BY MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — Aaron James loves football so much, he'll travel great distances to play the game.
As quarterback of the Traverse City Wolves, James drives several hours a few times a week from his Muskegon home just to practice with the team.
But that's nothing compared to the miles James has logged before this season.
After graduating from Dakota Wesleyan University, James spent 2006 playing in Denmark, 2007 in France, 2008 and 2009 in Switzerland and then he played a season in Norway earlier this summer.
"I try to tell these guys all the time, 'you should take this as fun, but try to build an avenue to go somewhere else,'" James said. "I play overseas and I don't make millions of dollars. But I get to travel the world for free and I get to meet new people.
"I love (the travel), trust me. But at the same token, I love football. Like now, I drive 2.5 hours (one way) three times a week to play a game."
So far, the travel has been well worth it for James. After losing 26-23 to the South Georgia Warriors in January's Palm Bowl as a member of the Grand Rapids Thunder, James has had nothing but success. His Norway team went 10-0 en route to a title. As quarterback of the Wolves, TC is off to a 4-0 start.
The Norway experience was a unique one, as James was head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback.
"I had to be on point," James said. "I had to make sure I had planned practice every day, make sure guys were coming, I had to condition guys. I had to make sure I worked myself. It took some discipline, because it was easy to say I'm the coach and I'm not going to run. But at the same token, I'm a player too."
It paid off, as James' Edsvoll 1814 squad won a championship. And a week later, he was suiting it up for the Wolves in a 40-17 win over the Capital City Stealth.
"It was pretty tough as far as the way it happened," James said. "We won the championship on Saturday, I had two days to party and relax. I was on a plane on Monday and I was in a car coming here (to Traverse City) on Tuesday."
The Wolves knew exactly the kind of player they were getting in James. Especially head coach Brad Haney, who spent several seasons with James at Grand Rapids.
"Leadership is the key thing at quarterback. You need guys to follow you," Haney said. "If you have that in your system, you can be a pretty good quarterback. The rest is just a plus. He can throw the ball, run the ball and really control the offense. But the main thing is he can really get guys to follow him."
James, a Muskegon Big Red graduate, knew a few of his teammates from Grand Rapids. In fact, several voted for him as a captain before he even joined the Wolves. As for the others, James worked hard at building a rapport quickly.
"I had to get the core of the team together and make sure I was on the same page with the rest of the receivers and know my linemen's names," James said. "But, me and a lot of these guys were friends on Facebook and we used to talk daily. We had a little something building, but then once I got here I had to tie it all together."
James and his teammates clicked immediately. But now a big test stands in their way as Indianapolis — the 2008 North American Football League champ — comes to town on Saturday.
"I'm really excited," James said. "We really haven't had a game where we were challenged and opened up our whole playbook to show everything. A lot of people think if you play a weak team, you should throw for 400 yards. But it's totally the opposite. When you play a weak team or a lesser opponent, you're only going to be in for so long. Last week (in a 78-13 win vs. London) before I even threw a pass we were already winning 21-7."
More of the offense should be on display this week.
"The funny thing we were talking about on the way up today is they haven't even seen the strength of our offense," Haney said. "We've been going with what's working, but not with what our strength is. I truly believe this Saturday we're going to have to pull out the strength of our offense in order to compete with Indianapolis."
Haney said the Tornados have a couple of running backs currently in camp with the Indianapolis Colts and also feature a speedy playmaker at wide receiver in Glenn Ayro.
"These are the games I love coaching in," Haney said. "The table is against us and the chips are on the other side. They're projected to win and nobody's giving us a shot. But Saturday night, we're going to prove them all wrong."
While Haney and James may have to open up more of the playbook on Saturday, they know they'll be on the same page thanks to years of experience together.
"That's one of the better things about playing football at the semi-pro level," James said. "You want to find coaches and players you're comfortable with. They know you not only as a player, but as a person. Coach Brad knows me as a person first, and then he knows me as the player. He can look at me sometimes and know exactly what I'm thinking.
"We've got that bond where I can say 'coach, don't run that. Try this play.' He trusts in me and I trust in him."