The Failed College Football Recruitment of LeBron James

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterJanuary 26, 2016

NBA star LeBron James plays catch on the field following an NFL football game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys,  Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sharon Ellman)
Sharon Ellman/Associated Press

When Urban Meyer inks what currently stands as the country's second-ranked class on national signing day, he'll add to one of the most—if not the most—impressive recruiting resumes in college football history.

From Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin to Cam Newton and Joe Haden to Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa, there may not be a coach in the history of the sport outside of Nick Saban responsible for attracting more talent to his programs than Meyer has been during his 14 years as a head coach. If recruiting is the lifeblood of a program, then Meyer's teams have been some of the most well nourished in the sport.

Yet despite having a track record on the recruiting trail that rivals his impressive on-field win-loss record, Meyer wasn't ultimately able to land what may have been the most talented target he ever laid eyes on. It wasn't another team the now-Ohio State head coach lost a two-time All-Ohio wide receiver named LeBron James to more than 15 years ago, but, rather, the NBA.

Two NBA championships, four MVP awards, two Olympic gold medals, 12 All-Star Game selections and an already storied, yet still growing 13-year career later and it is tough to disagree with James' decision. But before he was The King of the hardwood, James was just a kid from Akron, Ohio, who also happened to be one of the top prospects in the country—in two different sports.

How close was he to furthering his career on the gridiron? Truth be told, it never really seemed to be in the cards. But that didn't stop the top coaches in the country—including Meyer—from trying, in what turned out to be the failed college football recruitment of LeBron James.


The first time Jay Brophy heard the name LeBron James, the eventual No. 1 overall pick of the 2003 NBA draft was a mere peewee football player.

A graduate of Akron's Buchtel High School, Brophy, a former Miami Hurricanes captain, was a fixture in the Rubber City's youth sports community following his four-year NFL career in the mid-1980s. So when Brophy, who grew up with James' mother, Gloria, heard that there was a peewee football player capable of quarterbacking an advanced offense like the run-and-shoot, it naturally piqued his interest.

"He could understand it and he could run it," Brophy told Bleacher Report. "His peewee coach told me, 'This kid can play quarterback, he can play it all. That’s why we ran the run-and-shoot.' He just had a good feel for that."

LeBron James with St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Jay Brophy.
LeBron James with St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Jay Brophy.Photo courtesy of Jay Brophy

As James, who spent a portion of his childhood living with his peewee football coach, "Big" Frankie Walker, grew, word began to get out across Akron about the talented two-sport prodigy. With a son the same age as James, Brophy first witnessed him play basketball when he was in junior high, where expectations had already begun to accompany his play.

And much like he did upon entering the NBA at 18 years old, James exceeded them back then as well.

"I knew about him, but I don’t think anybody really knew him until you got a chance to watch and be around him," Brophy said. "Believe me, I set the bar high for him. He just blew me away.

"It was pretty much like he is as a basketball player. You could tell he was a student of the game. He was dominant."

Having gained notoriety on the AAU circuit before his high school career had even begun, James' path to the NBA took a detour from Buchtel, where he was expected to attend, to Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where Brophy was serving as an assistant football coach. At 6'2", 185 pounds and seemingly growing by the day, James was already on the radar of NBA scouts, but that wouldn't stop him from living out his dream of playing football on Friday nights.

"The Next Michael Jordan"

Word of James' future being in basketball may have been well known in Ohio, but that information apparently hadn't yet made it to South Bend. It was there that an up-and-coming wide receivers coach on Bob Davie's Notre Dame staff targeted St. Vincent-St. Mary's emerging star wide receiver in the midst of a sophomore season that saw him record 42 receptions for 820 yards and seven touchdowns.

But when Urban Meyer arrived in Akron to make his pitch on behalf of the Fighting Irish, he was met with an unfamiliar response: laughter.

"Thank you very much, I'll consider it," Meyer recalled of James' response when the coach spoke to a group of reporters at Big Ten media days in 2012. "And his coach started laughing."

"I didn't know what he was laughing at, so we went down and sat in a room and he said, 'Do you know who that is?' and I said, 'No' and he said, 'LeBron James' and I said, 'Who's LeBron James?' and he said, 'He'll be the next Michael Jordan.' And I go, 'Come on.'"

Meyer wasn't alone in failing to sell his school to the then-6'7", 230-pound James, who earned first-team All-Ohio Division IV honors for the second straight year after catching 61 balls for 1,245 yards and 16 touchdowns during his junior season.

"I remember the visit. It was pretty cool," James responded, when Meyer's tale was relayed to him by Bleacher Report. "They were one of the programs in the country that were recruiting me to play wide receiver."

According to Brophy, the other schools recruiting James included a who's who of traditional college football powers: Ohio State, Alabama and Miami (Florida).

JOHN HELLER/Associated Press

Taking over as St. Vincent-St. Mary's head coach for the final season of James' football career in 2001—a broken wrist kept him on the sideline as a senior in 2002—the former NFL linebacker figured he'd make sure his star player was certain about his future.

