He sports dreadlocks and a handful of gold-capped teeth, a look he has worn since high school. Edgerrin James, who grew up in a dirt-poor south Florida town called Immokalee, knows he feeds into a stereotype, but the notion doesn’t bother him. He is some of the things people assume about him and many things people don’t.

“A lot of people judge a book by its cover,” said Pierre Rutledge, the director of the Edgerrin James Foundation. “In this case you’d be wrong.”

The running back the Arizona Cardinals signed in March to a four-year, $30 million free agent contract has long lived in two worlds. He is a millionaire many times over, with the ability to do what he wants. But he has never abandoned his hometown, which is gripped by crime and poverty. There, James has emerged as a generous symbol of hope.

The two sides of James also exist internally.

He’s a fun-loving personality who likes to hang around with neighborhood kids playing video games, avoiding the worries that plague most grown-ups. He disappears from the vast majority of his team’s voluntary offseason workouts.

But no one sees the copious notes he’s jotted down in the meetings he has been here to attend. No one sees the hours he puts in watching DVDs of what the Cardinals do and what he has done, looking for ways to marry them successfully. No one sees his intricate workout plan, mapping his daily efforts from February to the end of training camp. They are workouts he never misses, James emphasizes, no matter where he is or what he is doing.

“I take this way too serious,” James said of his devotion to the game. “I take it way too serious.”

It’s a secret but not a secret. James makes no effort to hide his bipolar ways, but there’s no reason to put out a press release, either. The notion that he is underestimated brings a smile to his face.

“That’s my advantage,” James said. “A lot of people, they are so quick to judge. . . .”

While James is talking in an all-but-empty Cardinals locker room, owner Bill Bidwill shuffles through.

“What up, my man?” James hollers to his boss like he was a homeboy from Immokalee.

Then he finishes his thought.

“And that’s their loss, rather than going through and actually finding out what’s what. I might come off like I am out of control at times or whatever, and I love it.”

FUN WITH AN EDGE

If James has a buzzword — at least, one that he’d choose — it’s f-u-n.

“If I’m not having fun,” James said, chuckling, “I’m usually not around.”

Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of his childhood, when fun was a scarce commodity. Immokalee, an isolated area near the Everglades, is a racially diverse city in which the common theme is poverty. The population swells with migrant workers in the winter when the agriculture-based economy needs bodies, but nearly everyone works for a pittance — the median household income is only $24,000.

Housing, whether it’s the trailers many live in or run-down apartment complexes like the ones in which James was raised, are often pictures of squalor and overcrowding.

When he was younger, fun sometimes consisted of scrounging up a few bucks to buy drug addicts some crack and watch them smoke it. At Christmas, sometimes James would steal a bicycle because it was the only way he was going to get a gift.

These days, James enjoys life through more mainstream pursuits. He bowls. He loves video games, chess and poker. He plays basketball and flag football and rides four-wheelers and takes out his boat, the appropriately named “Stress Free.”

“He don’t need much,” said rap star Trick Daddy, a close friend of James. “He has one nice house, one nice boat, one nice car. He don’t want the clothes, he don’t want the groupie women.”

When James is home in Miami, he spends plenty of time — much of it in the wee hours of the morning — at trendy nightclubs. And in Immokalee, he created the Fun House.

The Fun House is a renovated drug den James turned into a base for local kids (and sometimes James himself) to hang out. There is a pool table, video games and a basketball court, and most importantly, James said, “it’s a neutral site where grown-ups do not rule.”

It’s also a place that, James proudly points out, is helping send five kids to college by keeping them off the streets and out of trouble.

One of them is “Baby J,” the nickname given to Edgerrin’s cousin Javarris James. Baby J is the NFL star’s pet project, headed to play at the University of Miami this fall as a running back. Edgerrin insists his cousin should eventually become a better player — mostly because Edgerrin has been there to give him every opportunity.

“Without him,” Baby J said, “I would have been one of those dudes, ‘Could have done this, could have done that.’ ”

The James family has had enough of those sad stories. One of Edgerrin’s uncles was shot to death. Another had AIDS and died in prison. His extended family is so large and some of them so troubled that the local paper has been taken to task by readers because so many crime stories have included a line noting the suspect was a relative of Edgerrin.

Just escaping Immokalee is an accomplishment, much less making it to the NFL.

“We want to break that cycle in the family (and) we’re trying to break the vicious cycle so prevalent in our community,” said James’ halfbrother, Ed German, who also managed to escape the problems of Immokalee to become a doctor in nearby Fort Myers. “But we are never ashamed of where we are from.”

James hasn’t forgotten his roots. And he’s become a savior of sorts.

After Hurricane Wilma ravaged his hometown, he bought $20,000 worth of necessities such as bottled water and diapers. He spent $14,000 for rings for the 2004 Immokalee High School state champion football team. He donated another $100,000 to the high school.

He routinely finds kids who are doing well in school and takes them on trips to one Florida theme park or another. He puts on huge street parties in which the whole town is invited — like he did last month when one of his three daughters celebrated her ninth birthday.

James has described himself as a “thug,” but no one buys it, especially those who know him.

“He’s loving, cares for his community and is very, very humble,” said Trick Daddy, himself a self-proclaimed thug who has spent time in prison. “I’d be surprised if he’s been in as much as a fistfight the last 20 years.”

