James Lancaster knows about starting over. He’s had to do it three times. The Cordova High graduate played football through college and parlayed that into time on NFL network until an injury in 2012 put him on his back. Everything that had defined him—his strength, the pro ball career, was taken away.
Three knee surgeries and a ton of hard work later, he’s a coach at CrossFit Hit and Run and the only athlete in Memphis to qualify in the 2017 CrossFit Games Central Regional. He’ll compete later this month for his shot at what’s considered the Super Bowl of CrossFit.
Knowing what it takes to rebuild from a major setback, he and his longtime friend Joc Crawford channel the lessons learned into helping inmates at 201 Poplar do the same. James spoke to Choose901 about his recovery and what takes place every Thursday at the jail. None of it is about bouncing back. It’s slow, grueling, methodical, and just as much mental as it is muscle.
Talk about the moment you found out your injury was going to change your life.
Growing up playing football, you start when you’re 10 years old, some people start sooner. Your identity is in football. A lot of kids grew up and that’s all they know. I grew up, I played professionally, and all I knew was I was the big strong linebacker James. You get injured. All that gets put to a complete halt. I was told that I would never play football again, and I knew that. You go through an identity crisis. I went from doing that for a living to now, ‘You can’t do that.’ It was really tough.
Not everything is about putting it in the microwave. You’ve got to learn to put your mind in marathon mode.
What was it like when you started to rehab? How difficult was it to get back into being athletic again?
I went from being 240 pounds to… now I was probably about 210 or 205, not even the same person. It was very different. I didn’t deadlift the same amount, didn’t squat the same amount. Coming back was just a slow process. Not everything is about putting it in the microwave. You’ve got to learn to put your mind in marathon mode. You gotta turn off all the outside influences, whether those be good or bad, and just focus. It took a long time and I really had to train my mind to take things slow and win one day at a time.
How has it changed your health? What has CrossFit done for you that some other routine hadn’t?
It’s helped me mentally because it’s giving me another avenue to compete again and to have that rush to have something to go after, different skills. I was really bad when I first started and that’s actually what intrigued me about it. I wanted to prove to myself and to prove to everybody else that I had unfinished business and I was not done yet.
It has actually given me an edge because I’ve already had a career taken from me. I don’t covet CrossFit. I don’t covet being some major famous athlete. I don’t put all my emotion and all of my worship into that. I just enjoy it, and if somebody else sees my story and they’re inspired by it, everything is worth it.
What inspired you to go into competition?
I saw myself outlasting a lot of other guys mentally. I love the grind of trying to get better and working on your skills, and I saw with that I would get rewarded over time. Those little nuggets that got dropped here and there were like ‘Hey man, your Fran time is pretty fast’ or ‘That Diane time was pretty quick,’ and it kind of measured up slightly to the top athletes. So I was like, if I worked my butt off, maybe something could happen with this. Let’s give it a shot, go all in.
What does it mean to you to be the only qualifier in this region?
I don’t think it’s really hit me just yet. It will once I’m there on the floor and that buzzer goes off and I go, ‘Oh, this isn’t YouTube anymore.’ I’m grateful that I’m here because I started over three times. I’ve had three knee surgeries. I’ve laid on my back and I’ve looked at fluorescent lights three times, and going through that mentally after playing professional sports… I was told I couldn’t run or jump for two years. I didn’t know it was going to be that long because I was waiting for a donor meniscus. They put in a Meniscal Allograft and I had to wait that much longer before I could even run and jump. It’s very exciting. I’m completely grateful.
The real people that are in Memphis know that it’s changing. People who are investing in the city know there’s positive to be held onto.
Where did the idea come from to start a program at the jail?
A good friend of mine [Crawford] —he’s basically my brother— he had some misfortune in high school and went to juvenile court. One of the ladies that would always go over there and visit them, Reverend Gonzales, stayed in contact with him and we all stayed in contact as he went to college. When we both ended up back here in Memphis, she reached out to us about coming up there and speaking to the inmates.
We went in, we spoke and we put them through a workout, and it was then that we go man, this could be something because those guys have never been held accountable for something. Some of them never had just like a mentor or a father that has told them, hey you can do this differently.
What’s the class time like? Are you seeing signs of progress?
We split them up into teams. Each team has a captain. When we walk in and blow the whistle, there’s one guy that leads warm up. Everything is structured. When stuff gets crazy and people get tired and there’s yelling and screaming going on, everybody’s looking at the captain like “Hey, what do we do?” That’s huge to me because it holds them accountable to lead those guys. I think that that’s how you grow and that’s how these guys are going to grow. I want them to be able to teach the next guy how to do that because it’s bigger than just get them sweaty for an hour.
It’s much bigger than that. Somebody is going to leave jail or go to jail for a long time, either-or, there’s both of those situations going on there. One guy’s going to leave. He’s going to grab one guy in his neighborhood. He’s going to teach him what was taught to him while he was in the F pod and that will probably save his life. It may also save a police officer’s life and also may save some lady down the street’s life. It’s all about multiplication, not addition. I just want them to grab one guy and teach him how to do life. Once he teaches them he can grab another, and they can grab another, and before you know it just disperses. It’s going to happen slow but that’s why we’re doing this.
Have vulnerability to try something different. Let’s help everybody here.
How can people support you in what you’re doing at the jail?
I’m looking to maybe get a little bit more equipment for the guys. Right now, I’m literally putting all the med balls in an Army surplus bag and carrying them into the jail in both arms and stuff. I would love to have that equipment there at the jail so all I had to do was get it out of the office.
I know that the city may not have money to get something started, but maybe we start thinking of a way to have this in place for the juveniles, make this a part of their probation period that they go through this team series of CrossFit workouts. Maybe that helps them with trial or maybe this can be like a halfway house for those guys. Let’s brainstorm. Let’s talk about that. There’s people willing to help. Have vulnerability to try something different. Let’s help everybody here.
Memphis is not what it was 10 years ago, so people need to completely get that out of their mind. That’s not where it’s going. I don’t know what the media is doing or whatever what people think outside. The real people that are in Memphis know that it’s changing. People who are investing in the city know there’s positive to be held onto. We can make this thing happen.
Explain what you mean when you talk about the Memphis of ten years ago being gone.
Growing up here, it was how fast could you move out. All of the young people, young professionals, it was ‘How fast can we get the heck out of here’ because it was it was kind of dead. There wasn’t anything going on in Memphis. Nobody wanted to be here. Everybody wanted to go Dallas, Atlanta, and New York, whatever. Little did we know when we moved away — and this is just kind of economics here — damn, it’s pretty expensive elsewhere. Move back…wow, Memphis isn’t as expensive. And now all the other investors, they’re seeing that the property is cheaper here. We have younger people relocating here because of the infrastructure that we have, all these new jobs popping up.
Every time I meet somebody from the city or they grew up here, they have this new fervor about them. I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it’s because we all went somewhere and go, the glass is half full. It’s not half empty. We went and did other things and we came back and we’re like, wait we can do this in our city. We can make Memphis an incredible place and it’s literally… it’s happening slow but that’s what’s so cool. And more people are like I’m not going anywhere, I love it here. That’s crazy exciting to me.