"I went over to him and he was in the library and I said, 'LeBron, hey, let me ask you, are you really interested in playing college football? I've got a ton of schools asking about you playing that have called me.' He said, 'Well coach, I'm 99 percent sure I'm probably going to the NBA. But I wouldn’t rule it out.'

"He started laughing and he said, 'No coach, I'm kidding. I'm gonna play basketball.' I said, 'All right, I just wanted to know.'

"Until the coaches got wise to how great he was and realized that he was definitely going to play basketball, they all wanted him. It was all the major schools."

With his future already decided, James still managed to make the most of what was left in his football career. Such was the case at the end of the first half of a playoff game in James' junior year, when the Irish found themselves on the goal line with time winding down. Faced with needing to either grab a quick touchdown or call a timeout, Brophy called for an alley-oop-like lob to his team's top target.

But when the defense took the field knowing what was coming and planned accordingly, James did on the football field what he does so well on the hardwood: He improvised.

"They went to defend him by overloading the fade. We went, 'Ah, shoot, they know what we want to do,'" Brophy recalled. "Well, LeBron had checked off with [quarterback and LeBron's childhood friend] Willie [McGee] in the backfield. He kind of made a motion and they read each other. He ran a slant and caught the ball with one hand for a touchdown right before the half. I just laughed.

"Just seeing that route stuck out to me, 'cause he said, 'I got it coach, I got it.' And sure enough, he had it all right."

What Could Have Been 

While James moved forward with his basketball career and never looked back, there was a time that Brophy thought that a return to the gridiron was in play.

"A lot of us, we always wondered," Brophy said. "Early in his career, I thought, 'If this guy wins his championships early, he might be the type of guy who would try to play both and just give it a shot to see what it was like.'"

It didn't quite work out that way, with James not winning an NBA title until the ninth season of his career. A Michael Jordan-like try at a second sport was unlikely anyway, outside of an appearance in a 2009 State Farm commercial.

But unlike Jordan's often-mocked minor league baseball career, many believe that James had the potential to be an all-timer had he stuck with football. Just like in basketball, James' blend of athleticism, speed and size would have been unprecedented and could have made him one of the more un-guardable wideouts in football history.

"I always said he'd be a cross between Harold Carmichael, who was the tallest receiver at the time and played for the Philadelphia Eagles at 6'8", but he had the fluidity of a Randy Moss," said Brophy. "He glided. Like you see in basketball, the way he glides down the court, it was the same way he ran on the football field.

"He probably ran a 4.5 40 [yard dash], no problem...I knew if he wanted to, especially with the rules nowadays in football with not being able to put your hands on receivers and not taking shots over the middle and not being able to target people, he's the kind of guy that could come out and play it. There's no doubt in my mind."

Having coached his fair share of first-round talents throughout his career, Meyer concurred.

"A first-round draft pick, a Hall of Famer," Meyer said of James' gridiron potential. "Obviously, he's a winner." 

Always a Buckeye

While Meyer ultimately wasn't able to land James, the two managed to maintain a relationship as their respective careers followed separate paths.

For Meyer, it was a two-year stint at Bowling Green—where, according to Brophy, he again checked in on James—followed by stops at Utah and Florida before landing at Ohio State in 2012. James, meanwhile, spent seven seasons playing down the road from his hometown for the Cleveland Cavaliers before infamously bolting to spend four seasons in Miami.

While much of Ohio turned on James following his free agency departure, Meyer never wavered. And when the Buckeyes took on Wisconsin in a primetime game just prior to the start of the 2013-14 NBA season, there was James, fresh off his second championship with the Heat, standing on the Ohio State sideline.

LeBron James takes in a game at Ohio Stadium in 2013.
LeBron James takes in a game at Ohio Stadium in 2013.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

"He means a lot in recruiting," Meyer said of James. "You can't measure the positive feeling of him standing on the sideline for an Ohio State game."

Re-signing with the Cavaliers in 2014, James found himself with the opportunity to do just that more often, although through his two seasons back in Cleveland, he's attended just one game at Ohio Stadium. But when the Buckeyes found themselves playing in the national championship game in Arlington, Texas, in January of last year, James found a way to be there, eventually celebrating the win with Ohio State's players on the field.

Afterwards, the most famous honorary Buckeye recorded a video for UNINTERRUPTED, describing what the national title meant to his home state.

"This is for everyone in Ohio, man, because we're always counted out," an emotional James said. "Being from Ohio, in support of you guys, I love you. It's unbelievable."

James may have never played football past his junior season of high school, but his name remains connected with the sport, whether it be his fandom of the Buckeyes and Dallas Cowboys or the legendary stories of the raw potential he showed on that St. Vincent-St. Mary field.

What would have happened had James stuck it out on the gridiron? We'll never know. But there are plenty of fans and college coaches alike who sure would have loved to find out.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.