Will Middlebrooks, LaMichael James Share Professional Successes, Rookie Hurdles Through Tight-Knit Bond

by NESN Staff

June 15, 2012

Will Middlebrooks, LaMichael James Share Professional Successes, Rookie Hurdles Through Tight-Knit BondBOSTON — They were the dynamic duo in the Liberty-Eylau backfield.

Will Middlebrooks was the senior quarterback, a threat to dissect defenses with his feet or his arm. LaMichael James was the junior running back, an explosive speedster that would shred opponents at will.

Together, they executed the option offense to perfection en route to leading Liberty-Eylau High School to the 2006 state title in Texas. Now, almost six years later, Middlebrooks and James have taken separate trails to their professional careers.

While James adapts to learning the San Francisco 49ers playbook in the NFL, Middlebrooks is carving out his niche as the Red Sox third baseman. Despite a variance in professional paths, James always believed Middlebrooks was destined for success.

"He could've been an NFL punter, NFL quarterback, NFL receiver — anything that Will wanted to do, he probably could do," James told NESN.com. "He kicked field goals, played quarterback, he could catch. He played basketball and he was probably one of the best athletes that I've been around."

Thousands of miles across the country, the bond between Middlebrooks and James remains unflappable. They chat several times a week through Twitter, texts or phone calls. But as they labor through their rookie seasons, the duo can also sympathize about their similar hurdles.

In Boston, Middlebrooks is mired in a publicized, positional battle with longtime third baseman Kevin Youkilis. Meanwhile, James — a second-round pick in the 2012 Draft — is regarded as the heir apparent to 49ers Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore.

For a young star, the task of usurping an All-Star veteran can be stressful. With James learning that lesson firsthand in San Francisco, Middlebrooks takes solace in knowing that he's not alone.

"There's always going to be someone in front of you when you're starting a career," Middlebrooks said. "I want to come here and I want to learn, even from [Youkilis], too. He's really taken me in and he's really helping me out a lot. I know [James] will do the same in San Fran with [Gore]."

Watching Middlebrooks handle the scrutiny with grace and maturity has, in turn, prepared James for his pending competition with Gore.

"In sports, you have to be patient, that's what you have to do," James said. "I'm sure [Youkilis] waited his turn, paid his dues and has worked hard to keep that position and that's like me and Frank Gore. I can't go in there and expect to get all his carries.

"He's been in the league for seven years and he knows all the ropes on the professional level. I'll have to sit behind him, wait my turn and just pick up little cues on the game from him. That'll make you a better pro."

Despite splitting time with Youkilis at third base, Middlebrooks is already showing flashes of a promising pro career. Through 33 games, the 23-year-old is hitting .290 with six home runs and 22 RBIs.

But Middlebrooks almost ditched the diamond for the gridiron. In high school, the quarterback nearly accepted a scholarship to star at Oklahoma, but instead bypassed it after the coaching staff denied him the chance to play both football and baseball.

So, after briefly contemplating attending Texas A&M, Middlebrooks sacrificed a possible football career to pursue his dreams on the baseball field.

"The [2007 MLB] draft came and it's hard to turn that down," Middlebrooks said. "It sucks to say 'Oh, it's not about the money,' but at the same time that's life. To be able to start your career three years early and get a head start, I couldn't really turn it down."

Throughout the journey, James always supported Middlebrooks. And six years removed from their days at Liberty-Eylau, the 49ers running back continues to gush about his close friend's poise.

"He went through a lot of adversity, had times where he wasn't playing as well as he wanted to play and he didn't get moved up as fast as he wanted to, but he really stuck with it," James said. "I think that says a lot about his character and his work ethic. He waited his turn and now he's doing big things in MLB and I'm proud of him."

Even in different sports, the duo remains dynamic.

Have a question for Didier Morais? Send it to him via Twitter at @DidierMorais or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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