ORLANDO — His welcome mat reads: The Property.
Edgerrin James relaxes on the back porch overlooking the lake on the sprawling 5-acre estate. It's 11 a.m. and the former NFL star just rolled out of bed. Who can blame him? At 34, he's retired.
But James doesn't lounge around all day. Instead, the former Immokalee High standout will be father to more than his children, whose mother died three years ago.
James entertains, coaches and mentors more than 100 underprivileged children for eight weeks every summer.
There is a wrought-iron gate at the driveway at The Property but the camp is open to any kid. It's free. The kids have nothing and the camp is everything. A punt, pass and a kick from Disney World, it is filled with instruction on football, basketball and life.
James says it's better than any amusement park.
"Once we took about 50 kids to the Disney parks, and that's not cheap, and in a couple of hours they were bored," James said. "They never get bored here."
James isn't your typical camp organizer. The plausible future Hall of Famer ranks 11th all-time in NFL rushing with 12,246 yards. As the first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 1999, he made an immediate impact. He became the first player to lead the league in rushing his first two years. The Indianapolis Colts will recognize his talents today by inducting him into their Ring of Honor.
James says he doesn't miss football. He does miss the love of his life, Andia Wilson, who died in 2009. In her memory, he tackles society's stereotypes of being a black father and an athlete.
"Everything I do now I want to do forever," said James, who still lives in Naples full-time while spending the summers in Orlando. "I was on the clock for football. There's no way I would want to do it forever."
In the camp's three-year history, James said he's only missed one day. This past summer, he had to be in Atlanta for business on a Monday evening. He flew out after the football drills and back the same night on the redeye to be at camp the next day.
"This is who he is," said Evan Wilson, a camp counselor and uncle of James' children. "He is all about the kids."
The Camp's Quarterback
In retirement, James has switched positions. He's now a quarterback.
During the afternoon football instruction, James is the oversized signal-caller for the no-blocking, everyone eligible pickup game. It's a 12-on-12 game played on a patch of real estate pulverized by eight weeks of playground action. There are more kids than blades of grass. The holes are bigger than some of the campers. Yet, it's a 30-yard by 30-yard pigskin paradise.
The game is organized chaos. It's unbridled joy. It's an escape.
The cries of "E.J., E.J." and "I'm open, I'm open " with arms flailing fill the air. They try to get the attention of the four-time Pro Bowler. Yet, the kids, ranging in ages from 6 to 12, know little about his illustrious career.
All the campers call the counselors uncle. So James is simply Uncle E.J.
"I don't want this to be a celebrity camp." said James, who has welcomed guests such as former NFL players Warren Sapp and Clinton Portis to The Property. "This is about giving kids an opportunity and the skill sets to pursue their dreams and not just dreaming about being someone else."
As the kids scramble to get open, James spots a familiar target: his son Edgerrin Jr, 7, known simply as Jizzleman. James' pass hits Jizzleman in stride. Touchdown and all the kids celebrate. James pumps his fist and stretches his arms in airplane mode as he cruises to the sidelines. This is a rare display of emotions for the normally reserved James.
But kids stir his emotions.
"It doesn't get any better than spending the day with a bunch of kids," said James, as he twiddles his shortcut dreadlocks. "They never want to leave and some of them don't."
James isn't joking. Many kids, with parents' permission, bunk up at The Property. And there are rules. Once camp starts they must stay outside until sundown. Then there is no TV and no video games. It's old fashioned fun and character building.
"This here is all pure," said James, proudly wearing a red Edgerrin James Youth Camp T-shirt. "Nothing is going to happen on my watch."
The camp, which is run through the Edgerrin James Foundation, starts promptly at 11 a.m. with an hour of basketball instruction. Then the kids break for lunch, provided by the Orange County Public Schools for seven weeks with James footing the bill the last week. The day is capped off with two hours of pro-level football drills.
Jim Schumann, an Orlando minister, watched the football practice unfold as he waited to pick up his son. Schumann said he met James at a YMCA basketball game and got a personal invite to bring his son. At first Schumann thought there was some kind of catch. He couldn't believe a former NFL star was hosting a free camp. He said other celebrities were charging as much as $200 a week for a similar camp.
