UNIVERSITY PARK One conversation opened Jesse James’ eyes to the possibilities for his future.
James was an unknown underclassman at South Allegheny High School who had yet to accomplish anything on the football field. He never saw football as anything more than a game, and he certainly never thought he’d be able to play at the next level.
But Gladiators coach Pat Monroe saw a player brimming with potential.
The coach changed James’ line of thinking with a few words while showing him a poster of Penn State’s Beaver Stadium during a summer workout in the high school weight room.
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“You can play in front of all these people,” Monroe told James.
“That’s something that really stood out to me,” James said. “That’s a conversation that I’ll remember forever.”
James was decked out in Penn State gear inside the Lasch Building on Monday afternoon as he recalled the moment football became more than a game to him. He’s now a standout tight end for the Nittany Lions, playing his home games in front of tens of thousands of people at Beaver Stadium.
The 6-foot-7, 254-pound tight end leads Penn State with two touchdown catches through three games. He ranks third on the team with 10 catches for 120 yards.
After his conversation with Monroe, James said he started to think about playing big-time college football — even if it didn’t seem possible at that point.
But the thought was enough to excite James about playing the game and getting in the weight room every day. James realized football could lead to something more than his hometown of Glassport could offer.
“It’s next to the Clairton steel mill,” James said of Glassport, a small town about 12 miles from Pittsburgh. “So most people they go to high school, graduate from high school and then if they’re lucky they get a job over at the mill, and that’s kind of what I didn’t want to do.
“I didn’t want to be stuck in Glassport for the rest of my life. I wanted to be able to experience new things.”
By his junior year, James started to attract interest from major Division I programs despite playing at a high school that rarely sent players to that level.
Monroe, his coach at South Allegheny, remembers James doing everything he could to improve.
James stayed after practices every day to catch hundreds of balls, having the quarterback throw passes low and off to his side. He’d work out with former teammates playing in college who were home for the weekend.
He wrestled from age 3 through his sophomore year of high school, a sport taught him how to generate leverage crucial for blocking. And as a junior, he played basketball to improve his hands and leaping ability.
“He was probably the easiest guy that I’ve ever had to coach,” Monroe said. “He didn’t require any motivation.”
James didn’t start playing football until seventh grade.
He gave it a shot because his older brother, Rick, played. James played guard that season before moving to tight end in eighth grade.
“I wanted to play something where I could catch the ball a little bit,” James said.
But he didn’t dedicate himself to football until high school, playing under Monroe. James was a self-described average player — nothing special — early in his career. Monroe thought otherwise, telling James he could play at a school like Penn State that day in the weight room.
That’s when James started to focus on football as a way to go to college.
“He led the way and I followed him,” James said.
Monroe takes little credit for James’ success.
“A little nudge in one direction is all the kid needed because he had it in him,” Monroe said. “You don’t instill those things into somebody. They have them. It’s just kind of scratching and maybe bumping them in that direction. You can’t make somebody be the kind of person Jesse James is.”
Monroe said James developed a tireless work ethic to maximize his size and talent.
“He demonstrated during his sophomore year just a tremendous work ethic that carried all the way through ‘til this day,” Monroe said. “Enough so that early in his sophomore year, I actually named him a captain of the team.”
James put together a breakout season at South Allegheny as a junior, catching 34 passes for 463 yards to earn second-team all-state honors.
Coaches from college programs, including Penn State, started to take notice of the towering tight end.
Terry Smith saw the same potential in James that Monroe did during summer 7-on-7s at Gateway High School in Monroeville.
Smith was the head coach at Gateway at the time. James wasn’t being recruited yet, and Smith was impressed by his size and athleticism.
So Smith, a former Penn State receiver, made a call to former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.
“I said, ‘You got to get in on this guy. You got to come see him,’” said Smith, who is now Penn State’s cornerbacks coach. “Because you just don’t find guys that big that can move that way and can catch a football.