James doesn’t want attention for his deeds, or even, it seems, the corresponding reputation.

“I am not a do-gooder,” he insists.

He’s just having fun, and making sure everyone else does too.

HERE TO WORK

After almost all of his teammates had ducked in from the heat following a mid-June voluntary practice, James stayed on the field running pass patterns against defenders Chike Okeafor and Darryl Blackstock.

“You need to get some yellow tape out here be

cause I just murdered these dudes!” James crowed when it was over.

Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who helped recruit James, said he thought the Cardinals could use James’ outgoing personality in the locker room. It just may take some getting used to for some players.

“As a person and as a teammate, he very much marched to the beat of his own drummer,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said.

Dungy recalled his surprise when he first arrived to coach the Colts and saw James’ two lockers at the Indianapolis practice facility, complete with a television and a chess board. It was the epicenter of the locker room, with James often serving as the comic relief.

“He’s the type of person you want to be around,” said Cardinals cornerback David Macklin, who spent four years as James’ teammate in Indianapolis. “There is a swagger about him.”

James’ charisma was one of the things that endeared him to coach Dennis Green when James was a high-profile free agent.

His work ethic and production, however, are why they gave him $30 million.

James has a spiral-bound notebook full of scribbles from the meetings he has attended and his DVD-watching sessions. He’s a voracious reader, taking in Robert Greene’s “48 Laws of Power” this summer in an effort to search for ways to improve himself. That plasma TV he had installed next to his locker at the Cardinals’ facility? “It’s for everyone else here,” he says with a smile.

Nothing underscores James’ intensity about football more than his workout plan.

It’s a color-coded cluster of small type James carries in a zipper-sealed folder, spelling out the strategy that has allowed him to gain 9,226 rushing yards in seven NFL seasons. It runs from February to September, and he does not deviate. James, who turns 28 Aug. 1, knows what his body fat should be and how much weight he should be lifting. For someone who likes to be spontaneous, he is the epitome of organization.

Sure, his workouts might come in Miami at 2 a.m. after a night out. But James knows he has proven they work and he will produce, which is why he remains somewhat exasperated that his absence from voluntary work still is questioned every offseason.

He has no patience for those players who aren’t in shape or don’t know their jobs. Offseason workouts, with 80-some players on the roster, bore James. He’d rather take most of the reps.

And besides, with his daughters, mother and grandmother back in Immokalee, that’s where he is going to spend his free time.

“When the season is over, I’m not going to be here,” James, who is single, said at the end of this summer’s mid-June voluntary work. “What am I going do, sit around here dreaming about when the first game is? They have this (expletive) clock, first game, 87 days. Eighty-(expletive) days? That’s a long (expletive) time, man.

“I’m not going to lose my kids to this game. . . . It’s important for that balance. Coaches don’t have to worry about me. Worry about the other guys.”

These are the ideals his new teammates will come to understand. With his production and preparedness, even if he disappears for most of the offseason, James still will carry a high profile in the locker room.

“He wouldn’t call himself a leader; I don’t think he wants to be a leader — but he leads,” Dungy said.

GO WEST YOUNG MAN

The night NFL free agency began in March, James sent a cell phone text message to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. Unknowingly foreshadowing his future with the Cardinals, he referred to a movie partially shot at the Cards’ Tempe facility. The message read, “You and I are like Rod Tidwell and Jerry Maguire. Show me the money!”

He was just having fun, James says, because his move to Arizona was about more than the money.

Oh, money was a factor. James said all the right things about possibly re-signing in Indianapolis, and so did the Colts. But James knew they would never be able to fit in a market deal under the salary cap, given the lofty contracts given to teammates Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.

James sold his house in Indianapolis before the 2005 season, knowing he was done. Boldin said his first inkling Arizona might be able to gain an Edge was when James let him know prior to free agency that he didn’t want to return to the Colts.

“You have to understand the market we were in,” said Pierre Rutledge, who has been a part of James’ advisory team since James entered the NFL. “One of our best friends dominated the market, and that was Peyton Manning. Here, there is an opportunity to start fresh and do some of those things we always yearned to do. It’s like a rebirth.”

Said James, “I was ready to move.”

James has embraced the national magazines looking to write big stories and take his picture in a Cardinals uniform. He has been more accessible to the media than in Indianapolis, to the point where Cardinals receiver Troy Walters — who played with James the past four seasons in Indianapolis — joked with him back in May that James had already done more interviews in Arizona than he had during his entire run with the Colts.

James felt Indianapolis reporters tried too often to create a controversy from his blunt statements and actions. Trick Daddy, who has known James since James played at the University of Miami, said his friend also grew frustrated that the Colts’ offense became more about passing and less about handing James the ball.

Perhaps moving on was only natural.

“I’m glad he’s (in Arizona), to tell you the truth,” Baby J said.

James will have to lead a franchise that has done little to raise a player’s profile. But James is comfortable starting over in the desert, confident he will continue to be successful while building his potential Hall of Fame career. He’ll have his fun. He’ll put in his work.

“He likes to do it big,” German said. “But with Edge, you don’t know what’s coming.”

That’s the way Edge wants it.

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