INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- It's two hours before kickoff for an all-important game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And Mr. Do Everything, Play Everywhere, Derwin James Jr. is in shorts and a t-shirt (blue, of course, for his team, the Los Angeles Chargers) and no shoes. None. He's barefoot, walking along the sidelines of the field, saying hello to the Steelers he knows.
Later, I find out it's what he does before every game.
"So I can feel the surface, really feel it before I put on the cleats," the Chargers' safety explains.
Okay, every player has his routine, his superstitions, his quirks. And if this is James', with everything he does during the game, it doesn't draws stares or prompt questions from his teammates or even his opponents. He commands that much respect.
Asked where he likes to play, James answers, "Wherever the ball is."
The Chargers won the game 41-37 in what the players and coach Brandon Staley called a must-win. Not only did it move the Chargers to 6-4 and put them in the playoffs if the season ended today, but it breathed confidence into the team -- which had lost three of its previous four games -- on both sides of the ball.
But no one enjoyed the win more than James, who bounded into the interview room, a huge smile on his face -- cleats still on -- and with energy that belied the effort he put into the game, with six tackles and one pass defended.
"The interception gotta be coming," James said, kicking himself after the game after a near-miss against the Steelers. He had one this season for a 15-yard return in a 28-14 win over Las Vegas on Monday Night Football in Week 4.
James sat out all of 2020 and most of 2019 with injuries (a Jones fracture in his foot cost him 11 games in 2019, a torn meniscus last season), meaning he's especially motivated now -- whether he's asked to cover, help with run support or rush the passer. He's even capable of playing receiver in a pinch.
James is as affable and chatty as anyone on the team. And he moves like nobody else in the NFL. He's 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and when he's healthy and playing to his full potential, as he has been all season due in part to the Chargers' careful conditioning and agility drills, they are often considered among the best teams in the AFC.
And here's one more thing, maybe the toughest that James does: He runs the defense and wears the green dot on his helmet, symbolizing his possession of an in-helmet transmitter. He is responsible for relaying the coaches' calls from the press box to his teammates. And when the technology failed in Week 10 against the Minnesota Vikings, James had to run to the sidelines to get the playcall, then head back to the huddle.
James is smart enough (and quick enough) to do the job well, Staley said, even though the Chargers ended up losing the game 27-20. He is a comfort to the entire defense, he added, because he doesn't make mistakes.
"The great thing about it is it's both of our times; it's his first time as a head coach and it's my first time being a signal-caller, being a captain of the team," James said. "We're both learning new challenges, new things every week. I feel like we're leaning on each other and getting better and helping our team. He's leading and I'm leading. We're going to do whatever we can every week."
The win over Pittsburgh keeps the Chargers in the thick of the playoff hunt heading into a divisional game at the Denver Broncos on Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS) and could set up a whopper on Dec. 16 at SoFi Stadium against the Kansas City Chiefs, who are currently a half-game up on the Chargers in the AFC West.
"For Derwin to keep everybody connected like he did," Staley said, "he's a G. He kept everyone connected. We had everybody banged up out there. We had a bunch of new D-linemen. Everybody kept their poise. We didn't flinch. We kept playing hard."
As did James, of course, especially with his cleats on.