Black Belt, Gold Heart

by Chad Bishop

Vandy senior Christian James cherishing his time with the Commodores

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Before the age of 8, Christian James had earned his black belt in karate. His father, mother and older sister had all achieved that goal in the martial arts discipline as well.

James is also a brown belt in the sport of judo. So he uses what he has learned in the dojo every time he steps on the football field.

“It’s something that has transitioned to football quite a bit,” James said. “The hand combat stuff is so applicable to defensive line work. With wrestling and judo it’s so much leverage. And then grip strength, it transitions to my position almost perfectly.”

Martial arts training is just one of the many facets that has James’ game blossoming halfway through his senior season with the Commodores. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive lineman has evolved into a steady force on and off the field for a program that has seen all sorts of changes since he first stepped on campus. His game has grown exponentially as well for a pupil which got a relatively late start in the sport.

James didn’t start playing football until he entered middle school. His father, James said, wanted to make sure his son didn’t have negative or discouraging experiences as a child, experiences that could have detoured his possible future football career.

Instead, the athletic James focused on martial arts and wrestling while he yearned to joined his childhood peers on the football field growing up in Germantown, Tennessee. He also trained with renowned speed and agility coach Stanley Lopez long before he ever put on football pads.

“When he first arrived at the clinic, I told his dad, ‘Many kids want to run fast but they don’t want to go through the process. And it is a process,’ ” Lopez said. “(James) was one of those people that bought into it. 

“He just really accepted it. Even when he returns from Vanderbilt now we train. And I’ve told him, ‘I’m going to teach him how to think in space.’ I give him drills and those drills are upgraded every time he comes back and I expect him to meet those demands. He is always wanting to come back. I told him I expect to see him in the NFL one day.”

With the help of Lopez and with his martial arts background, James began to see his prep career gain steam while at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis where he made 30 career sacks, was an all-state selection and was chosen to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl All-Star Game. James credited his high school coaches for sending out his film and publicizing his abilities which led to his first official scholarship offer from Cornell during his junior year.

It also helped James’ cause that colleges were coming around campus to take a look at teammate Bill Norton, now a junior defensive lineman for Georgia.

Those confluences allowed James to begin to garner interest from the likes of Army, Cincinnati, Memphis, Navy, Northwestern, Tulane, Tulsa and others. But James always had Vandy in the back of his thoughts.

On Oct. 13, 2012, James attended his first college football game and watched the Commodores battle undefeated and third-ranked Florida inside Vanderbilt Stadium.

“It was almost like it was romanticized for me,” James said. “Vanderbilt was always on my mind. My dad always told me, ‘If you want to play for Vanderbilt, I believe in you. You just have to put in the work.’ I always held my standard high to try to get that offer from Vanderbilt.”

James committed to Vanderbilt on June 18, 2018. He has been a Commodore ever since despite the ups and downs of the past four years.

“(James) has done a phenomenal job of just attacking every day,” Vanderbilt defensive quality control coach Josh Smith said. “He just puts his head down to the grindstone and every time he can he comes in to meet, finds the small details in his game so he can improve. You’ve seen that in his progression on the field and in his activity and his pursuit and total effort.

“He just has the ability to come in every day and treat every day as a new opportunity and attack that opportunity, whether it be film sessions, whether it be class, whether it be football on the field with each rep. You can see that from the tape of practice to the game. He values every rep and every opportunity. We need leaders here and he’s going to leave his legacy for sure.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, a head coaching change, multiple position coaches and nagging injuries had all been the backdrop to James’ time in black and gold before the 2022 season. He registered just one tackle in 2019 and just 11 in seven games in the shortened 2020 campaign.

It wasn’t until the end of the 2021 season that James began to show flashes of his former play-making self. Seventeen of his 23 stops that fall came in the final four games.

“He’s just so steady,” Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea said. “Even since last year you look up late in the season and start paying attention and No. 91 just keeps showing up and keeps showing up and keeps making plays. He’s consistent.

“He’s really established himself as someone we can count on so he means a lot to us.”

James’ father Bill James and mother Shelia James met while students at the University of Tennessee at Martin after Bill had started as his college career playing football at Tennessee Tech. The couple moved to the Memphis suburbs to raise James’ sister Alexandra and, later, son Christian.

Shelia recently retired from a long career with Memphis Light, Gas and Water while Bill works for First Horizon Bank. Alexandra’s singing ability and James’ soundtrack of the Memphis blues and Elvis Presley as a child has made James yearn for a career in the music business.

A human and organizational development major who is on track to graduate in the spring, James will throw on some Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Charlie Rich, Jerry Reed or classic rock when he’s not in the classroom or on the football field.

“I want to be in Nashville. I love Nashville and I want to be around the music industry, either with artist relations, management or venue bookings,” James said of life after football. “And that’s one of the main reasons I chose Vanderbilt as well. I knew it would speak so strongly after football to have that degree. To be honest, just the stats say not too many people make it even one year (in professional football). To have this Vanderbilt degree, you always hear it’s a 40-plus-year commitment, and it’s so true.”

James’ football career, however, still has some life to it. Going into a 3 p.m. Saturday matchup at Missouri, the senior has put together his best season yet. A career-high 4.5 tackles for loss are part of his 19 total tackles and his two sacks—also the first two of his career—leads the team.

James has at least one stop in every game this season and is showing no signs of slowing down as the Commodores (2-4, 0-3 SEC) begin a vital stretch run through the second half of the slate. And for a self-described, wide-eyed student-athlete in 2019 who may have considered a different path at any point during the last four years, it is certainly now as clear as ever as to where James’ heart lies—and where it will always lie.

“It’s definitely been a journey. I’ve had four position coaches and staffs move in and out. It’s been different,” he said. “But the staff we have now, I love every single one of these coaches and men and women. I definitely felt each year I’ve progressed even further to have become the player that I am at this point.

“And I know we can change things around. That’s something I really want to be part of. It’s just what I want to do. I love everyone around it and I love the school as well. There’s never been a question whether I’ve wanted to stay at Vanderbilt or not.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for
Follow him @MrChadBishop.


Preparing for Success

The Ingram Center trip to the Black Student-Athlete Summit and career trek experiences helped 16 Commodores transform dreams into professional development

Guatemalan Life Lessons

For 16 Vanderbilt student-athletes, the Ingram Center’s Guatemala service trip opened eyes to global issues of social impact, sustainability and healthcare

Leading Loudly

Responsibility for his teammates, meaningful relationships have been defining aspects of Bradley Ashmore’s Vanderbilt experience