Once called ‘Pooh Bear,’ Derwin James Jr.’s Florida legacy began with famous father
Third in a series exploring the origin stories of three of the Chargers’ top defensive players with Florida roots.
Today, safety Derwin James Jr., who most definitely is his father’s son.
They can still feel the reverberations around here, the beautiful aftershocks from the ferocity produced when he flexed his uncommon level of athleticism.
Derwin James’ exploits echo at his alma mater to this day, even breaking the midsummer stillness of the grassy countryside that surrounds a football field flanked by a cemetery.
Yes, the locals proudly suggest, James rocked the opposition with enough force to stir the dead.
“He came at you like a flash, just a black streak comin’ and then, ‘Boom!’ ” said Olin Gee, who spent more than three decades coaching at Haines City High. “When he got to you, he was lightin’ you up good.”
Fans of the Chargers can nod knowingly at Gee’s recollections, their eyes confirming as genuine any tale of James’ ability to separate a man from his senses.
An All-Pro as a rookie, James now enters his fifth year in the NFL coming off a season in which he made 118 tackles and his second Pro Bowl.
But here’s what Chargers fans don’t know: Gee wasn’t talking about that Derwin James — but their Derwin James.
He was recalling the original Derwin James, the father of the Chargers’ safety, the Haines City Hornet they nicknamed “Blue” because, when he dropped his shoulder into someone, the poor mark turned that most unnatural of colors.
“The son was a hell of a hitter,” said Gee, who coached both versions of Derwin James. “But the father, he came with bad intentions every time. People ran away from him in high school.”
So the story of Derwin James Jr. can rightly start only here, with Derwin James Sr., who gifted his son everything from athletic prowess to mannerisms to an easy smile, helping shape the boy many in these parts still call by a childhood nickname: “Pooh Bear.”
It was Derwin Jr.’s sister, Shaderrika, who recently had to be reminded of the order of business in this family.
“She told me, ‘You act just like ‘Pooh Bear,’ ” Derwin Sr. recalled with that identifiable grin. “I told her, ‘No, ‘Pooh Bear’ acts just like me.’ ”
He was a high school running back, as well, Derwin Sr. blessed with the kind of speed that made him an annual participant in Florida’s state track championships.
But he really excelled at middle linebacker, where he could smear chaos sideline to sideline and orchestrate the defense like another coach, making sure everyone was lined up properly.
If that again sounds familiar to Chargers fans, well, Derwin Sr. passed those qualities to his son, too, Derwin Jr. one of the few NFL defensive backs who calls signals in the huddle.
“His father was faster than Derwin,” said longtime Florida State assistant Odell Haggins, who recruited both Derwin Jameses. “His father would knock your face off. His daddy was unreal.”
Yes, Derwin Sr. had the game. He just didn’t have the grades, his academic issues preventing him from fully seizing his athletic talents.
During his final year of high school, Derwin Sr. discovered he was going to be a father. Derwin Jr.’s mom, Shanita Williams, gave birth the summer before her senior year.
She had to give up going to college and running track at Haines City, where she also stood out as a sprinter.
Shanita took one job at the nearby Publix and another at a day-care center and got her own place, a $315-a-month one-bedroom apartment. She said she still graduated on time and with honors.
Derwin Sr. was at college then, his football career expiring after two seasons at a small school in Michigan because of a knee injury.
He returned to Florida and remained with Shanita until 2001, the couple splitting when their son was 4, by which point they were convinced they had produced something special.
Although he was “Pooh Bear” — Shanita: “He always looked like a little bear to me, so plump and round and hairy.” — Derwin Jr. was tough as a toddler, a burly ball whose first word actually was “ball.”
By middle school, he was running past, around or through kids his size and larger.
“You could see where Derwin was going with it,” Shanita said. “Even that early on I felt it. I believed it.”
“It was crazy how freakish of an athlete he was at 15. He had that crazy athletic build. His body looked all — I don’t know how else to say it — crazy.”
— Eric Robinson, Derwin James Jr.’s basketball coach
There remain conflicting accounts about how many times a young Derwin Jr. was hit by a car while riding his bike. Some say it happened twice; others contend it was three times.
Either way, the point is “Pooh Bear” grew up as a rumbling sort of child.
Derwin Sr. said he was coaching a team of 6- and 7-year-old kids when he finally relented to the tugging on his pants leg and allowed Derwin Jr. to join them. He recalled his boy being 4 at the time.
“He was just begging to play,” Derwin Sr. said. “We put that kid in some pads and the rest is history.”
