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James goes from spectator to contributor for 49ers

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James goes from spectator to contributor for 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) LaMichael James has transformed himself from a rookie spectator forced to watch the first three months of the season to a key contributor to a Super Bowl team in a matter of weeks for the San Francisco 49ers.

After being inactive the first 12 games of the season, James has become an impact player for the 49ers in their run to the Super Bowl next week against Baltimore.

His long kickoff return set up the go-ahead score in a late-season win in New England. His experience running the zone read helped Colin Kaepernick rush for 181 yards in a win to open the playoffs against Green Bay. Then James got into the scoring act himself last week, starting San Francisco's comeback in a 28-24 win over Atlanta in the NFC championship.

``I had a lot to learn,'' James said. ``I'm still learning. I'm very blessed to be in the situation I'm in.''

Fresh off scoring his first professional touchdown in last week's win over the Falcons, James is finally fulfilling the expectations the Niners had for him after drafting him in the second round last April following a stellar college career at Oregon.

``From the first time he stepped on the field, he's been dynamic,'' coach Jim Harbaugh said.

Getting on the field was the hard part. James was inactive the first 12 games as he had to adjust to playing from a huddle after being part of Oregon's fast-paced offense for three years and to learn a much more extensive playbook than he was used to with the Ducks.

James dutifully worked at learning his craft, making his contributions as a scout team running back and receiver and soaking in whatever tips he could get from starter Frank Gore and running backs coach Tom Rathman.

``It was very different,'' James said. ``I'd never really been in a huddle until I was in high school. Actually, sitting in a huddle and then having to remember it - and not just run it - that was a little bit different for me, but it all works out.''

James got his chance after Kendall Hunter went down with a season-ending Achilles' injury in New Orleans on Nov. 25. The Niners needed a change-of-pace back to team with Gore and James proved to be a perfect fit.

James was helped by the fact that the Niners offense had changed a bit with the switch at quarterback to Kaepernick from Alex Smith, with the team using more of the read-option plays James was so proficient at in college.

``Once he started getting comfortable, we saw a dynamic football player,'' safety Donte Whitner said. ``It's a testament to him to be able to sit on the sideline and be on the developmental squad, as we like to call it, here for so long and actually knowing that you can play football. Actually coming from a big university, playing in a lot of big games, playing a lot of big games and being a big-time player, and having to sit out and be humbled like that, that's a testament to him and the character he has.''

James rushed for 5,082 yards and scored 58 touchdowns in three seasons for the Ducks, including 471 yards of offense and four touchdowns in two games against Stanford when Harbaugh ran the Cardinal.

Playing for a perennial title contender at Oregon has prepared James for the big stage of the NFL playoffs. He played in three BCS bowl games, including the national championship game against Auburn at the end of his second year in January 2011. He capped his college career by rushing for 159 yards and one touchdown in a 45-38 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin last January.

``I don't think there's too much difference from playing a BCS game at Oregon,'' James said of the NFL playoffs. ``I think it's really helped me out playing big games like these. It's second nature to me. I really don't think it's too big a deal.''

He has shown that so far, playing his best on the biggest stage. After making his debut against Miami on Dec. 9 with eight carries for 30 yards, James delivered his most important play of the regular season the following week in a prime-time game at New England.

He returned a kick 62 yards after New England rallied back from 31-3 down to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick threw a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on the next play as the Niners went on to the win that proved to be the difference in the NFC West race with Seattle.

The big plays have kept coming in the playoffs. He was the decoy on Kaepernick's 56-yard option keeper that gave San Francisco the lead for good two weeks ago in the 49ers' playoff opener against Green Bay.

He then had five carries for 34 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown run that started the Niners comeback in Atlanta that has them preparing for the Super Bowl.

``He always has been a smart player,'' Gore said. ``First, coming in the offense was kind of different. Now the offense is similar to what he did in college. That helps him a lot.''

NOTES: LB Ahmad Brooks (shoulder) practiced for the first time this week. ... TE Garrett Celek (foot) is still sidelined.

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AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report

Ato Boldon, speakers stress accessibility of youth sports at hearing on Capitol Hill

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NBC Sports Washington

Ato Boldon, speakers stress accessibility of youth sports at hearing on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON -- About a dozen players from the Howard County TERPS 10U football team ran around Rayburn Lobby at the House of Representatives on Tuesday morning, their red, yellow and black jerseys darting around members of Congress and visitors as the players tossed footballs and swung plastic mini golf clubs.

Earlier that morning, the team sat in the seats of the Ways and Means Committee in Room 2020, a vast change from the suit-and tie-wearing politicians normally behind the microphones. 

