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Packers' James Starks took ball when opportunity arose

IRVING -- The chances of natives of Fort Worth and Niagara Falls meeting in Buffalo with one following the other to Green Bay seem rather remote.

Then again, there are often only a few degrees of separation in the football world. So the fact that Packers running back James Starks played at the University at Buffalo for Arlington Heights High School favorite son, Turner Gill, creates nothing more than a smile and shrug from Starks, who says Gill has been a major influence in his life.

"He helped me out a lot," Starks said, "not just decisions on the field, but in life. He's like a second father to me."

Starks will play in the biggest game of his life only a few miles from Gill's hometown Sunday when the Packers meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.

It has been a unique but quick trip to notoriety for Starks, who missed his senior season in college with a shoulder injury, then injured a hamstring and was on the physically unable to perform list early this season.

In eight of the 16 Packers regular season games, Starks was inactive. Even after he rushed for 73 yards on 18 carries against San Francisco in early December, Starks was inactive in two of the next three games.

But in the playoffs, the 6-foot-2, 218-pound back suddenly became the second coming of Jim Taylor. Starks established a team record -- quite a feat since the Packers began playing in 1921 -- by rushing for 123 yards on 23 carries in a wild-card victory over Philadelphia.

He continued the heavy load with 25 and 22 carries in wins over Atlanta and Chicago, gaining 66 and 74 yards, respectively.

A team that had lost running back Ryan Grant to injury early in the season and then watched Brandon Jackson struggle was suddenly boosted by a sixth-round pick from Buffalo.

"I was just waiting for an opportunity," said Starks, nonchalant about his sudden production. "While I wasn't playing, I was working hard."

Starks went to college as a quarterback, but Gill, who was in his first season as head coach, looked at Starks' size and frame, watched the way he ran and decided running back would be his best position.

Gill was right. In three seasons, Starks set a Buffalo rushing record with 3,140 yards, but then injury problems started.

A bad shoulder caused him to miss his senior season in 2009 and then after Gill persuaded the Packers to draft Starks, which they did in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, Starks injured a hamstring and missed all off-season activities.

Starks had 29 carries for 101 yards in the regular season -- then promptly exceeded that in his first playoff game. In three postseason games, he has gained 263 yards on 70 carries.

"It's kind of refreshing to see someone like him," Packers guard Josh Sitton said. "He's young and doesn't know any better. He just runs hard. It's like Forrest Gump. Just run."

Jan Hubbard 817-390-7760