Ichabod Football Helmet


Returning Stronger

After years of hardships, Ichabod receiver finishing career on high note

James Letcher running the football

(James Letcher, Jr., bcj ’21, led Washburn with 1,076 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He is an NFL draft hopeful this April. Photo by Jesse Bruner)

From The Ichabod - Winter 2023 
By Chris Marshall

Considering the potential he showed as a freshman wide receiver, and the accolades and NFL attention he earned this year as a senior, one might assume James Letcher, Jr.’s route to success followed a straight path. The truth is, reaching this point required more changes in direction than the kick returns Letcher specialized in for the Washburn University football team.

Coming off a season when he was named the team’s freshman of the year in 2017, Letcher, bcj ’21, appeared poised for an even bigger role as a sophomore before breaking his hand in the third game and missing the rest of the season as a medical redshirt.

Then things took a tragic turn in the offseason. Hours after teammate Corey Ballentine, als ’19, was drafted to the NFL, a shooting killed Washburn teammate Dwane Simmons, ba ’19, and injured Ballentine. Letcher was present during the shooting.

After an agonizing wait, Letcher returned to the field in 2019, cemented himself as a key member of the Ichabod offense and earned all-MIAA and All-America honors. Yet again, his momentum stalled when the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 season.

Now, as a sixth-year senior, Letcher was able to play two consecutive seasons on the field for the first time. He’s already graduated with a degree in criminal justice and continues to take classes to prepare for a career after football, whenever it may be.

With a team-best 1,076 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns this year, his NFL hopes have been bolstered, but one lesson he’s learned is not to assume the next season is guaranteed.

“It can all be taken away so fast,” he said. “I appreciate playing more now. Whatever happens in the future, I’ll just appreciate it as much as I can. I don’t take anything for granted.”

Letcher ranks third on Washburn’s career receiving yards list and holds the school record for kickoff return touchdowns. A year ago, he was named to six different All-America teams, and many more are sure to follow his senior season.

Ballentine, a close friend who was drafted in the sixth round in 2019, offers frequent guidance in how Letcher can improve his chances of being selected in April’s NFL Draft in Kansas City, Missouri. Washburn offensive coordinator Jeff Schwinn, m ed ’19, coached both players and sees several similarities. Both speedsters excel on special teams, a phase of the game that isn’t as glamorous, but often makes the difference in deciding which late-round picks earn a roster spot.

“He can change the game in an instant with kick returns and punt returns,” Schwinn said. “He’s definitely going to have some NFL interest, and there have been teams from the next level coming through and asking about him, so there’s definitely a possibility for him there.”

Schwinn has helped develop dozens of student-athletes in his 10 years at Washburn, but he’s become especially close with Letcher. The senior from Piper High School in Kansas City, Kansas, has been on the team for more than half of Schwinn’s tenure.

“It was quite the recruitment process,” Schwinn said. “He and I joke about it every once a while. He was underrated and underrecruited, but his confidence and his ability were very evident. Although he was undersized, you could really see he was a very good player and athlete.”

Since his recruitment, Letcher has grown physically and mentally. Schwinn said Letcher added 30 pounds without losing any of his quickness. Meanwhile, in the classroom, he’s benefitted from the attention of professors who want to see him succeed.

“I heard stories in high school about how hard college is, and they won’t take any slack if you fall behind,” Letcher said. “Washburn is accommodating. You can get the help you need from the professors. If you’re willing to put the work in, you’ll make it.”

Washburn was the first school to offer Letcher a scholarship, which allowed him to continue following in the footsteps of his dad, who served in law enforcement and played college football at Coffeyville Community College and East Carolina University before eventually getting an invite to Miami Dolphins training camp.

In addition to football, Letcher has talked to his dad and uncle, who has worked in juvenile detention, about hopes of joining the FBI and what it would take to get there. Through hard work and perseverance, Letcher has put himself in position to pursue his career dreams at the highest level, whether it’s catching footballs or criminals.

“He’s a very solid young man,” Schwinn said. “He’s had to work through some challenges off the field and has continued to grow through it. He’s a strong young guy, and with his confidence and abilities, he’s going to do great things in the future.”

Winter 2024 The Ichabod magazine cover with picture of the bell tower and snow fallen on campus

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions


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