LeBron James needed an advocate. Halfway through the third quarter of the 1999 Division IV qualifier, the St. Vincent-St. Mary high school football team needed a spark against Wickliffe.
Maverick Carter, the Fighting Irish’s No. 1 receiver and now James’ business manager, struggled through the game due to an illness. Having failed to score at that point and with an ailing primary receiver, quarterback Chris Wooley knew the team needed a game-changer.
Standing along the sideline was the then-6’6” freshman wide receiver James, who had not played a snap all season for the varsity team.
It was apparent early in the season that the wideout outpaced every other freshman and needed a promotion to the varsity squad. Irish coach Jim Meyer slowly worked James into seven-on-seven drills with the varsity team before dressing the future NBA superstar for games, but even then, the coaches resisted the urge to unleash the 14-year-old.
Everyone had heard the hype, that James was a great basketball player, but nobody had seen him play in a high school game yet. Few knew what kind of athletic ability James truly had at that point.
Wooley knew. The quarterback first noticed James’ transcendent athletic ability a few weeks earlier while walking behind him through the school’s gym. As James walked past midcourt, he scooped up a nearby volleyball and began sprinting toward the hoop. About a foot past the foul line, James took off, spinning 360 degrees in the air before finishing off the dunk with authority. As James fell to the ground, so did Wooley’s jaw. James nonchalantly walked off the court. Wooley remained stunned.
“We have to get this kid in the game,” Wooley thought.
Looking up at the zero on the scoreboard, Wooley went up to the coaching staff and began yelling.
“Put him in! Put him in!” Wooley exclaimed as the coaches stared back at him with bewilderment. “I don’t care if he only knows one play or what the problem is that you won’t put him in the game. Put him in.”
So with one quarter left in perhaps the Fighting Irish’s final game of the season, LeBron James made his high school football debut. Meyer and Wooley kept the playbook simple, limiting the plays to fade routes and screens. Between snaps, James and Wooley would use hand signals to adjust routes as the Fighting Irish offense audibled to get the current Cleveland Cavalier the ball.
Immediately, James made Wickliffe defenders miss. If the cornerbacks pressed him at the line of scrimmage, he’d burn them on a fade route. If they played off him, James would catch a screen and juke his way past the flurry of defenders. On one play, Wooley recalls James making a one-handed catch before using his free hand to throw the cornerback into the free safety en route to a touchdown.
“If I got it within a 10- to 15-yard radius, he was catching the ball,” Wooley said. In his first-ever varsity football game, in just one quarter, James scored two touchdowns and accumulated more than 100 receiving yards. The Fighting Irish lost the game, 15-14, but James had given them a shot at victory—something that seemed so distant not long before.
“I have several buddies to this day that said I probably threw to him too much,” Wooley said. “I would argue that I didn’t throw to him enough.”
Before he ever picked up a basketball, James’ reputation as a football player preceded him. Stories circulated around Akron of a kid playing peewee football who could throw right-handed touchdowns when rolling to his right and left-handed touchdowns when rolling to his left.
Before LeBron James ever began his ascent to basketball immortality, he was a kid first known for his football abilities. He was a quarterback who surprised people with his basketball abilities when he started playing at eight years old.
For the first two years of high school, James considered the possibility of playing football in college. After his unforgettable high school football debut, he became the star of the Fighting Irish, catching 42 passes for 752 yards and 11 touchdowns during his sophomore year, earning all-state honors.
James and Willie McGee, one of James’ childhood best friends and one of his quarterbacks during their junior year, rooted for Florida State and Ohio State. It wasn’t long before programs like FSU, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Florida and USC began talking to James about scholarships.
“Early on, it was a mutual love it seemed to me between basketball and football,” McGee said. “Maybe around junior year, you knew basketball was going to be his ticket.”
But even with his future set on the court, James continued to display otherworldly athleticism between the hash marks.
For Matt McDonald, who platooned with McGee under center during James’ junior year, the thought process was pretty simple once the ball was snapped. First, go through your progressions. Second, go through your reads. Third, watch the play develop. And if all else fails, “just throw it up to LeBron,” the coaches said.
James presented a luxurious fail-safe any quarterback could appreciate. “Even when he wasn’t open, he was open,” McGee said. McDonald was told to run plays different from any other offense, which makes sense given the untraditional nature of having a future NBA legend running routes.
“Play-action post,” McDonald would initially hear from his coach. “Or just throw it up to LeBron.” Regardless of what the play call was, McDonald, McGee and Wooley tended to know where James was at all times.
On one Saturday against University School in 2001, McDonald saw James double-teamed with one cornerback jamming him at the line and a safety over the top trying to prevent the deep ball. But the coverage rarely mattered. “You look around the field and it doesn’t matter if he’s double-covered. It doesn’t matter if he’s triple-covered. That’s where the ball is going,” McDonald said. As McDonald threw the ball, he realized it was headed directly to the safety, who was in prime position for an interception. “He was standing right there waiting for it,” McDonald said.
But suddenly, James popped into the frame, and as he glided down the field, the still-growing 6’6” target reached with both arms directly over the head of the safety, as if to create the letter T with his arms and the opponent. James pulled in the football and sprinted past the defense to complete the 76-yard touchdown. “He was a man amongst boys,” McDonald recalled.