“Usually if they’re that big and can move decent, you got to move ‘em down to tackle and they all of the sudden become a left tackle or right tackle. But you just saw the potential there.”
James was rated a three-star recruit by Rivals. He flew under the radar at South Allegheny, which went 8-32 during his career.
James said he started to hear from Football Championship Subdivision schools and Division II programs after his sophomore year. During his junior year, James said Football Bowl Subdivision programs Penn State, Maryland, Pittsburgh and Syracuse all showed interest.
Bradley started recruiting James, who said the coach was honest throughout the process.
“If Tom didn’t think Jesse was going to be that good, then he would have given him a nice chat and sent him on his way — advised him to go to another level,” said Monroe, who played at Penn State. “That’s the way he is. But Tom was there through the whole process.”
Penn State gave James his first scholarship offer.
James ultimately chose the Nittany Lions over an offer from Toledo.
“I trusted him and they made a commitment to me by offering me a scholarship,” James said. “And it’s something I couldn’t pass up.”
When uncertainty surrounded the program due to the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2011, Bradley kept James committed by selling what Penn State had to offer as a school.
James planned to enroll early in college since his junior year of high school.
He started at Penn State in January 2012, joining the Nittany Lions for winter conditioning and spring practice.
The quick transition from South Allegheny was jarring.
“It’s a 360,” James said.
“He was thrust into a highly competitive situation,” said John Strollo, Penn State’s tight ends coach from 2012-13. “And I think that the exacting demands of the position, it was a little big for him. There were a lot of people in the room. He was sharing a lot of time with guys.”
As James started to understand the demands of the position, Strollo said, he went from having a very limited role to a substantial one as a freshman. James points to Penn State’s 38-14 win over Iowa in the seventh game of the 2012 season as a personal turning point.
He made three catches for 52 yards and a touchdown that gave the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead. James felt the coaching staff’s confidence in him grow that night.
And he finished the season with 15 catches for 276 yards and five touchdowns.
“I think the 2012 season was just a turning point for me as a man and a football player,” James said.
He only got better as a sophomore.
When Penn State tight end Matt Lehman went down with a knee injury in the season opener against Syracuse, James’ role suddenly expanded.
“He had to become the main guy,” Strollo said. “I would say in the two years he played for me, we ran the ball behind him more often than not, even though he wasn’t a feature guy, that’s where the ball went more times than any. And as far as catching, I think you’ve seen that.”
James was third on the team last season with 25 catches for 333 yards and three touchdowns.
In two years coaching James, Strollo said he was a remarkable player with the ability to line up as a blocking tight end, a wideout and in the backfield.
The coach considered James the best tight end on the team at the end of last season.
“Every day I worked with the guy, I was amazed with the stuff he could do,” Strollo said.
Penn State’s new coaching staff gave similar assessments of James going into the season.
Nittany Lions offensive coordinator John Donovan declared James needed to be dominant during the team’s media day in August.
“You look at him, he’s the prototypical guy you think of when you hear tight end,” said Donovan, who is also the tight ends coach. “He’s tall, he’s big, he’s massive, he’s strong, he can run and he’s smart. He’s definitely got everything you want.”
James has been the top tight end target for quarterback Christian Hackenberg so far. James made seven catches against Central Florida. He hauled in two touchdowns against Akron.
And with the game on the line against Rutgers, James caught what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. But a holding penalty erased the play.
Hackenberg said he knows that James will be in the right place at the right time.
“He’s a very smart football player,” Hackenberg said. “He understands the game extremely well. His football knowledge is through the roof, and that was evident even when I first stepped foot on campus.”
James is hoping to continue his football career in the National Football League.
He started focusing on the game as a way to make something of himself outside of Glassport. It kept him out of trouble, too, he said.
But during high school, he also fell in love with the game.
“I’d like to play football as long as possible,” James said. “I love playing the game. I love it.”