Having worked two places at once when Derwin Jr. was an infant, Shanita said she assumed another significant responsibility later. She emphasized the importance of succeeding in school, too, understanding the possibilities awaiting her firstborn.
“That was my other job,” she said. “I made sure I did that.”
Derwin Jr. began high school next door in Auburndale, where he arrived with a familiar name and too much talent and want-to to go unnoticed. He was long and lanky, an eye-grabbing sort of sleek.
The kid’s body was different. Derwin Jr. was stronger than he appeared to be, ran faster than he looked to be moving and could dunk a basketball with an almost bizarre ease.
“It was crazy how freakish of an athlete he was at 15,” said Auburndale basketball coach Eric Robinson. “He had that crazy athletic build. His body looked all — I don’t know how else to say it — crazy.”
Still, the rules were simple as presented by the man who was then the school’s head football coach. No freshmen on varsity. Period.
Rick Smith was a defensive assistant at the time and still can recall the reaction when the edict was presented.
“Every one of the varsity coaches was like, ‘There’s no way you’re keeping Derwin down,’ ” Smith said. “He was probably our best player already. I mean, we almost said it in unison.”
By then, they had identified the enormous potential and everything else that suggested Derwin Jr. was a rarity.
The kid would lift weights to the point where coaches had to tell him to stop. He was smart and continually asking questions because he wanted to be smarter. He didn’t just watch film; Derwin Jr. decoded it.
In something that felt like an instant, he was escaping his father’s shadow as an ascending college football recruit but also reflecting light back on everything Derwin Sr. had been by reminding locals of the stories of “Blue” James.
Derwin Jr. has said he knew he wanted to play for Florida State as early as first grade. Then-Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher wasn’t that far behind in that thinking.
Haggins visited Auburndale during Derwin Jr.’s first season, noticed him lining up all over the place — on both sides of the ball — and then looked at a roster. Speaking to no one in particular, Haggins recalled saying aloud, “You’re telling me that’s a freshman?”
When he returned to Tallahassee, Haggins said he walked into the football offices and, so excited about what he had just witnessed, couldn’t resist presenting his findings in a way what would be memorable.
He opened by apologizing to Fisher for missing on Derwin Jr., admitting a kid that noticeable somehow had ducked his radar. Then Haggins played the video from Auburndale, pointed to Derwin Jr. streaking across the screen and told Fisher he was a senior.
With Fisher about to explode, Haggins said he laughed and informed his boss that Derwin Jr., in truth, was just a freshman. Fisher’s response: “We need to offer him now!”
“He’s a servant. He puts others before him. That’s what he is — a servant. Guys like that, they come around once in a lifetime.”
— Odell Haggins, longtime Florida State assistant coach, on Derwin James Jr.
The offer did come, after just another day or two, Haggins remembering tears pooling in the eyes of both Derwin Sr. and Jr., who committed immediately. They called Shanita with the news and she cried, as well.
During his two years at Auburndale, Derwin Jr. became a star in football and track and a team-first grinder in basketball, one who applied his abundant athletic talents to the grunt work. Setting screens. Rebounding. Blocking shots.
He also emerged quickly as a leader despite being an underclassman at a new school and playing a sport that was no better than his third-best.
“Everyone heard his voice when he talked,” Robinson said. “There were things I didn’t have to worry about. I knew he’d take care of it. I mean, who’s gonna bow up to Derwin James?”
For his final two high school years, Derwin Jr. attended Haines City High, rejoining many of the kids with whom he grew up.
He continued roaming the entire field — too dynamic for one position, Derwin Jr. played them all — often accurately calling out the opposition’s plans pre-snap because he recognized what was coming from his Monday film study.
He kept pushing iron until finally, as a senior, he passed even Gee, his old Haines City coach, in the bench press. To fully grasp the significance of that accomplishment, realize that today all the Hornets’ athletes work out in the Coach Olin Gee Weight Room, named this spring after the thick, broad-shouldered career educator.
Having started at 135 pounds, Derwin Jr. maxed out in high school with a bench press of 415.
But here’s the thing about Derwin Jr. and his strength: He always has displayed a capacity to lift more than just weight.
“What you see in L.A., that’s what we saw in Polk County,” Robinson said. “Fun-loving, always smiling, always positive. People loved Derwin. And I mean not just on Friday nights.”
Said Haggins: “He puts others before him. … Guys like that, they come around once in a lifetime.”
Derwin Jr.’s Haines City football jersey — No. 6 — hangs in the school’s main office, right above an autographed No. 33 Chargers jersey.
