James Starks doesn’t go anywhere without his Bible, and listening to the Green Bay Packers’ oft-injured running back speak Friday afternoon, one Old Testament character kept coming to mind.
It’s a credit to the depth of Starks’ faith that he stood in front of his locker after practice and continually put a positive spin on football lot in life. What Starks has endured over the past two months – and the way injuries have constantly affected him – would test the faith of even the biggest believers among us, and yet somehow, Starks constantly smiled, spoke repeatedly about things happening for a reason and vowed not to get down on himself.
“I’m built Ford tough. Can’t nothing hold me down,” Starks said with a wide smile. “Right now, I’m just trying to get better – get healthier, get stronger, get faster, start making more cuts right and when I get another opportunity, whenever that comes, I’ll be ready for it. That’s my job.”
Starks’ injury history before this season was well-documented: Missed senior year at the University of Buffalo with a shoulder injury; missed the first half of his rookie season in the NFL with a torn hamstring; missed much of the second half of last season with nagging knee and ankle problems. But he entered training camp healthy and at the top of the running back depth chart, with his position coach, Alex Van Pelt, talking excitedly about Starks being able to stay healthy for all 16 games.
As it’s turned out, he hasn’t even played in one game yet. Instead, he suffered a turf toe injury in the Aug. 9 preseason opener at San Diego, the Packers signed veteran free-agent running back Cedric Benson three days later and, even though he’s been removed from the injury report for Sunday’s game at Indianapolis and practiced in full every day this week, Starks is no lock to even be on the 46-man active game-day roster.
“It is what it is. Things happen for a reason. Only God knows,” Starks said. “I’m going to stick to everything I was doing – working hard. That’s what got me here, that’s what still has me here. I’m going to keep doing everything I can to get better.”
Starks is definitely healthy enough to play – ““I’m practicing, I’m healthy, I’m back, I’m fine,” he said – but unlike last year, when the Packers used both Starks and Ryan Grant to carry the ball, the coaches seem committed at this point to Benson. Not even second-year back Alex Green, who has been active for all four games this season, has gotten much action. In fact, Green dressed for two games and never left the bench.
“Cedric is going to get the load,” Van Pelt said matter-of-factly. “(James and I) have talked. It’s obviously frustrating. Nobody likes getting hurt. It’s a tough business. If you’re not in there, someone else is and they’re getting ready to go. So he has to fight his way back onto the field and fight his way back to getting carries.”
Starks said he suffered the toe injury on the second play of the preseason, when he carried for a 3-yard gain but was gang-tackled and tried to keep his legs churning instead of simply going down. He stayed in the game – later fumbling a handoff from quarterback Aaron Rodgers that ended the possession – and didn’t realize the seriousness of the injury until later.
“I was trying to push off with eight people on my back and my foot kind of got stuck in the ground and I bent it wrong and kind of messed it up,” Starks explained. “After I got on the plane, that was when I was like, ‘Man, this thing is bothering me.’ I thought it’d be the next day sore, go away. It got worse, and I was like, ‘Dang, this is going to be tough.’ So I prayed on it and asked God to make sure I was doing the right things, give me wisdom and stuff like that, and things take care of themselves. I’ll be fine.”
The quality Starks needs more than anything right now, though, is patience. He may be inactive against the Colts, and God only knows when he’ll play again. For a guy who helped the team to the Super Bowl XLV title as a rookie and entered camp as the unquestioned starter, that’s tough to take – no matter how strong his faith may be.
“I don’t look at it like that,” Starks insisted. “Cedric is a great back, he’s playing well, but at the same time, we’re making the whole running back group better. There’s competition, competition makes teams better. I’ve got all the confidence and wish nothing but the best for him.
“Sometimes you get frustrated, but everybody gets frustrated at times. But it’s nothing that’s too overwhelming. Things happen for a reason, like I said. I’m going to take this as a positive, get better from it. I’m sure the coaches are going to wait until they feel comfortable with me in there in the offense and things like that. It’s always a waiting game. You’ve got to wait for an opportunity and make the best of it. So I’m going to continue to do that.
“I’m anxious just to get another carry out there and play and see what I can do, see how it feels to get contact with another team, break some tackles, help my team win a little bit, but at the same time, I’m getting better. I’m getting better with everything and helping them get better too. That’s my job, I have to take pride in that, and do what I can to make this team better as a whole.”