10-30-03, 5:10 p.m.


If you look closely at one of Tory James' knees, it's so misshapen that it looks to be the victim of a cruel Halloween joke and should belong to the other leg.

Look even closer and it's why Tory Steven James is who he is. P>Which, at the moment, one of those things is arguably the biggest impact unrestricted free agent ever signed by the Bengals. At 30 years young, James is finally traveling the road map that unfolded before him so grandly until it was snatched away by freak and fortune six years ago. With the season's half-way point looming Sunday, he has been his defense's top playmaker, interception leader, and No. 1 cornerback.

"He can really read offenses. He's been a really good addition," said Artrell Hawkins, the man James supplanted at right corner. "It's nice to see because it shows you no matter where you're at, what you're doing, your opportunity could be right around the corner."

Stardom lurked right on the corner that first pre-season game in 1997, his second year in the league as the Broncos' second-round draft pick out of LSU. He had the starting job after sitting behind Ray Crockett and Lionel Washington. He had the money. Then, in an instant, he had nothing.

One of his teammates took out his knee in a collision, and the next thing James knew the doctors were telling him there was a total and complete rupture of he kneecap. And, the man said, a very real chance he would never play football again.

Then, almost as instantly, he had everything. Some lives are altered in car wrecks, operating rooms, jails, college lecture halls, coffee shops. James' life changed when he got carted off the field.

"No question it was a life-altering experience," James said this week. "It changed me. It changed my life. When it could be taken away from you like that. . .It's exactly what I needed. I wasn't living right. I wasn't saved. I got saved because of the knee. God was trying to tell me I couldn't do it by myself. He pulled me down to pull me back up."

Somehow, the knee came back. Medical people say to play in 87 of the next 89 games after his type of injury is as well as any knee has probably ever responded.

"Guys look at my knee," James said, "and they think it's amazing I can play. But it's stronger than the other one."

He's doing more than playing. He's leading and playmaking. He's already one interception from having the most Bengal picks in a season since cornerback Corey Sawyer had four six years ago, and he's on pace for seven this season for the most since cornerback Ashley Ambrose went to the 1996 Pro Bowl with eight.

James missed the Broncos' Super Bowl run in 1997, but rebounded from his injury in 1998 to play special teams and get a tackle the night the Broncos beat Atlanta in the Super Bowl in John Elway's last game. He started four games the next season before moving to Oakland and racking up the Raiders' longest interception return in their storied playoff history with a 90-yarder against the Dolphins.

He had his best season last year when he started 13 games and helped the Raiders get to the big game even though he played in the postseason with a plate in his broken right leg. This time in the Super Bowl, he made four tackles in the loss to Tampa Bay. But even the Raiders had a first-round corner waiting in Phillip Buchanon and the lead guy was always going to be Charles Woodson. A month after the Super Bowl, James was among six Raiders released because of salary-cap reasons.

But in Cincinnati, he is finally the Bengals' answer to Woodson and other top cornerbacks. "He's playing an elite NFL corner and we haven't had too much of that around here," says right tackle Willie Anderson. New defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the tall, lanky Super Bowl Bears cornerback, seemingly had a new rule. If he was adding a corner to his roster, he had to be as tall as him. At 6-2, 185 pounds, James is a walking printout of what Frazier seeks in a physical secondary.

"He's done everything we could have asked," Frazier said. "He's done a nice job bringing that man-to-man presence and matching up with the big, physical receivers you see so much of."

James isn't the only reason, but he's a big factor why opposing quarterbacks have a mere passer rating of 75.1 this season, a huge improvement from last year's 99.9. After giving up a franchise-high 30 touchdown passes last season, they're on pace to allow 20. James is quietly sliding up and down the line to take the other team's best receiver, so take note that only one wide receiver has had a 100-yard day against the Bengals this season, Baltimore's Travis Taylor, and his 73-yard touchdown came against cornerback Jeff Burris.

"He's smart," said Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson. "Look at that interception Sunday."

Johnson said he could see James sense the route when Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck sent two receivers to the same side. When one receiver did a hitch, James knew the receiver behind him was running a corner route and he backed off the hitch. When Hasselbeck let it fly to the corner, James leaped and made a juggling mid-air catch.

"When you can watch a guy like that every day practice and prepare for a game, he brings something important to the whole team," Anderson said.

It was the second straight game he came up with what would have been a highlight play for any NFL receiver. Against Baltimore, he dove across the middle to virtually pluck the ball off the ground with one hand and had enough sense to get up and return it 31 yards.

"That's the way I've always played," James said. "When the ball is out there, go get it."

But he admits now is, "How it was supposed to be when I got out of college. It's great to be on a team where it's not the DBs with the DBs and linebackers with the linebackers."

But James is a big reason for that because he's so accessible. A few weeks ago, defensive linemen Tony Williams and Justin Smith were sitting on stools in front of their lockers when James happened by, saw them, grabbed a stool and joined them. Hawkins can see James enjoying the leadership role that comes with being a No. 1 corner.

"He's enjoying it," Hawkins said. "He's making the most of it."

James calls it "an awesome team," when it comes to chemistry, and this is a guy who should know such things because he has stopped to savor the good things.

"(The knee) is a constant reminder for me how blessed I am to play this game," James said. "There's a reason it happened early. I wouldn't have known to handle (success). I was young and everybody is telling you how good you are. You got the money. I wasn't ready to handle it. The Lord knew I wasn't ready. He had to he me out a little bit."

Take another look at Tory James's knee. Maybe it's right where it belongs.

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