NIAGARA FALLS —
Before he became a Friday night franchise at Sal Maglie Stadium, a Saturday sensation at UB Stadium, and a rookie revelation on the Green Bay Packers’ road trip from the outskirts of the NFL playoff picture to Super Bowl favorite, James Starks was an energetic kid exploring his boundaries in the small city that would one day be re-dubbed “Starksville” in his honor.
James Starks Sr. remembers taking his 7-year-old son to Unity Park in Niagara Falls and watching him do back-flips off the highest structure he could find. He worried for a split second, until he saw him stick the landing.
“This dude can do anything,” Starks Sr. marveled.
“James used to turn flips in the house,” grandmother Vera “Nana” Starks said. “I used to watch him stop, drop, spin around. I said this kid is a special athlete.”
They’re all athletes in the Starks family, going back to grandfather Frank Starks. He was a superlative scorer at LaSalle High School in the early ’60s who was billed as “exciting Frank Starks” when he later toured with the Harlem Diplomats, a Canadian version of the Harlem Globetrotters. He also played for the Al Maroone AAU squad that scrimmaged Calvin Murphy and the Niagara University freshman team. When Murphy came back to campus last month to share stories, he recalled Frank Starks was one of the best individual opponents he faced as a collegian.
“If you talk to the old guys in my neighborhood, they always bring up Frank Starks. He was the best player to come out of Niagara Falls,” said Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Jonny Flynn, a second-cousin of James Starks. When they find out I’m his nephew, they say that’s where I got it from.”
“I hear he really had it cookin’,” James Starks said. “He had a pure shot and handle out of this world.”
Frank Starks’ namesake and another son, Mike, were starting guards on the LaSalle team that won a state championship in 1988.
James Starks Sr. was a standout football player at Trott Vocational before he hurt his knee as a freshman. From then on, his focus shifted toward helping his mother with the housework while she worked two jobs.
“He used to watch over the other kids, cook for them, and when I came home, there wasn’t a dish that was dirty,” Vera Starks said. “My son James never got as far as my grandson, but as far as personalities, he’s a spitting image. He was a good young man.”
James Starks physical resemblance to his father also branded him with a second-generation nickname — “Buck.”
“Buck comes from my grandfather,” James Starks Sr. said. “I used to do the James Brown dance. He and all his friends would come in from a hard day’s work and I was their entertainment. They’d say, ‘where’s James? Where’s the young buck?’ And I would do my dance and they would all give me a buck.
“So when ‘Little Buck’ was little, he looked so much like me and everybody was like ‘oh my goodness,’ and we started calling him ‘Little Buck.’
“Now he’s ‘Big Buck,’ and I’m ‘Little Buck.’”
As an athlete, Starks looked up most to his older brother, Sanquin, who went on to play basketball at D’Youville College.
“He went to college to do something he loved and he was really a role model to me,” James Starks said. “I wanted to imitate everything he was doing.”
Sanquin brought James to the YMCA to play basketball with the older teenagers. James wasn’t as developed offensively, so Sanquin urged him to put his athletic ability to use on defense. In his senior year, James was the sixth man and designated defensive stopper for the Niagara Falls High School team that won a state championship.
“Buck, man, he’s a straight athlete,” said Paul Harris, the star of that team who now plays professional basketball in the Phillipines. “Out of anybody on our team that checked me, he was the best.”
Flynn believes James could’ve been a Division I basketball player if that was his focus. But it was obvious early on that football was his favorite sport. When the big AAU basketball tournaments came around in the summer, Starks would stay home because he didn’t want to miss football practice.
“I came to a couple of his games in high school,” Harris said, “and you could see basketball was something he liked, but football was something he loved.”
It was Sanquin who introduced James to the love of his life, including him in “toss-up tackle” games at the neighborhood parks.
“It would be like 20 kids and you’d have to make all the kids miss when you picked up the ball,” James said. “I was the youngest kid, like 11, playing with 15 and 16-year olds. I loved hitting people. I never ran from contact. Even when I was younger, I used to run kids over.”
When he started playing with the older kids in Cataract Little Loop leagues, Starks found himself scoring most of the touchdowns.
“Buck was never one of those kids that said he was the reason we were winning,” said Wayne Ollison, his Little Loop coach. “He was very conscious of his teammates. He got all the glory because he scored all the touchdowns. But he never took that glory and pound his chest.”
“I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of tremendous athletes,” Niagara Falls basketball coach Sal Constantino said, “and he is the most humble of them all. He’s a true gentleman.”
Starks’ mother, Lillie Hall, said for all her son’s accomplishments, she takes the most pride in his humility.
“That’s what I like most about James,” Hall said during his college career. “I really think that has a lot do with bringing him up in the church.”
