A stable influence in New England's secondary for 11 seasons, former strong safety Roland James is now trying to offer stability as well as encouragement to teens in Somerville, Mass., as the city's director of youth programs.
"A lot of these kids have been deprived of a lot of those opportunities and chances that a lot of the other kids can get. They don't really know what they can do," says James, who has held the position for the past three years.
"There's a lot out there to be discovered and sometimes it comes to a point where they don't think they can do it, they don't think they can accomplish things. We're just trying to put them in that aspect and support them academically as far as with tutors and get them out there in Boston and the surrounding areas. Let them know that culturally, there are other things out there that they can go out and see. Normally, these kids just stay in the city of Somerville. They don't go into Boston. They don't go into Medford. I mean, they're just here. So we're just trying to open them up a little bit and show them what's out there."
James and his staff have taken steps to show the youth "what's out there" with field trips that have included taking skiing lessons at Nashoba Valley in Westford and attending Celtics games. They also offer after-school programs for the less athletic-minded.
"We put together a program for 20 girls to learn self-defense and self-awareness. A professional is coming in and doing that for us," James said. "A lot of the kids can't really play basketball that well and not everybody's a football player, so we were really looking for nontraditional types of sports and activities for the kids to get involved with. We had this ping-pong guy who's ranked 23rd in the world come along. The kids are really trying to pick that up and they have really been enthused about learning the game of ping-pong. And we have pool tables and foosball tables. We're just trying to open up different opportunities for the kids to get involved in."
James would also like to make the kids aware of the different opportunities they may have in the future. "The mayor (Joe Curtatone) has a summer jobs program. A lot of the kids will be getting a job for the first time and we're trying to turn it into not just a summer job program, but a year-round program. A lot of that is still coming together.
"The number of kids that have come through here so far, it's different from where I'm from, the Foxborough, Sharon area - kids are kids no matter where you are, but just the amount of things that are going on around here - I didn't believe and understand before I got here.
"Somerville had probably one of the highest rates of suicide in the state of Massachusetts. There was a big problem with gangs. There was a big problem with drugs. A lot of those issues are throughout the United States, but with the amount of people that are condensed in this area and the number of different cultures and different nationalities, a number of the kids are struggling just with the language. It's difficult for them."
Prior to accepting the position in Somerville, James coached high school football in Sharon. This past April, the Sharon Education Foundation made him the first recipient of the Lee Flaxer Award. Named after a long-time educator in the Sharon public school system, the award pays homage to her life by honoring a person who makes a difference in the lives of children through dedication and personal involvement.
"The first thing that I did [after learning he would receive the award] was try to find as much information as I could about Lee Flaxer," said James. "About her being a teacher and an advocate and all of the things that she did for educating kids not only in the town of Sharon, but across the state of Massachusetts. To even be placed within her name, for all the stuff that she did, was truly amazing. It was something that was completely surprising for me. I'm very proud of that accomplishment."
James and his wife, Carmel, should also be proud of what they've accomplished at home. The parents of four sons - Vernald, Ryan, Roland and Roman - and the grandparents of five, the James family currently shares its home with five foster sons. Associated with the foster parent program for nearly 20 years, they've had 28 children become a part of their lives.
A consensus All-America at Tennessee, James was New England's first-round selection in the 1980 NFL draft. Three seasons later he set a team record by intercepting Buffalo's Joe Ferguson three times in the same quarter to help blank the Bills, 31-0. And in 1985 he helped the Patriots win three consecutive playoff games on the road, capture the AFC Championship and earn a spot in Super Bowl XX where they fell to the Bears.
"I think the key was having Raymond Berry there and him really emphasizing that everyone had to do his part and believe in each other and play up to your capabilities and good things would happen," said James, who is tied for third on the team's all-time interceptions list with 29. "If the opportunity came for you to make a play, it was time for you to make a play.
"It was just playing one game at a time for us. We were on a roll at that time and just playing week to week. Just packing bags and traveling. You kind of get caught up in that. We didn't win the [Super Bowl] and we probably played very poorly, but that didn't come from not being prepared and not working hard the two weeks prior to that because I know we did in fact do that."
This article previously appeared in Patriots Football Weekly on January 3, 2007.