In one practice sophomore year, James annoyed the coaches during tackling drills with his ability to juke out defenders and escape unscathed. Determined to get hits on James, coaches Jay Brophy, who played four seasons with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, and Mark Murphy, who played 11 seasons for the Green Bay Packers, pushed the cones together until they were separated by about a foot, minimizing the space for James to run between. Standing across from LeBron was Josh Beers, a Fighting Irish linebacker and one of the team’s best tacklers.
“OK, LeBron. Now run the drill,” the coaches said, expecting to see their star receiver finally brought to the ground.
As the whistle blew, Beers, standing about 5’9”, bent down to lower his pad level in an attempt to tackle James. But instead of going down, James went up, jumping over Beers, stepping on his helmet and landing on the other side, untouched. James flipped the ball to the coach and got back in line.
“Did he just step on my head?” Beers asked.
Everything else stopped as half of the team took off their helmets and began walking around, trying to comprehend what had just happened. “We had just seen the second coming of Jesus as an athlete,” Wooley said.
Even on the football field, LeBron commanded the attention of his teammates as a leader. “When you see a teammate like that, you thrive off of that because once we realized he was doing everything in his power to not let us lose, it was like watching him with subpar NBA players now. He makes everybody on the field believe in themselves more,” Wooley said.
Although, much like today, James knew sometimes the best way to help his team be successful was to put the ball in his hands. “My mindset was to throw him the ball, he made it very clear,” McGee, now the athletic director at St. Vincent-St. Mary, said. “It was called ‘Doing a Randy Moss.’ He wanted to ‘Moss’ someone. He wanted the ball thrown short and high so he could jump over people and take it to the house.”
McGee said James delineated rules on how he wanted the ball thrown to him. “Man, why are you throwing the ball so hard?” James would ask. “You’ve got to have some touch. Man, you’ve got to throw it a little shorter, a little higher. Just give me a chance to jump for it.”
On one play during James’ sophomore year, McGee remembers the future Hall of Famer jumping offside on a fade route out of shotgun formation. As the team walked back to the huddle, one player was missing. LeBron was still out near the left hash mark, refusing to huddle up again.
“Run the same play again,” James yelled at Wooley, the quarterback at the time. He began to signal with his hands that he wanted a do-over. “Run it again.”
The team scurried back to the line of scrimmage with every single person at the game knowing where Wooley was going to throw the ball. But with LeBron, that simply didn’t matter. As James beat his defensive back off the line, Wooley threw the ball toward his behemoth wideout. James, without hesitation or a break in stride, caught the ball with his left hand hanging over the sideline and made a beeline for the end zone.
“If you’re on a team with that guy, you start to believe that anything is possible,” Wooley said.
LeBron James, in just two full seasons playing varsity football, still ranks seventh in St. Vincent-St. Mary history with 27 career touchdowns, third in career receptions with 99 and earned all-state honors in both of his full seasons.
One NFL general manager told Bleacher Report that James could’ve become one of the greatest tight ends of all time. McGee said James modeled his game after Peter Warrick, who played six seasons in the NFL after a collegiate career at FSU, and would compare his friend to Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown and Cris Carter. “He had what it took to be special,” McGee said.
And while everyone understood that James was a special athletic talent, it was hard for his peers to put that in perspective.
“At the time, you think maybe he’s a D-I basketball player during his freshman year,” McDonald said. “And then you see him develop over time and it’s like, ‘Well maybe this can be a real thing.’ Maybe he goes straight to the NBA and he can be the sixth man and a decent player. And then he turns out to be who he is and even today, it’s hard to wrap your head around it.”
There is no precedent for a receiver of James’ stature playing in the NFL, with only six receivers standing 6’8” putting together a career. James has been remarkably healthy through his entire career, having only played less than 75 games in a non-strike-shortened season once, but because of his height, defenders would likely resort to going at his knees and ankles to bring him down. This was a concern coaches had regarding James in high school, according to McDonald.
“The biggest thing about him playing football was the worry that he would get hurt, but you would see him out there and it’s like, he’s not the guy that’s going to get hurt. It’s the guys he’s going against,” McDonald said. “It’s at a point where he was so much better than everyone else that not even the big guys could hurt him.”
Choosing basketball over football hasn’t turned out too bad for James. “He definitely made the right choice,” McGee chuckled.
But even with all of the expectations and media attention, all three of James’ high school quarterbacks never saw the NBA legend fazed by any of the hype. They saw James embrace the pressure that came with being deemed “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated, that came with nationally televised high school basketball games, that came with being the No. 1 overall draft pick for his hometown team.
“What kind of person steps into shoes where people are calling him ‘King’ and lives up to that?” McDonald, who now works on Wall Street, wondered. “He goes straight to the NBA and says he’s going to win a championship for Cleveland? Who does that and actually lives up to the hype? I don’t know what you call that.”
Wooley and McDonald, who are both diehard Cleveland Cavaliers fans, remain in awe of everything James has accomplished. The freakishly athletic wide receiver who put up highlight-reel plays has become something beyond their wildest dreams.
“I knew he would be a pro someday, but I didn’t expect this,” Wooley, who now works as a special education teacher at Garfield Heights Middle School, said. “My thought is, ‘Wow LeBron, you’ve gotten so popular that reporters are interviewing guys from 15-plus years ago who played a sport with you that you’re not even famous for.’”