Driver takes tough road to Texas A&M

By Zach Braziller

James Driver’s route to a Division I scholarship was as unpredictable as a wild Campus Magnet victory.

The mammoth offensive tackle entered the Queens school with zero football experience. After a standout four-year career, he was headed to JUCO Lackawanna, not because of any academic shortcomings but because of lack of Division I interest.

He entered the Empire Challenge, the annual all-star game pitting the top seniors from New York City against their Long Island counterparts, resigned to his situation. He didn’t feel any better after the city’s lopsided loss to Long Island.

Little did the 18-year-old from South Jamaica realize his life was about to change. A friend of Alabama A&M offensive coordinator Cedric Pearl was at the game and left impressed with the 6-foot-7, 315-pound Driver. Pearl saw film of the game and was equally taken with the offensive lineman.

A week and a few phone calls later, Driver had the Division I scholarship he sought.

“Honestly, words can’t describe how surprised I am,” said the New York Post’s All-Queens first team selection, who plans to study criminal justice and forensics at Alabama A&M. “I’ve had a smile on my face ever since [I committed]. It’s really happening. I’m loving this Division I dream.”

Driver, who will become the first Campus Magnet player in Coach Eric Barnett’s immensely successful seven-year tenure to go directly to Division I, plans to sign with Alabama A&M at some point this week. The Bulldogs are coming off a successful 9-4 campaign and loss to Grambling State in the SWAC championship game.

Barnett was pleased to play a role in Driver’s journey, small as he said it was. He received a call from Pearl shortly after the game. Briefly into the conversation, the coach tried to find out the story behind Driver’s lack of recruitment.

“Come on coach, what’s wrong with him?” Pearl asked Barnett. “Nobody looks that good on film and nobody wants him.”

Barnett, so frustrated in his program’s ability to send players to the Division I level and confused at what local recruiters are looking for, figured history was repeating itself. Only, once Pearl found out there wasn’t an answer to his question, he was sold.

He spoke with Driver, offered the scholarship and shortly thereafter had a commitment.

“Alabama A&M is going to get a kid that a lot of people will regret they didn’t get,” Barnett said. “James is smart, he’s a hard worker. Whatever you tell him to do, that’s what he’s gonna do. He’s a beast.”

Barnett isn’t sure Driver’s scholarship will change things as far as Division I schools go for his players. He’s sent two players, Leston Simpson and Jeffrey Wills, to Minnesota after junior college, and little has changed. Driver’s commitment, however, is evidence his kids do qualify out of Campus Magnet, a supposed knock on the program.

“I just wish he wasn’t going so far away,” Barnett said. “I need to get a local one to Rutgers or Syracuse.”

Alabama A&M saw what it wanted in Driver, impressed by his size, quickness and skill set despite his lack of experience. The Bulldogs plan to red-shirt him this fall, Driver said, but Pearl told him they have big plans for him.

“It really is a dream come true,” Driver said. “I’ve spent countless amount of hours doing what I have to do. I’m proud of myself to go to school, get a free education and play football.”