giant poker game. What they release is not necessarily the time that they actually go, because they don't want to show their hands to the other teams," he explained. "Teams might give a player a better number to show interest if they're not really interested, or tell other team—say a speed guy they got at a 4.6—they might say he ran a 4.8 to show that this guy sucks. Realistically, they know that this guy is very high on their board."
"Because I know the poker-esque style of the things that go into it, I didn't pay a lot of attention to the numbers that we can't confirm. There's no video footage."
It would explain why reports of Terrell Sinkfield's 4.19 40-yard dash were countered by Scott Studwell's faint praise of his high 4.3 40-yard dash.
He better hope that it's politics keeping his numbers less than impressive. Buchanan concluded his scouting report of James with a brief nod towards his lackluster workout report. "That workout won't totally kill him but it won't get him drafted and I would guess he is 50/50 to get in a camp. I was hoping he would run a 5.2"
In a previous conversation with Curtis—at this year's national qualifying tournament for speech in the region, in fact—he told me that in his workouts, he was averaging a 5.22 40-yard dash time and was bench pressing 225 pounds 22 times. His 19 bench reps at the Pro Day were not spectacular, although neither were they as dooming as Damontre Moore's 12 reps at the combine might prove to be.
There's a good body of evidence that Curtis' Pro Day went better than the numbers might tell you. Other than his broad jump, the tangible numbers that were announced out loud instead of those kept secretly by different scouts (like the 40-yard dash time) made him happy. His 27.5 inch vertical leap, for example, puts him in the top half of centers currently starting in the NFL and would have been the second-best at that position at the 2013 Combine. His shuttle time would have been the second fastest, as well.
Aside from the measureable workouts, Curtis clearly impressed the gathered scouts, who among them included the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers, New York Giants, New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
He knows this not just because of the conversations he had with scouts, but because the scouts "cut" the Division II and Division III players after their workouts but before their position drills, and Curtis was one of three offensive linemen to survive the cuts.
If you're not familiar with how they cut players at the Pro Day, don't worry. I wasn't either.
"They did it differently this year than they have in the past. Anyone can go to their Pro Day, which is really unique, because most Pro Days are by invite-only. In the past, you've been guaranteed a 40—you run your 40 and then they make cuts."
Before I could express my surprise at how quickly teams could eliminate potential draftees off of a much-maligned test, Curtis pointed out that it's a bit more of a formality.
"Realistically, those teams know who they want to see and who they don't want to see. You might get something like the guy who was down in Northern Iowa ... But normally they know who they want to look at ."
Surviving a brutal cut process that saw dozens of players fall by the wayside, Curtis was the only center to perform for the gathered scouts. All he had left were positions drills, although those were cut a bit short.
"It was a joke, actually," he says with a smile. "My reasoning behind that statement is... well, the Minnesota Vikings offensive line assistant [Ryan Silverfield] was the guy running line drills. They took three O-linemen who made it through. It was myself, Garth [Heikkinen] and somebody from New Mexico [Andrew Kersten, OG New Mexico State]. I never heard of him, he went to Washburn.
"The three of us broke through. Originally he'd been planning, ‘hey, here's all of these drills - first we're going to do bags, then we're going to do kick-slides, then we're going to do punches, then we're going to do pulls. You're going to do all this.'
Then it got time for us to go and he started calling people around and scouts were standing around and we did literally absolutely... we did one round of bags. We did one or two pulls each way. Then we did kick-slide, punches ... and we were done. It was literally like a ten minute workout—if that."
A fairly confusing outcome, given that the other positions received well over thirty minutes to exhibit their skills to the gathered scouts. He has a theory about it, though.
"It goes back to that whole poker face. I think the Vikings are really interested in one of those three guys. Either myself, Garth [an invitee to the East-West Shrine Game] or that guy from New Mexico. And they think it's a sleeper pick that they can get.
"If that's the case, they don't want to show too much of this person's athleticism. I don't know who, and I don't know if it's correct, but that was my theory based on sitting there and going through it at least. Most of those players are right in their backyard. Myself and Garth. They could have been watching either of us for a prolonged period of time."