Vera Starks said church was so important to James and his sister, Ebony, that if he thought the family was running late on a Sunday morning, they’d start walking there.
At Super Bowl media day this week, Starks told the throng of reporters, “God has been blessing me all this time and it has been working out for me and I am not going to stop now.”
When Starks was a ninth-grader trying out for the Niagara Falls junior varsity football team, he so impressed coach Don Bass on the first day that Bass approached his father after practice and said, “if he doesn’t get caught up in the streets and he keeps his grades up, he won’t pay a cent for college.”
Starks never got caught up in the streets.
“Ever since James was small, his character has always been fun and happy-go-lucky,” James Starks Sr. said. “I’ve never had to go look for James. I’ve never had to worry about police calling James. I am truly grateful that I never had to go looking for my son or get him out of fights. A lot of people around here don’t have that.”
“He’s one of the finest young men I’ve ever had in my whole teaching career, in 30-plus years,” said Chris Farino, Starks’ 12th-grade English teacher.
“James has always been a kind-hearted kid,” Vera Starks said. “Whether it’s helping a lady get out of a car, or somebody fell across the street and he went to pick them up.”
Unless they fell because they were trying to tackle Starks on the football field. Then he’d leave them in his dust.
After the first padded practice Bass saw Starks participate in him, he told him, “if you stay dedicated, you can do this for a living.”
Starks went on to quarterback Niagara Falls to its first sectional playoff appearance in 2004, along with landmark wins over perennial powers North Tonawanda, Lockport and Orchard Park.
He chose to play at the University at Buffalo in part because he wanted to help lift the local program to similar heights.
His first coach at UB, Jim Hofher, moved Starks to cornerback and redshirted him as a freshman. Followers in the Falls questioned the wisdom of moving such an electrifying ball-carrier to a defensive position.
What was Starks’ reaction?
“Dang, I wish they would’ve put me at safety,” he said. “I wanted to come downhill and hit somebody.”
Turner Gill took over the UB program the next year and gave Starks a chance to win the starting quarterback position during the spring. In summer training camp, he moved him to running back.
“I was very excited to get him in the room,” said Allen Mogridge, UB’s running backs coach at the time and now the tight ends coach at North Carolina. “Everybody in the program knew the kind of ability James Starks had. You stand next to James and you see how long this dude is. He’s rangy and for a tall guy, he’s so explosive and strong. He’s just a gifted kid.”
Starks started his first game on the second string. By the second half, he was the featured runner, and by overtime he was running into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. He went on to set all of the program’s rushing records in just three seasons. His career culminated when he scored the winning touchdown in overtime at Bowling Green in 2008, clinching the Bulls’ first division title.
“I swear, no one was touching that kid in overtime,” Mogridge said. “I wish somebody had a stopwatch on that run.”
Having been named an honorable mention All-American by Sports Illustrated, Starks was “primed to do something really special,” in his senior year, Mogridge said. But a preseason shoulder injury required surgery and ended Starks’ college career prematurely.
Starks is revered at UB like no other former player. At last week’s men’s basketball game, fans were able to sign a banner that would be sent to Starks for him to hang in his locker today. By the time UB guard Byron Mulkey, a Niagara-Wheatfield graduate, got a chance to sign it, the poster was saturated in ink and the only space for him to write was directly on Starks’ picture.
Missing his senior season caused Starks’ draft stock to fall. He was considered a second- or third-round prospect before the injury, but wound up being drafted in the sixth round by Green Bay.
During minicamp, Starks hurt his hamstring and when he aggravated the injury during a conditioning test on the eve of training camp, he was placed on the physically unable to perform list for the first half of the season.
“Everything happens for a reason,” James Starks Sr. senior said. “I truly believe that was time for him to study his playbook and get all his plays together.”
When he finally got on the field for Green Bay’s Dec. 5 game against San Francisco, it was the first time he’d played full-contact football in 23 months.
“Through the two years that my son was out of football, he did nothing but smile,” Starks Sr. said.
Mogridge said he had one rule for Starks when he coached him — “keep smiling.”
“He has one of the greatest smiles and a quiet confidence that is second to none,” Mogridge said.
“The most beautiful thing about Buck is his smile,” Starks Sr. said. "You look in his helmet and all you see is his teeth. When Buck comes around, the whole room changes. You can feel the aura around him.”
Starks was inactive for two late season games because the Packers were unhappy with his pass blocking in practice. But in the Packers’ wild card playoff win in Philadelphia, he rushed for a franchise rookie record 123 yards, establishing himself as the Packers primary running back this postseason.
And he’s been smiling nonstop since.
“I really respect the organization and I’m really blessed that they gave me this opportunity,” Starks said. “Now I have the opportunity to play on one of the biggest stages of my life.”
Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.