The team wasn't there to wreak havoc on politicians but was instead present for the National Youth Sports Day hearing and expo, a joint effort by the National Council of Youth Sports and the Congressional Caucus on Youth Sports intended t0 start a dialogue around youth sports and the NCYS's policy platform. 

The main message: youth sports needs to be accessible to all children and prioritized by the federal and state governments and by coaches.

Youth sports are one of our most valuable assets and teaching tools, implored Clay Walker, the National Fitness Foundation executive director. He emphasized the need for persons at both the state and federal level to make youth sports a top priority. Walker added to four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon's message that right now, the most critical issues lawmakers face are those concerning today's youth.

For Boldon, who has served as the lead track and field analyst for NBC Sports' coverage of the Summer Olympics since 2007, his achievements in sports served as a "catalyst" for other opportunities, opportunities that he, and other panelists, said need to be accessible to everyone. 

A rising sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Nora Fairbanks-Lee was the youngest member of the panel. She explained how playing basketball and softball have helped her develop into a more confident person.

"Sports teaches unforgettable life lessons," Fairbanks-Lee said, adding that sports provide a safe space for children in the community to work through their problems. 

The final message of the main hearing came from Charles Elliot, who said that coaches "have to begin to invest in kids [and] put time in." Elliot, the president of the Maryland Football and Cheer Association, and former football coach, demonstrated the innate power coaches hold over children by blowing a whistle, at which point every Terps player jumped to their feet ready to go.

"Whatever coach says, that's what goes," Elliot explained. He argued that coaches should strive to be mentors and turn players into better human beings, not simply into better athletes.

Elliot's argument carried back to the necessary prioritizing of youth sports and the purpose of the conference as a whole: to greate that dialogue which continues to promote safe, healthy and accessible play for all children.

After the hearing, those in attendance retired to the lobby, where various organizations set up tables and some games to allow both Congressional staff and the children in attendance to play and learn about each organization.

Though only a few staffers and representatives participated in the activities, including a carpet golf set from the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and inflatable basketball hoops from Monumental Sports, those few children filled the air with giggles as they frolicked amongst politicians and event organizers. 

Three Congress members-- Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX)--spoke over the course of the day about the positive impact of youth sports on their own lives. 

Both Armstrong and Davis coached little league baseball, which they discussed at the beginning of the hearing; Armstrong was elected to the North Dakota Dickinson Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017, while Davis remembed when he found out he was nominated to the caucus while he was coaching a little league game (he waited until after the game to address reporters, showing his players they were his priority in that moment). 

Davis and Veasey are two of the three co-chairs of the caucus, and Vesey made sure to address specifically the children in the room.

"Comfortable is the most dangerous word in sports," Boldon explained during the hearing. He tells all his athletes that phrase to warn against complacency in training. But that same saying holds true to the panelists' feelings toward the current state of youth sports in America.

"We've made progress," Trish Sylvia, co-founder of the National Center for Safety Initiatives said. "But there's more to be done." 

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Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott has said privately he will hold out from training camp, per report

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USA TODAY Sports Images

Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott has said privately he will hold out from training camp, per report

Since entering the NFL in 2016, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has established himself as one of the elite rushers in the NFL.

Now, he wants to be paid like it.

Elliott, who has two years remaining on his rookie deal, has privately said he plans on holding out from training camp until he receives a new deal, per ProFootballTalk.

Slated to make just $3.5 million in 2019, Elliott is one of the most underpaid players in all of football. He's set to make $9.09 million in 2020, the final year of his rookie deal.

Dallas has put off extension talks with Elliott simply because he's still under contract for two more seasons, per the report.

Quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper are both free agents after the season, and the Cowboys would like to keep both at all costs, ProFootballTalk said. Additionally, Dallas just signed defensive end Demarcus Lawrence to a five-year, $105 million contract extension this offseason.

Should he not receive a contract extension, Elliott could face a situation similar to what Demarco Murray had with the Cowboys in 2014. Murray set a franchise record for most rushing yards in a season, yet Dallas still chose to let him walk in free agency.

Elliott's not the only star running back threatening to holdout this offseason. Los Angeles Chargers' Melvin Gordon has publicly stated he will skip training camp until he gets a new deal and is not afraid to miss regular-season games, similar to what Le'Veon Bell did last year with the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

Since entering the NFL in 2016, Elliott has led the NFL in rushing twice. His 4,048 total rushing yards over the past three seasons are the most in the NFL, and he has over 600 more rushing yards than Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley, the next most rushing yards over that span.

Whether he actually holds out or whether the Cowboys turn their attention to extending their star running back will be seen in the coming weeks.

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