An intriguing process, and prognostication could drive one crazy. It's a lot to hang your hopes on: half-guesses and semi-plausible theories. But that's all that happens in these two months leading up to the draft, while teams hold their cards close to their chest. The Vikings famously didn't contact Harrison Smith once after the Senior Bowl—no Combine interviews, no workouts, nothing to indicate that they were interested.
Small clues like this are perhaps the best you'll see.
Minnesota has an astounding set of speech programs. Curtis has previously told others that speech in Minnesota is like football in Texas, and in no way is he exaggerating.
In 2012, of the six speech categories recognized by the National Forensic League (the other NFL), Minnesota placed finalists—top six finishers—in five of them, and won two of the categories. Minnesota put 11 of 36 entrants into those rounds.
In fact, in one supplemental category (not one of the six alluded to above), Minnesota stuffed a final round with five entrants, taking the top five of six spots. And 2012 may have been a down year.
So to recognize Curtis as a successful coach in the Minnesota speech community is saying quite a bit.
His passion for speech never left as he entered the University of Minnesota, and he wanted to give back to the community that had treated him so well. "I knew I was leaving and I didn't have anything going on that winter, so I called up the speech program and they still had that head coach who really didn't care, and she was like 'yeah, come on in!'
"So, I started to coach then. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was passionate about [it]. And then, over the next four years, I started to develop"
Between 2009 and 2011, Curtis was an assistant speech coach at a struggling Edina program that suffered from a depressing drop in competitiveness and participation. But things were improving.
"We ended up signing Bethany Piety, who took over the team, and she really started the building blocks in getting things moving in the right direction."
In 2012, Curtis became the youngest head coach for any Minnesota State High School League activity.
"I took it over in June [of 2012] going into possibly the biggest year of my college career, and I was like 'yeah, I can handle this'. Somehow, I made it work."
There's no question about that. That year, alongside winning the Rimington Award as Division III's best center, Curtis was recognized as a consensus All-American and a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy, Division III's Heisman award.
The speech team took off, as well. Two years ago, Edina opened their speech season by placing 20th of 25 schools at the Annual Eagle Invitational in Eden Prairie, and only placed one entrant in the finals of her event. In 2012, Edina placed 7th of all eligible schools in a field of 26 competing schools. They placed six entrants in finals, and several more in the consolation rounds.
Later, at one of the biggest tournaments in the country (the Minneapple, held at Apple Valley), Edina placed three entrants in the top 12, and one in the top five—not something they could have hoped to do two years ago.
For Curtis, the twin worlds of speech and football have combined to produce not just a unique character, but one with a unique set of talents. He maintains that his time in speech has helped his football career.
"What I've took from speech all along has helped football. Your ability to communicate, your ability to think things through and to really develop what you're doing."
The maturity he learned from being a leader on a small speech team in high school has translated well into football. In Brackin's Star Tribune piece, coach Caruso praised Curtis for his leadership skills on the field, which ultimately concluded with "I understand it's trite to say 'Well, he's a coach on the field,' but..."
His role as a speech coach has prepared him to deal with a changing offensive line, particularly with new blood coming in. It's hard to overstate the importance of cohesion on the field, and James has done his best to make sure that chemistry remains in sync when new players have been rotated in.
"All guards respond differently. It's like handling people," he said. "It's really getting to know 'who are they' and how to figure out how to work with them."
The prospective center has worked with guards at many different levels of experience, so he certainly has a handle on what it means to adapt to shifting the continuity of play.
"I had a guard this year that I played with for two years straight. And me and him were, pretty much from the get-go, always on the same page as far as how do we need to block people. And when you look at my highlight film, especially when it comes to those types of blocks, 80% of them are with him.
"The chemistry was always there; no communication was ever needed.
"We also then had some younger guards who needed [more]. It was harder to catch on because they were so inconsistent with the way that they played. And they didn't understand when I needed to leave."