"I couldn't afford to take my son to a camp like this," Schumann said. "I'm in awe of Edgerrin and what he does for these kids. I've never met a guy like this."
James bought the ranch home about six years ago and little by little, investing over $1 million, he says, converted it into the ultimate camp home complete with full-court basketball, a state-of-the-art playground, outdoor bathrooms, and enough room to park 200 cars.
All of the counselors, many of whom are family members, are volunteers. Even the women who clean and do the laundry are volunteers. They all proudly wear The Property-logoed T-shirts.
And all the kids are drinking the "monkey juice" — a combination of Kool-Aid and fruit juice. There's no fighting. There's no showboating. There's no horse-playing.
James doesn't tolerate it.
"We have had one incident in three years and they were sent home and told not to come back," James said. "We demand respect here to both the counselors and each other."
James also demands hard work and discipline. He aims to build character.
During the pickup football game, Bud, a likable and lanky young boy, takes a hard hit and is on the verge of tears.
James approaches Bud with the same intensity of a grizzled-throwback high school coach.
"I thought you were tough Bud," James says to the boy. "I know you're not crying."
Bud goes back in the game and three plays later shows his toughness. He smacks the intended receiver to the ground, jarring the ball out of his hands. The coaches erupt in approval.
"Now that's the Bud we know," James shouts. "That's the way to be tough."
Andia's Love Grows
In 2009, tears rolled down James' face. His 15-year-old daughter says it was the first time she saw her dad cry.
The man who had worked his way out of Immokalee and beat the odds of playing in the NFL felt defeated.
He lost his love. Not football. To James, that's just a game.
He lost his high school sweetheart. He lost the mother of four of his children.
Wilson died at age 30. She didn't beat acute myeloid leukemia and James felt helpless.
"I felt like I failed her," James said. "At first I thought I should be able to fix it; every other issue she had I fixed."
James and Wilson weren't officially husband and wife but they were bonded for life. Her presence resonates at The Property. They bought it together in 2006 with plans to make it their family summer getaway.
"She loved being a mother. She loved being with kids," James said. "She used to say kids don't have any problems in life and as long as we have plenty of kids around we didn't have any problems."
James says still "she's everywhere." A large 6-foot-by-6-foot photo of Wilson hangs in the living room. Her children have T-shirts with the same picture. Her brother and a nephew she raised as a son are both counselors. And a memorial with her picture sits in the backyard underneath a jacaranda tree.
James said a friend gave him the tree as a tribute to Wilson. When it blooms in the spring, it produces a purple flower, Wilson's favorite color.Three years ago, the jacaranda tree was only a couple of feet tall when it was planted in the ground near the basketball court and close to the lake.
Now, it soars 15 feet into the sky. James says the love of the children, her own and the campers, is why the tree grew so quickly. He then points to the water fountains outside of the basketball court and grins. He explains that every time someone gets a drink the excess water trickles down to Wilson's tree.
"She would have loved this camp," said James, as he sits on a rock underneath the tree with his brother Jeff debating the latest sports topics. "And every time someone gets a drink from the fountains the love is shared. Her love grows every day here."
The Practical Father
James is a younger, cooler, more athletic Cliff Huxtable. He's a hip-hop lovin', diamond-earring wearing Father Knows Best. He's fathering in his own style. It's half practical wisdom and half Immokalee's Second Street-smarts.
"Everything I do I try to do effortlessly," James said. "Everything is common sense."
He could easily spoil his children. And he does. He's got millions. But he doesn't say yes to every request. He hates saying no to his children.
"Every 'no' has to be justified, I don't say 'no' to say 'no,'" James said.
Recently, Euro, 5, the youngest of the six children, made a request.
"He asked for a lion," James said. "I said no, the lion is going to eat you. Fish are OK. Let's get a fish."
Ten-year-old Eyahna recently asked her father for something more realistic: an iPhone. Dad said no with the justification being she is too young. But he did make an incentive-laden deal with her.