The display is entirely fitting, if not completely accurate. A small gold plate near the bottom identifies Derwin Jr. as the 17th overall pick of the 2018 draft — all true — but selected by the “San Diego” Chargers.
Though he changed high schools, Derwin Jr.’s commitment to Florida State remained permanent, just like the Seminoles tattoo he wore on his upper left arm long before he played for Florida State.
During his senior year, Derwin Jr. even told Haggins that the coach didn’t have to continue calling him every week, that his promise to be a Seminole couldn’t be shaken.
“He never deviated,” Haggins said. “He told me once, ‘Look on my arm, Coach. You’ve seen it. I’m coming to Florida State.’ That kind of commitment tells you something about a young man.”
If a single play could define Derwin Jr.’s time in Tallahassee, it came during his freshman season, against rival Florida.
Lined up at defensive end in a pass-rush situation, he bullied to the ground a fifth-year senior named Mason Halter, who was listed at 6 feet 6, 295 pounds, four inches taller and 80 pounds heavier than Derwin Jr. weighs to this day.
“As coaches, we all looked at each other like, ‘What?’ ” Haggins recalled. “One of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen.”
After beginning his time at Florida State with only “James” on his back, Derwin Jr. later added the nod to his father after he approached Derwin Sr. and shared his intentions.
The decision meant a jersey alternation that was minor — just the inclusion of “Jr.” — yet carried significance that was anything but.
“It was a proud moment,” Derwin Sr. said. “I told him, ‘OK, do your thing, baby.’ That was cool.”
With the Chargers, the “Jr.” appeared at the start of his second season. By then, Derwin Jr. had made an impact that was just as impressive and equally as immediate as the moment he demolished that Florida offensive lineman.
In his NFL debut, against AFC West rival Kansas City, Derwin Jr. broke up a pass some 40 yards downfield to open the second quarter. Two snaps later he was in the backfield, sacking Patrick Mahomes.
Turns out, Derwin Jr. had time-stamped his arrival in the league even before facing the Chiefs. That August, he sent his father a training-camp video of him intercepting Philip Rivers in practice.
“He picked off Phil at the goal line,” said Derwin Sr., who still has the video on his phone. “Oh yeah, baby. That was big. I came off my seat on that one. ‘My boy! Ain’t nobody gonna stop him from bein’ great!’ ”
After signing his rookie deal, Derwin Jr. bought his mother a five-bedroom, four-bath home in a gated community in Auburndale. For his father, he purchased a truck.
Both parents still work and said they will continue to do so even if, as expected, Derwin Jr. soon signs an extension that could make him the highest-paid safety in the league.
Shanita, who has been employed at McKesson Pharmaceutical for 17 years, said she prefers to earn her own money, and that she can make no claim to the millions her son has collected.
Having spent 26 years working with at-risk youth, Derwin Sr. looks at the situation through eyes so familiar with sometimes-stark, often-unforgiving central Florida.
“I like to sit back and reflect on where we come from,” he said. “I grew up picking oranges. And not just me, but his momma’s side of the family, too. I mean, picking oranges! We all did harvest work. That’s just the way it was.”
After missing the first 11 games of the 2019 season because of injury, Derwin Jr.’s second game back came in his home state, in Jacksonville. He finished with six tackles, including one for loss, and a pass breakup as the Chargers won by five touchdowns.
Sitting in the stands that overcast December afternoon, Derwin Sr. said he stared down and marveled at what he was witnessing, the reality hitting him deeper than ever before.
“I’m looking at my son and saying, ‘Man, he’s dominating out here. He’s the best of the best,’ ” Derwin Sr. remembered. “Just a little country boy from ol’ Polk County. That was like, ‘My boy is here to stay.’ ”
Having been to Southern California several times for games, Derwin Sr. said he still isn’t accustomed to seeing his son’s face all over town, whether on a billboard for Oakley or a mural in Venice Beach.
He said a friend recently sent him a picture of Derwin Jr. featured on an advertisement in a Las Vegas mall. The image caused chills, similar to the ones Derwin Sr. said he feels when seeing “Pooh Bear” on the giant SoFi Stadium video board.
“He’s everywhere,” Derwin Sr. said. “You can’t get rid of him. ‘Damn, you everywhere, son.’ You just have to think about it, think about where we come from and say, ‘Wow!’”
Derwin Jr. is everywhere — on the field and off it. Sometimes, it’s like there are two Derwin Jameses. Yeah, sometimes. Like now.
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