That chemistry informs James' philosophy when it comes to the offensive line. Talent is good, but communication is better.
"It's not one person acting individually when looking at offensive line play. All five work together. You could have a very lackluster offensive line as far as names are concerned and abilities are concerned, but if all five of them are always on the same page and the chemistry is very strong between them, you're going to end up with a fantastic product at the end of the day. They're going to understand 'what are the tendencies?' 'When do I need to release from someone?' 'Do I need to help more on these types of blocks than these types'
"It's really more about how do I learn how to play with the same player than 'how good is that player,'" he says. So as not to undersell talent, he clarifies, "The two aren't not related—there's definitely a distinction to know that if you have a good guard you can help them a little bit less, or you can have a lot of fun on plays where you really help them, but it's really getting to know who are they and how to figure out how to work with them"
Speech hasn't just informed football, however. It's been a codependent relationship for Curtis, who has been able to draw upon the lessons he learned from coach Caruso to manage his blossoming speech team.
"What I learned at St. Thomas, especially from coach Caruso has really helped my coaching career now. Things such as structure, things such as discipline, the importance of time management. [I have] an almost no BS policy."
If it raises eyebrows to impose the systematic, almost militaristic, approach of football to speech, Curtis certainly recognizes it. "I'm bringing that to a speech team, which is odd because speech is so 'fine arts activity and loosy-goosy', but I look at it like 'hey, if you can run a large sports team with this mentality, why can't you run a speech team with the same?'
"So we have mandatory meetings every week, we have accountability in our coaching staff to where we have performance reviews with our coaching staff, we're a competitive team."
Peter Gokey, one of the assistants working under Curtis, has enjoyed the attitude that he brings to the table.
"He's been good," Pete told me when I reached out to him for the story. "He sets out clear expectations and sets a bar and standards but doesn't micromanage. He gives people space and the benefit of the doubt, but stepped in a few times when the job wasn't getting done. The right balance between being a leader and letting people thrive on their own."
His insistence on routine and repetition has led to daily practices with the kids on his squad, and a work-like attitude one might more likely expect to see at a ROTC training than a speech tournament. This hasn't led to any blowback from the students, and the coaches find his take to be novel.
"It's clear that he's inspired by his time in football," Gokey says of the connection. "The way he approaches the team shows that he's modeling a lot of his management strategies after what sure must have been how his college football program was run. He looks at the team as an organization and sees it as a collective that needs branding and management as a program. It's been interesting."
Many of the smaller programs around the state have directed their efforts wholly into skill development, an approach that has had many successes, but also some mixed results. The focus on organization and management on Curtis' team has not been unique among speech programs, but it's an outlier for up-and-coming squads.
This approach is a lesson he's learned both from his time in college football and from his mentor, Bethany. "I actually learned a lot of what I do now from her. How do you manage the team, how do you pull it forward, everything from recruiting, how do we get events, what are the big schools doing that we need to start or really start to look at."
The "big schools" in speech do have their own approach to the activity, and it's led to consistent success. Among others, the nationally competitive schools that come from the state include Apple Valley, Chanhassen, Eagan, Eastview, Lakeville North and Moorhead. The focus on branding that Gokey mentioned is one that Apple Valley is well known for. From strict dress codes (that the students chafe at, but never deviate from) to structured tournament conduct rules, one could call Apple Valley the Alabama of the speech world.
Don't confuse structure for rigidity, however. When Chanhassen brought a former coach from Apple Valley over, he implemented much of the same system, but with a softer hand. The program flourished. Curtis has that same flexibility, which has made him a very valuable coach.
I asked Gokey what Curtis was best at as a head coach, and he provided a simple response. "He's willing to adjust as needed and listens to feedback and suggestions, yet is confident and decisive."
That decisiveness is a talent Curtis has honed over the years. His business-like attitude may seem unusual for a 23-year-old, but Gokey is of the opinion that the newspapers have overplayed his age. "There are first-year classroom teachers at that age," he says.