"I told her if she gets straight A's she could get an iPhone," James said. "It's not like she doesn't have a phone, it's just not a iPhone. She has to understand there is a responsibility to having an iPhone."
For James, being a father tops his Super Bowl appearance.
He cherishes taking them to school, coaching their teams or teaching them how to drive. The oldest, Edquisha, known as Qui Qui, turned 15 this past year and went to get her temporary driver's license to celebrate.
"I couldn't sleep," James said. "It was as if I was getting my driver's license."
Edquisha says her father is always laid back and hip.
"He's real relaxed," Edquisha said. "He's not like any of the other dads. We are always having fun."
She said he also tries to prepare them for life, often giving them a lecture or a lesson or providing opportunities.
Edquisha is interested in becoming a lawyer, so James arranged for her to meet weekly with legal experts. She also has to send him a legal term with the definition every week.
Eyahanna has dreams of being an entertainer. So James provided her with piano and acting lessons.
And after Edgerrin Jr. wrote a short story called Good Grandma, Bad Grandma — a tale about Wilson's and James' mothers who help take care of the children in Naples — James is getting the book published.
"If you can get involved in a kid's life you can make it something so much bigger," James said.
James' desire to be a good father goes further than his love for what he calls his boom-squad: his children. He strives to fight stereotypes. He said people look at him differently being a black father, especially one with dreads, tattoos and gold-plated teeth.
"I'm aware of the perceptions of being an African-American father," said James as the beat of rap music bounces from the speakers of his Mercedes. "That's why I'm stepping it up. I want to take it beyond that."
"But I always had to fight the perception that comes with being a professional football player," added James, whose only brush with the law has been a few speeding tickets. "You don't have to be in trouble. You don't have to be a problem ... Not everyone who looks like this is bad. I can look like this and be myself."
On the Money
As James sits on the porch, a young boy streaks past and scurries to the basketball court.
"That's my youngest, Euro," said James, glimmering a gold tooth smile in appreciation of the inherited speed. "I call him moneyman. He's going to be in control of the family fortune."
James isn't hurting financially. He signed for $49 million out of college. Then he left the Colts and Super Bowl potential for $30 million from the Arizona Cardinals to make sure his family was secure.
And he's inspired to make more millions.
He purchased a free-standing business building in what he describes as the perfect location: between the football stadium and basketball arena in downtown Orlando.
His office is simple with a black and white décor. An oversized collage of his children hangs on the wall. The white dry-erase board has a neatly written list of projects and ideas. As he flips through a thick book of rental properties, he gets giddy about the potential profits.
"I plan on making a ton of money, much more than I made playing in the NFL," James said. "But I just want to do it the right way."
He doesn't flash his wealth. He sold his Bentley. He sold Stressss Freeee his speed boat. He still owns homes in Atlanta and Miami but he considers those investments.
He says growing up with nothing taught him to appreciate everything.
"He's humble," said Carlton Williams, an Orlando barbershop owner and volunteer camp counselor. "That's a quality we need more of. Society is losing its priorities and could be overall more humble."
James has a backup plan if he's not a business success.
"I'm going to hit that," James says pointing to the advertisement for a $251 million Powerball jackpot in August as drives down an Orlando street.
James says he plays weekly. And he's got a foolproof formula for picking the winning numbers. Each of his six kids pick one with Euro picking the powerball number.
"You have to believe you are going to win," he said.
But hitting the lottery wouldn't change James. His Miami Heat season tickets would still be in row 10 instead of on the floor with the other millionaire celebrities. He prefers the view from his seats.
"I'd rather be myself and not make a ton of money," said James, who made nearly $70 million playing in the NFL. "I don't care for it. Money gives you more access and opportunities but it's not everything."
What James has done with his fortune is everything to a group of kids in Orlando. And The Property is everything to James.
He is at home there.
For the eight weeks, he lives at the camp. The three-bedroom home isn't fancy or glamorous. But neither is James.
"He could be in a skyscraper in downtown New York or on the beach in Miami," Jeff James said. "But he's where he's most comfortable ... at The Property."