First there was chaos, pandemonium, an Autzen Stadium crowd worked into frenzy.
The Ducks had roared back from a 15-14 halftime deficit, scoring 22 unanswered points to take a 36-15 lead over California. LaMichael James had taken the ball to California’s three-yard line, upping his rushing yardage to 239 in the process. During a timeout to review the play, James urged the crowd to even higher decibels.
And then, silence.
On the very next play, James was tackled at the line of scrimmage and fell awkwardly on his right arm. As he lay on the ground, clutching his elbow and writhing in agony, there was a moment when everything stopped and time stood still.
LaMichael James was down and he wasn’t getting up.
The training staff rushed onto the field while Darron Thomas led Kenjon Barner back toward the sideline, away from his best friend on the team. The silence was only broken when the replay showed on the Jumbotron and an audible gasp filled the stadium as fans saw exactly what happened to James’ arm.
The hit had dislocated his elbow and James knew as soon as he hit the ground. In a panic, he popped it back into place himself, before the training staff could even reach him.
“It was out, so I just popped it back in real quick,” James said. “I mean, I can’t go out like that.”
When he first saw James on the field after the injury, running back coach Gary Campbell could see that his star was in serious pain. But when their eyes met, James did his best to alleviate the worries.
“Hey,” he said to Campbell. “I’m going to be alright.”
The arm was placed in a soft cast before James was finally carted off the field. As the crowd chanted his name, he lifted his left arm in acknowledgment. The silence was broken once again.
In the game’s immediate aftermath, once the Ducks had finished off a 43-15 victory, Oregon coaches claimed to know little about the extent of James’ injury.
“I know absolutely nothing,” Kelly said. “I didn’t see it and I don’t have a TV on the sidelines.”
Campbell expressed guarded optimism, but still cautioned that it was too early to make any definitive prognosis.
“Unless it’s a real bad injury, I would say he’ll be back,” Campbell said. “And again, I don’t know to what the extent of the injury is.”
When James himself finally made it to the podium, his arm covered by a loose-fitting Oregon sweatshirt, he expressed far more confidence.
“I will be in an Oregon uniform this year,” James said. “It’s not a season-ending injury and I’ll be fine. I’m tough, I’m a warrior and I’m never going to quit on my team.”
The questions came in rapid fire, one after another.
Was his season ever in doubt?
“That never crosses my mind. I could tear all of my ACLs and I’ll still play.”
Is he wearing a cast?
“I’m just in a sling. I don’t do well with medicine, so I’m going to have to tough it out.”
How much pain was he in?
“It was pretty painful. But it’s more painful just because I wasn’t able to finish the game with my teammates. That was the painful part of it.”
As the conference pressed on, James took the time to address Barner, who was standing in the back of the room. He thanked his best friend for his support and a warm smile crossed his face.
For his part, Barner spoke softly about the injury, clearly still reeling from watching his friend go down.
“Kind of makes me uncomfortable,” Barner said. “I’ve never seen him like that, so it was definitely tough.”
With just over a week to go before Oregon’s next game against Arizona State, far more questions abide than answers. James suffered a similar injury in high school, and found his way onto the field in the very next week. But that was high school, and even James himself will admit that the college game is a different animal.
One thing coaches and players alike know is that James’ status will not determine the fate of Oregon’s season.
“Injuries are part of the game,” Kelly said. “And when you lose a player, especially someone that’s as talented as him, other guys have to step up and that’s what this deal is all about.”
“Even if I don’t play, we have tremendous backs,” James said. “And they’ll just pick up the slack. I don’t think we’ll miss a beat.”