Instead, he chose to emphasize what makes Curtis different from other potential coaches at a qualitative level, instead of using a crude comparison like age. "His benefit is that he's been part of a very well run and successful college football program, and he uses lessons he learned in that environment to help him be a head coach here. As such, he knows more about how to run a program at 23 than I did as a result. It's made him easy to work for."
He's easy to work for, but he isn't easy to please. Curtis is proud of his success, but clearly wants more. Even knowing he'll be leaving his speech team to pursue a career in the NFL, he has a plan in place that will allow Edina to succeed.
It's in a good spot. "That whole mentality of taking—it's really caught on like wildfire," he says.
"We don't show up to a tournament saying 'hey, let's have fun'. We do have fun, but the fun is in the work. So we show up and say, 'hey, how do we win?'"
Opportunity is a very important idea to James. "The journey is a tough one, from D3 trying to get there."
"It's an interesting journey because I don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. Realistically, I'd like to think that between my accolades and a decent showing at the Pro Day, and some of the interest I've gotten, that I'm going to get a call on That Day in April and be like ‘hey, let's give this a shot!' and even then, if I get invited to a minicamp or a rookie camp, there's no guarantee of getting invited to a regular camp. Most guys won't."
But if he gets that chance?
He's taken this with him for quite some time, from speech, to football, and to family life. He knows this approach is going to be critical when he enters camp.
"Yea, I might get a total of 12 reps in a day, but how do I make sure those reps are the best reps that they can possibly be?
"It's more than just my physicality and doing it correctly. How do you do it better than the person ahead of you? Between communication, being at the right place at the right time, getting a good feel for it, not making those little mistakes that are easy to make when you start getting tired."
Like any prospective rookie, he's willing to do whatever teams have asked of him. But unlike some players willing to play anywhere along the line, James has the experience to play anywhere teams might ask him to line up. As a tackle in high school and his year at the University of Minnesota, a guard for most of his career at St. Thomas and an award-winning center, James has done it all.
He even played fullback in high school.
"At St. Thomas, I actually ended up playing every single position within my four years there. I played guard for a prolonged period of time. They flipped me onto tackle sometimes in the playoffs or with injuries, especially those first two years when I was kind of in that flex position play-the sixth guy they needed.
"I have experience doing those things, game experience, which a lot of guys don't. I have game reps at every single position."
With opportunity hopefully comes choice, although prospective players almost never can exercise real decisions.
Of course, if asked whether he had a preference for which team he would like to come calling on draft day, you wouldn't expect him to say anything other than 'whichever team will take me,' but he knows that there are teams that are definite schematic fits to how he plays.
When asked about the offense, he immediately responded with the local example."The best team you could relate it to is the Minnesota Vikings. We're a pro-style offense, but we aren't afraid to get away from that. Typically we like one or two backs in the back field, almost always a tight end on the field, but we also balance. When we line up heavy, we line up heavy and when we want to spread the ball out, we spread the ball out."
It's not just that they are diverse in their gameplan and overall scheme. They run NFL-style line-calls. The same calls we've seen the Vikings use with increasing complexity over the last two years.
"We're more dynamic than when you look at a lot of other teams. When you look at Bethel, Bethel runs this trap-style offense, and they don't really like to get away from that. There's not a whole lot of dimension there. They'll spread out a little bit, but they want to stay to what they do.
"Being able to play for coach Caruso has helped me so much in the sense that when I start watching games, NFL film: 'what do I need to learn to get to this next level?' I already know so much of it."
You can tell that James loves talking about his offense. It's not just that he has a good grasp of the game and wants to show it off; he's clearly proud of the responsibilities the coaching staff at St. Thomas have given him and his teammates over the years, an unusual level of trust at the Division III level.
"The advantage that D1 has over D3 is that in D1, they don't simplify things, whereas in D3 some teams will. They simplify things to the base group just like in high school just to get you to understand it. But at St. Thomas, we didn't have to do that. So, we had pass protections that were half-gap half-man. You know, as a center, where's everybody going to be on that play? Who's accountable for who?
