Top 10 of the D1 Era - No. 2: James Starks
Niagara Falls native, current Packer brought Buffalo football to a new level
During his UB career, James Starks ran for 3,140 yards and 34 touchdowns and helped lead the Bulls to their first and only MAC championship in 2008. Courtesy of Paul Hokanson/UB Athletics
James Starks' historic career at the University at Buffalo began because he never wanted to leave the area.
The Niagara Falls native wanted to set a precedent. While other players from his high school searched out universities around the country, Starks had only two schools in mind: Syracuse and Buffalo. When the opportunity to play at Syracuse didn't present itself, he decided on UB.
"I wanted to show younger guys from my neighborhood who may get D-1 offers or D-2 offers that wherever you go, you can make it," Starks said.
Starks only played at UB for three years (missing his fourth because of injury), but he leads all Buffalo running backs with 34 career rushing touchdowns and ranks second in career rushing yards (3,140) behind Branden Oliver (No. 10 on this list).
Starks is currently a running back for the Green Bay Packers and has accumulated 1,778 total yards in four seasons in the NFL. In his rookie season, he rushed for 52 yards on 11 carries in helping the Packers defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
The Niagara Falls community has always been important to Starks. He said he "wanted to be different than a lot other guys" and remain in Buffalo.
He had watched UB football for years. His youth football teams received tickets to the games. When he arrived, the Bulls hadn't won more than three games since 1998 - when Starks was 12 years old.
But Starks believed there was the potential to win, and a big opportunity for him to thrive, at UB.
"A lot of people didn't really believe you could go somewhere smaller and be successful," Starks said.
Starks proved the doubters wrong, not only individually, but also with a championship.
Buffalo football won its first Mid-American Conference Championship behind Starks' monstrous junior season. He ran for 1,333 yards and 16 touchdowns, good for third and first all-time at UB in a single-season, respectively. The Bulls defeated No. 12 Ball State, 42-24, in the MAC title game as Starks totaled 127 yards and a touchdown.
Starks remembers the Bulls entering the championship game with tremendous confidence thanks to former head coach Turner Gill, who eventually left for Kansas and is now the head coach at Liberty University. Gill helped the team realize the importance of the game for the entire university.
"When I first got there, the University of Buffalo wasn't doing much in football," Starks said. "When I first got there, we were basically just trying to turn it around as a team."
Starks ran for more than 170 yards five times in his career - including a 231-yard outburst in 2007.
"I'm a strong-minded person, so any obstacle in the way, I'm going to knock that thing down and try to be where I need to be, where I'm trying to go," Starks said.
Starks was nominated for the Doak Walker Award - which designates the top college running back in the nation - before his senior season, but an offseason injury derailed these high expectations. While participating in summer practice, Starks suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder. He didn't want to lose his senior season and originally tried to rehab the injury, but then realized he had no choice but surgery.
The locker room and Starks were emotional when he told the team he needed surgery and would likely miss the season. But as a team captain, Starks made sure he was there for the rest of the team. He took an interest in Oliver, then a freshman - telling Oliver he would break some of Starks' own records, an accomplishment Oliver later achieved.
Starks spent the remainder of the season rehabbing his injury and preparing for the NFL Draft. Because he did not compete in his final year of eligibility, Starks fell to the Packers in the sixth round.
Although he didn't play much in his first regular season, his presence was felt on the NFL's brightest stage - the playoffs.
Despite just 29 carries for 101 yards in the regular season, Starks made the most of his first postseason opportunity. The rookie running back ran for 123 yards on 23 attempts to help the Packers earn a 21-16 road victory against the Philadelphia Eagles. He followed that performance with games of 66, 74 and 52 rushing yards as the Packers won their first Super Bowl since 1996.
"[Coming] in, getting hurt, going through everything I battled through ... to come out of that and still be successful and show people the potential to grow and get better as a player, it made me feel great," Starks said.
Starks still has deep ties to his roots at UB and his hometown of Niagara Falls. Starks still speaks with Gill, often about non-football related items.
"He's like a father figure to me kind of in that aspect," Starks said. "He kind of raises and molds us to be good men and know how to carry ourselves in the locker room. [We are] who we are today is a large part due to coach Turner and I'd like to thank him personally."
When Starks comes home, he still wants to prove to the children of the Niagara Falls community they can accomplish their goals.
"I do what I do now because of the little guys coming up now," Starks said. "I mean to get out of there, there's a lot of distractions where people may go different ways. Not a lot of people get out of Niagara Falls.
"They show me nothing but respect. I get treated like I've always been treated. They show me love and I show them love."
Starks just signed a new two-year contract with the Packers for $3.16 million. He continues to be a focal point of the Green Bay backfield and an inspiration to those in the Buffalo community.
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