COSTA MESA, Calif. — You’d never know it by looking at Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James Jr.’s chiseled, ripped body, but when he was a baby he used to steal his cousin’s bottle to get the extra formula. He got to be so pudgy that his mom started calling him “Pooh Bear” — and still calls him that to this day.
“When I first had him,” his mother, Shanita Russell, told Warchant — Florida State’s Rivals website — in 2016, “he had a head full or curly hair … and then he was so plump he looked like a little bear to me.”
What you see now when you look at James is an imposing, 6-foot-2, 214-pound athlete capable of doing just about anything on a football field. You can also see hard work James has put in since he was the No. 17 overall draft pick by the Chargers in 2018. That work resulted in James earning first-team All-Pro status as a rookie and will be key to him emerging again after injuries have hampered him the last two seasons.
James has spent much of the past two years in the trainer’s room after suffering injuries to his foot in 2019 and tearing his meniscus prior to last season. The Jones fracture in his foot (which happened when a screw from a previous surgery in college was bent) caused him to miss 11 games in 2019, while he missed all of last season with the torn meniscus.
Losing James, who had 34 tackles in five games in 2019 after compiling 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions the season before, was a huge blow to the Chargers’ defense. James has worked hard to get back on the field with his teammates, who are just as eager to have him back.
“His energy, impact and obviously skills on the field will speak to themselves,” said wide receiver Keenan Allen. “Hopefully he can stay out there with us this year.”
It’s difficult to underestimate the impact James has had when he was healthy. He’s one of the toughest, most athletic players out there and has the ability to play just about every position on defense, something the Chargers have already utilized.
When asked about the position he wanted to play upon being drafted in 2018, James answered, “Wherever the ball is.”
He was the nation’s top-ranked safety prospect when he came out of Haines City (Florida) High School in 2015 after transferring from Auburndale. Once the new guy, James is the most experienced safety on the Chargers’ roster and is the secondary’s longest-tenured starter. That has caused him to take more a leadership role on the team.
“I tell Nas [third-year safety Nasir Adderley] we’re going to need each other. This defense is going to need us and a lot of people are leaning on us,” James said. “We’re gonna have to be the guys that’s going to make everything go … I feel like we’re going to make a lot of great plays together.”
New head coach Brandon Staley will run the defense after coordinating the league’s No. 1 defense last year with the Los Angeles Rams. While James wouldn’t go into specifics on how he’d be utilized by Staley, he did say it will be similar to how he was employed during his All-Pro rookie season, when he alternated between playing a traditional coverage role to blitzing and playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
“Coach Staley said we’re going to go against the best in practice,” James said. “Going against Keenan Allen, Justin Herbert, Austin Ekeler, guys like that, it’s only going to help us and prepare us for games each and every Sunday.”
Now if he can just stay out of the trainer’s room and off the formula.
“I can do it,” he said. “I’m a football player, so it’s going to be fun.”