"That kind of knowledge is really going to benefit me on the next level. You know, 'how do I process that?' I already have that running in my head when I walk up to the line. I know my guys on the left have these three guys, I know the guy to the right has that ‘backer, but he's also going to come back unless that ‘backer triggers. I know the running back's got this guy, and that tackle is man on him.
"Being able to process that, it really benefits you at the end of the day."
It's these same complex calls that have defined the Vikings offense. With combined zone-blocking and man-blocking concepts on running plays and combined gap/man technique on passing plays, the Vikings have often asked a lot their linemen.
Naturally, this led to me ask who people have compared him to.
"Jeff Saturday. I think he's a tremendous player and he's the one who scouting agencies have compared my body-build to. He's technically undersized, you know. He doesn't 'on-paper' look like he'd be a fantastic center, but for the majority of his career he was the best in the country at what he did. Unfortunately, this year he went into a different offense; he had a down year."
A comparison he'd be proud to uphold were he to enter the NFL. But it's not Saturday that he patterns his game after. He has a different answer if you ask him about his favorite center in the NFL.
"Matt Birk, and he has been for a long time. He's so smart at what he does and he is so meticulous in everything that he does. He's not a showboater kind of guy. He just gets his work done, runs back into the huddle and that's what you gotta love in someone who plays that position. He's not going to pick that extra fight. They're not out there head-hunting, they're out there to win."
Naming two Pro Bowl centers as role models for his play makes a lot of sense. But he thinks someone else is the best center in the NFL right now.
With three entrants having qualified to the State tournament a month from now, Curtis' schedule is packed. Alongside working with the budget, marking performance reviews and holding mandatory meetings, he needs to make sure his students will put in that much more work to perform at a high level.
Final rounds at the State tournament have been known to include multiple national championship winners and sometimes include only competitors who have made it to the final rounds of nationals. These are people who outperformed over 260 students in their category from every state to be recognized as the top six in their country.
In 2005, that year's reigning national champion in my event (Extemporaneous Speaking) had not even qualified to the State tournament—he was beaten out in his section by the previous year's national champion and two national champion finalists.
With all of that extra time needed to devote to sharpening up speech skills, some would think that Curtis considers himself lucky that the college football season is over.
Not so. Training four days a week at ETS Gym in Woodbury can be exhausting. Aside from pushups with chains draped around his body, Curtis engages in brutal workouts like tire flips for every session.
"I love training. We're up there four days a week, just getting at it. I'm taking care of my diet. I'm not out there drinking every weekend; I'm getting rest. This is my number one job at this point. Speech is good, but football is my job."
With weekly escalating workouts, the trials for James in his training, he and his trainer Ryan have specifically created an atmosphere designed to test his dedication to his football dreams.
The reason? it's exactly what he'll face in training camps come this fall.
"Their job is to figure out who wants to be there and who doesn't, and who's ready to be there. They're going to push you to your very limit. And they want to see who responds to what in those situations. Make no mistake, it is a brutally difficult industry and it's demanding, physically.
"They want to see who can make that happen, so they are going to push you to the very point of exhaustion. Your goal is to respond positively and be like, 'alright, let's keep going.' They want to see the guy who's getting tougher as shit's getting harder."
He suffers no illusions for what awaits him in the NFL, if indeed he gets that shot. I asked Curtis if he had read the New York Times Magazine piece on Pat Schiller, an undrafted free agent linebacker that initially signed with the Atlanta Falcons (he is still with the team). He hadn't, but was familiar with the types of stories discussed in the article.
I thought of the conversation I recently had with his father about the constant threat of injury to his son, who had already overcome a badly shattered ankle in his freshman year of high school and a torn knee ligament at the start of his junior year at Northern Illinois.
"I don't think of the knees and hips," Pat's father told me. "They can replace those now. The thing I'm most worried about is his brain. I've been reading a lot lately about concussions."
My nephew told me that night that he had his share of concussions over the years but said he was never forced to leave a game or miss part of a season because of one.
