SANTA CLARA Anyone who drove past the white house with the big front porch on Melton Street in Texarkana, Texas, in 2007 would have found it quiet, as if no one lived there anymore.
Maybe they knew that the owner, neighborhood icon Betty James, recently had died of cervical cancer at age 77. What they wouldn't have suspected was that her 17-year-old grandson was living there alone. In fact, LaMichael James would live in the house by himself for the next year and a half until he left for the University of Oregon.
The 49ers' rookie running back could have stayed with his mother, who lived on the Arkansas side of town. He could have moved in with his sister, 16 years his senior. Instead, he continued to live in his grandmother's house, the only home he had ever known, because his bond with her was unbreakable even after her death.
"Just as important as mothers are to their sons, his grandmother was to him," said Robert Cochran, an assistant football coach on LaMichael's high school team. "When you say people mean the world to you it's often overused, but in this case it was true. She meant the world to him."
Everyone knew Betty James as "Madea," the name African American families often give their matriarch. She raised LaMichael, sister Tasha Galloway and a cousin in a modest wood house that was a sanctuary to any family member anyone in the community, really who had fallen on tough times.
Betty James worked two jobs. In the morning, she went off to Texarkana National Bank. In the afternoon, she would come home and cook for her family. Then she'd leave for another job at a local jail.
She wouldn't return until midnight, but you would have been hard-pressed to find her without a smile on her face.
"She would always give you her last, and she would have been happy doing it," Galloway said.
Her final gift to LaMichael was not telling him she was dying until the very end. At that point, she arranged for him to live in the house and left him enough money to get by. She told him to stay as long as he wanted.
And that's what LaMichael did.
He paid bills, did laundry for the first time in his life and lived in his Madea's house, not as a teenager who takes advantage of his sudden freedom, but as an adult loath to disrespect the wishes of the woman he loved most in the world.
"Sometimes we'd sneak past the house to see if there was a party or if there were girls over there," Galloway said. "There never was one time."
LaMichael never met his father, a man named Herbert Blacksher. He was shot to death in Los Angeles before his son was born. Galloway said he was a victim of the Crips-Bloods feud that choked the city at the time.
Growing up, the quiet and introspective LaMichael rarely asked about his father. He never even knew the man's name until he was 17.
LaMichael's mother, Rosemary, handed him over to her mother, Betty James, shortly after he was born. He says he has a good relationship with his mother he could have returned to her if he chose but always considered his grandmother's house to be home.
That house, he says, is in the center of "probably one of the worst neighborhoods" in Texarkana, a town bisected by the state line and one in which a kid from Texas, where LaMichael grew up, never wants to be caught on the Arkansas side, and vice versa.
"It didn't bother me gunshots or someone getting killed or drug deals or police," LaMichael said. "That type of stuff was happening every day, all day. It's part of the culture. It's what it was."
During his freshman year at Oregon, LaMichael returned to Texarkana for winter break. He got a call from some buddies who urged him to join them at a New Year's Eve party. He declined.
A few hours later, he got another call. One of those friends had been shot to death. LaMichael realized it easily could have been him.
"Bullets don't have names on them," he said. "They weren't there to cause trouble. They were playing football, they were trying to better their life. Then one of them gets shot. Those are the types of things that happen."
With that as the backdrop to LaMichael's life, teachers and coaches worried what would happen to the high school junior after the most important person in his life, the sweetest woman in the middle of the city's roughest neighborhood, was gone and he was on his own.
"It could have gone either way," said Pat Brady, then the head football coach at Liberty-Eylau High. "I promise you, I've seen other talented kids who didn't make it. He always had done what (his grandmother) told him to do. She was a force in telling him right from wrong. And then she was gone. It was tough."
Brady said teachers, coaches and family members hounded LaMichael to stay on track "He had a lot of people who stayed on his butt," Brady said but said he was most impressed about how his running back seemingly matured overnight.
The kid who might have shown up late for practice as an underclassman was as punctual as the coaches were during his senior year. His workouts became longer and more serious. And academics getting a true education suddenly became more important than merely getting the bare-minimum grades to play football in college.
Cochran said he has talked to La- Michael at least a few times a week since he left for Oregon. He never found him more excited than when he made the Pacific-10 Conference All-Academic team in 2010. "It was like he won the Heisman," Cochran said.
For that, LaMichael credits his grandmother. She might not have been alive, he said, but she never left him.
"I needed to stay on the narrow path, to walk straight," he said. "Because I felt like if I didn't, then she was watching me."
Whenever LaMichael returns to Texarkana, he stays with Galloway, whom he says has the making of the family's next Madea. But he also makes sure he goes by his grandmother's house, where an uncle now lives.
"I don't know if he's talking to her or he feels her presence there," Galloway said. "But he wants to go to the house whenever he's back home."
Betty James never wanted LaMichael to play football because she thought her grandson, who would peak at 5-foot-9, was too small for the sport. In fact, she dealt with her worry by constantly plying him with food in the hope that he would get bigger.
After the 49ers chose him in the second round of the draft last month, LaMichael found himself thinking about his grandmother and the tough town in which he grew up. Both, he said, equipped him to be the person he is today.
"I've seen so much at a young age," he said. "I don't think anything can faze me now. I go out there on the field, I'm not intimidated by anything or anyone. I don't care how big you are. I've been through so much, so much adversity that I look at the big man across from me, and I have no fear."