Former NFL pro volunteers with St. Helena linemen _lowres

Photo provided by Smokey Leonard -- Former NFL player James Atkins, center, works with the St. Helena offensive and defensive players as they prepare for the 2015 football season.

St. Helena College and Career Academy’s coach Brandon Brown is getting some help from someone who knows a thing or two about the importance of working in the trenches.

James Atkins drives an hour from his home in Folsom every day to volunteer with the Hawks’ offensive and defensive linemen, and he’s been a great asset, Brown says.

Atkins played seven seasons in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks (1994-97), Baltimore Ravens (1997-99) and Detroit Lions (2000). His career spanned 62 games during that time, including 45 starts.

“One of the things he brings is knowledge of the game from playing it at the highest level,” said Brown, who is in his third year at St. Helena. “They have great respect for him as a former player, but he’s also a great person and has a great attitude. They see it for themselves, someone who is homegrown who has gone on to play at that level.”

Atkins played for Woodland High School then signed with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he played defensive lineman from 1989-92. He was named an All-Independent team selection as a defensive tackle by The Sporting News. He still can be found in the UL-Lafayette record books under career tackles, where his 268 (148 solo, 120 assists) ranks third.

Atkins was converted to offensive line after being signed as an undrafted free agent by Seattle in 1993. He started every game from 1995 through 1996 at left tackle before moving to guard. He was signed by the Ravens as a backup tackle then finished his career with the Lions.

“I have a nephew who plays for Amite, and I watched them play St. Helena. My cousin kept telling me I needed to go help them,” said Atkins, who owns Papa John’s pizza franchises in Amite and Ponchatoula. “My wife said ‘Let God lead you,’ and I prayed on it and decided to do it.”

Brown said, “He came to me and said he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, but he could tell I was a young coach and was knowledgeable about the game, and he liked what I was trying to do for the school,” Brown said. “He said the only thing I was lacking was help, and he’d like to help. Our personalities meshed from day one. He said he’d be here every day, and he has been.”

Atkins graduated with a degree in education. His mother was an accomplished educator, and his brother and sister are teachers. He credits his upbringing for much of his success and has considered one day getting into teaching and coaching professionally.

“He told his story to the kids about the importance of attitude and effort— how the right attitude and effort can take you everywhere,” Brown said.

Not only does Atkins attend all of the practices, but he attends film sessions and coaches meetings and will be on the sideline during games.

“I enjoy it,” Atkins said. “I let the kids know they have to prepare for life after high school, so I push them hard because to be successful, you have to work harder than everyone else for it to pay off.”