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Ducks swallow potential loss of LaMichael James

EUGENE - I can't guarantee it, but I'm pretty sure I saw Chip Kelly's heart go down his throat on the Oregon sidelines Thursday night at Autzen Stadium.

I know that's what happened to 58,000-plus fans sitting in the stands, and hundreds of media sitting in the press box, when LaMichael James went down in excruciating pain in the first minute of the fourth quarter.

Maybe it's comforting for all to know that James, after suffering an injury to his right elbow, was in good spirits as he met with the Fourth Estate after the Ducks' 43-15 victory over California.

Chip may not have been chipper about James' immediate future, but the junior running back seemed to be.

'I will be in an Oregon uniform (again) this year,' James promised. 'It is not a season-ending injury. I'll be fine. I'm tough.

'I'm never going to go out on my team. Even if I tore my ACL, I would still play.'

Well, of course not.

And it seems unlikely James will be in the lineup when the Ducks play Arizona State at Autzen nine days from now (Oct. 15).

'We'll see,' said James, his elbow protected by a sling. 'We have the best trainers in the country. I'm sure they're going to get on it. I'll be (in the training room) four times a day so I can get on that field.'

X-rays, James said, showed no broken bones in the arm or elbow.

A Friday MRI test will deliver news on the extent of the injury.

Worst-case scenario would be that James, seemingly bound for the NFL after this season, has played his final game in an Oregon uniform.

If it was his duck, er, swan song, Thursday's performance was a beauty.

In little more than three quarters, James carried 30 times for 239 yards and a touchdown. It was his third straight 200-yard game - unprecedented in Duck annals.

In the first half, James had runs of 53, 47, 39 and 30 yards - 169 yards on four carries. Amazingly, with his other 10 totes of the half, he lost a net three yards against a Cal defense keying him on every play.

But let him get a step into open space and you'll be chasing his shadow.

In the third quarter, James picked up some tough yards inside, on one play carrying a pair of tacklers for nine more yards and a 16-yard gain.

Oregon was first-and-goal at the Cal 3-yard line, in the process of turning a 15-14 halftime deficit into a 43-15 lead, when James took a handoff and plowed into the middle of the Bears' line.

In the blink of an eye, disaster struck.

James was met head-on by a mass of defenders, bounced back and in a horribly awkward moment, got his elbow twisted into a pretzel at about the same time he was losing his helmet and the football.

Television replays of the play were shown only twice - perhaps to protect the audience from a rather gruesome sight.

A deathly quiet fell over Autzen as medics raced onto the field to tend to Oregon's meal ticket, writhing on the turf in pain. Running backs coach Gary Campbell came to his side, and soon Kelly, the head coach who knows a franchise player when he has one, was there, too.

After a few moments, the UO student section broke the silence, chanting, 'LaMichael James! LaMichael James!'

Soon James was lifted onto a gurney and carted off the field to a standing ovation. Time will tell if it is his final one in Duck togs.

Campbell was buoyed by James' attitude as he was being checked out by the medical personnel on the field.

'He was in pain, but he looked up at me, smiled and said, 'I'm going to be all right,' ' Campbell said. 'He'll make the best effort possible to get back. But he was very disappointed he was going to have to leave the game.'

James said as much when asked if it was the most painful injury of his career.

'That's a good question,' he said. 'It was pretty painful. But it's more painful because I wasn't able to finish the game with my teammates. That was the painful part of it.'

James indicated his rehabilitation will be done through a natural process. No drugs allowed.

'I don't do well with medicine,' he said, 'so I'll tough it out.'

If you don't use medicine, James was asked, what will help you?

'I'll talk to the media,' he said, drawing an appreciative laugh from his audience.

As James - with 852 yards and eight rushing TDs, 11 receptions and some involvement with punt and kickoff returns already this season - was destroying Cal's defense, I was beginning to think he might be moving back into the Heisman Trophy conversation.

Now I'm thinking it will probably be three or four weeks minimum before he is back in action.

'I suffered the exact same thing my last year in high school,' James said. 'I played the next week. You can do that in high school. College is a little different.'

Fortunately for the Ducks, they have plenty of kernels in the hopper at running back.

James' absence means junior Kenjon Barner, who got loose for a 68-yard TD run against the Bears, would take over the starting job. And scintillating true freshman De'Anthony Thomas, who hauled in six passes for 114 yards and two scores from the slotback position, would get more time at running back.

'I don't know if he'll be a pure running back,' Campbell said. 'We moved him out to wideout a little bit because we need him to touch the ball some more.

'Now that LaMichael is at least temporarily out, there's a good chance (Thomas) will be fit in more to that position.'

James seems to be preparing to miss at least a little time.

'Even if I don't play, we have tremendous backs,' he told the media. 'They'll pick up the slack. I don't think they'll miss a beat.'

'We have a great corps of running backs,' Campbell said. 'We don't know when he'll be back. It's vital those guys step up and play hard and do their best to replace him.

'That's what LaMike would want them to do. He told them in the locker room, 'If I can't be there for you guys, I want you to play hard for me.' "

So for a while, at least, James might be doing his best to help from the sidelines.

'We just talked about it,' Campbell said. 'It's important for him to take on some leadership emotionally that he can't get out there and give physically.'

'I'm going to lead the team whether I play or not,' James said. 'I'm going to coach them up. I'm gonna be like Coach Camp Jr.'

Small solace to Campbell, who has grown used to having one of the nation's most electric backs to turn to in time of need.

In the wee hours Thursday night, encouraging words seemed a bit hollow, even with the cupboard not bare.

'It's really tough to look at the bright side,' Campbell said evenly. 'I don't know if I've seen the bright side yet. But we have to carry on.'