"I've had it where I've been hit, and the lights go out," he said ... I've also had it two or three times where a play will be called and you have no idea what it is or what to do ... But it's never been to the point where I wake up the next morning really sensitive to light"
"You do get to this point," he told me, "where you feel your body is telling you to chill out, take a break, but your mind stays on the prize. And part of that now is the paycheck. What gets me through coaches screaming at me and the way my body feels is the thought of that $390,000.
I noticed that the dresser was topped with all manner of balms, unguents and painkilling medications: a 23-year-old with the medicine cabinet of a septuagenarian.
"Dude," he said, as I stood staring at his dresser. "I swear to God, if someone tells me right now there's some miracle body cream out there that would make me feel 100 percent and prevent me from getting hurt but that could also cause cancer or liver damage down the line, I'd use it in a heartbeat. I would."
He picked up an empty bottle of anti-inflammatory pills and tossed it in the trash.
"Even if I make it," he said, "the average career is what, three or four years tops. But if I get hurt now, I'm gone. It's nothing personal. If I'm injured, I'm dead weight. I'm stealing their money. Do you know how many linebackers there are sitting home right now that want my job? Hundreds. I mean, let's get real. As much as Coach Smith or Coach Pires might like me, it would be: ‘Hey, it's been a fun ride. You're a good kid. But see ya, Schiller!' "
There is no question that a big part of the equation for success in the NFL is endurance. Not simply endurance in the sense of avoiding injury, but the ability to endure in a basic sense—living through pain that can be unimaginable for large swaths of the population.
The only response is to get better and get tougher.
"Every single day that we're up at ETS, we're pushing ourselves to that point, where you feel like ‘I can't go any further' and it's like ‘alright, let's take this one step, let's go'.
"Today's workout, we did the same thing seven days ago and it was way easier today than it was then. And we'll kick up all the numbers again."
"On Tuesdays we do ‘four quarters,' which is four exhausting quarters of all different things and the third quarter involved tire flips. It's not easy to flip a gigantic tire.
"I'm not going to lie. Last week I was exhausted by the time I hit that point. If not because of the things before it in the first two quarters, just the fact flipping a tire is very difficult.
"Today..." he trailed off, before starting again with renewed energy. "You feel exhausted — we've been going at this for like an hour, you know — but I wasn't to the point where I'm on my knees, breathing heavily. I'm like 'alright, ready. Next set, let's go'."
Time to kick it up.
Curtis has slimmed down since his time at the University of Minnesota. There isn't an ounce of wasted mass on his frame, a bit of a contrast to the first meeting I had with him years ago in a crowded lunchroom.
Along with every other competitor at the tournament, Curtis was in a suit as well. It would be an unfair exaggeration to call Curtis soft—he was a good tackle prospect from the state of Minnesota for a reason—but he wasn't nearly as well-built as he is today.
The bigger difference for Curtis was not in how he looked, however, but in how he acted. Perhaps his time transferring from the Minnesota to St. Thomas added a sense of purpose to his attitude, but the outsized personality I had met then is not the one I know today.
His gregariousness easily filled the room in an atmosphere full of extroverts. The sense of humor he carried with him then hasn't disappeared by any means, but has been paired with a business-like attitude he takes with him to everything he does.
When Curtis agreed to interview with me, he chose to come after the most intense workout day of the week. It was difficult finding time to schedule him in, what with the work he has to do with the speech team, his training and the University and he didn't bat an eye when I unknowingly suggested "four quarters" day.
Of course, he rewarded himself with a hearty short rib stew. From there it was easy to converse with him—you'd hope as much from a speech coach—but he unerringly returned to the matter at hand. Determined to make it to the NFL, James knows that every moment, no matter how seemingly insignificant, will impact his success.
Just don't think he's lost all of his personality.
"He mentioned adding protective cups and mouth guards to the team dress code next year," Gokey told me. "But I had to point out that he was then taking the crossover too far. He listened. He's good like that."