Football 101: No. 13, Night Train Lane
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In my humble view, the greatest nickname in the history of American sports is Cool Papa Bell. It’s just such an evocative name. You don’t need to know anything about him to visualize him on the field, to imagine him stealing bases, to see him chasing down fly balls in centerfield. It’s all there in the nickname.
The second-greatest nickname in the history of American sports is Night Train Lane.
Night Train was not Dick Lane’s first nickname. No, people around the neighborhood first called him “Cue Ball.” That was because one day he was playing pool for money and his opponent took off running rather than paying his debt. Lane picked up the cue ball and threw it, and the ball clocked the guy in the head.
Foreshadowing: Headhunting would be Night Train Lane’s life passion.
Richard Lane’s childhood was rough. His birth mother was a prostitute and his birth father a pimp called Texas Slim. They abandoned Dick when he was three months old. A woman named Ella Lane found him wrapped in newspapers in a dumpster near her home on East 9th Street in East Austin, and took him in.
Ella Lane was a strict disciplinarian; The young Dick Lane remembered getting a beating so savage that the neighbors asked her to stop.
Lane was an athletic genius, a three-sport star in high school. He was actually a semi-professional baseball player briefly for a Kansas City Monarchs farm team in Omaha, and then he played one season of football at Scottsdale Junior College, where he was a star receiver. He left school in 1948 and joined the army. Though there was a handful of Black players in pro football at the time, there wasn’t an opportunity for him then.
Lane did make a name for himself as a wide receiver while playing football at Fort Ord on Monterey Bay. He was named to the All-Army team in 1951. He got some coverage in the newspapers. He carefully clipped out the articles that mentioned his name; he thought they might come in handy. And he was right. After he was discharged, he took a job at an aircraft plant in Los Angeles. He hated that job.
So one day he just showed up at Rams training camp with his scrapbook of clips and asked for a tryout.
These were the carefree days of professional football, and the Rams watched him play with some other tryout candidates for a few minutes and came away awed.
“It’s hard to say that anybody stood out after watching Lane,” assistant coach Red Hickey told the press. “About all you can say is that the others did all right. Lane was a terror. I’ve never seen anything like him.”
The Rams already had two future Hall of Fame receivers — Crazy Legs Hirsch and Tom Fears — so they tried out Lane at defensive back. And if they were awed before, now they were gobsmacked. He so dominated his very first scrimmage — a performance that included countless tackles, one of them of him chasing down Crazy Legs Hirsch from behind — that Rams coach Joe Stydahar pronounced him a starter on the spot.
“Lane came out here to make the ballclub,” Stydahar told a reporter the next morning. “Well, last night he got himself a job.”
By then, the team was already calling him Night Train. There are several versions of the story, but the one told at the time was that another tryout candidate, Ben Sheats, was wandering the dorm halls at training camp, and he heard music being played loudly in Fears’ room. The song was “Night Train” by trombonist and bandleader Buddy Morrow.
And outside Fears’ room, he saw Dick Lane dancing.
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Like I say, there are other versions of the story — Lane said that it was Fears himself who gave him the nickname — but whatever the origin, he became Night Train Lane.
“I didn’t like the name at first,” he told a reporter one year before his death in 2002. “I’d been called all sorts of names by that time, and I wasn’t sure what they meant by that nickname.”
He wasn’t wrong to be suspicious. Night Train Lane’s early days in professional football, like all Black athletes of the early 1950s, was tinged with casual racism. The Los Angeles Mirror introduced him like so: “Night Train Lane is a wild-looking individual who might have stepped right out of one of those safari pictures.”
Soon, though, he began to see the possibilities of the nickname. During the preseason, the Rams played Washington, who had a former college star named Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice. When Lane chased down Justice and blasted him, the Los Angeles Times reported: “That’s real railroadin’ men!”
Night Train Lane liked that.
Night Train’s rookie season in 1952 was an absurdity. Off the top of my head, I’d put the most impactful rookie seasons in pro football history in this order:
Night Train Lane in 1952
Lawrence Taylor in 1981
Gale Sayers in 1965
Randy Moss in 1998
Eric Dickerson in 1983
Earl Campbell in 1978
Dan Marino in 1983
Sammy Baugh in 1937
Jevon Kearse in 1999
Jim Brown in 1957
The reason I put Night Train Lane at the top is that he basically invented the modern cornerback position on the spot. He played bump-and-run defense right away. I’m not saying he’s the first, but I’m saying that he instinctively knew how to play it. He was one of the first, if not the first, to repeatedly bait quarterbacks into thinking receivers were open and then closing in and picking off the ball. That rookie season, he intercepted 14 passes in 12 games, which is basically impossible. That’s STILL the record. The league has expanded to 14 games, to 16 games, now to 17 games, and it doesn’t matter. It’s the record. It will probably always be the record.
He also had 298 return yards that year and scored two pick-sixes.
He was so good that quarterbacks mostly stopped even trying to challenge him. And even with that, he would still have 68 interceptions (fourth all time) with 1,207 return yards (sixth all time) and five touchdowns.
But here’s the thing that will blow your mind: Night Train Lane’s pass coverage wasn’t the best part of his game. Not even close. That’s just something he did on the side.
The main thing about Night Train was that he hit people. He was — in the words of “The Music Man” song — just a “bang beat, bell-ringing, big-haul, great-go, neck-or-nothing, rip-roarin’, every time’s a bullseye” hitter. Jerry Glanville said that there were two players in the history of the NFL who tried to hurt people every single time they hit.
The first, obviously, was Dick Butkus.
But even Butkus didn’t seem quite as committed to inflicting pain as Night Train Lane.
He was not an especially big man — listed at 6-foot-1, 194 pounds — but he was all arms and legs, so he seemed taller and more frightening. Anyway, it wasn’t his size that made him intimidating. It was his purpose. He came for blood. Every time.
Night Train Lane NEVER tackled low. Ever. It was his philosophy; you go for the head on every play. Obviously, that does not age well in today’s world, as we begin to understand the extraordinary dangers of concussions and head trauma and CTE and so on. Sadly, there’s more to say about this.
But for now we can say that Lane didn’t play in today’s world. He played in his own world. And if you go back and look at Night Train Lane highlights, you’ll see it. EVERY tackle was head high. Sometimes, he clotheslined players (they called that the “Night Train Necktie”). Sometimes he ripped a player’s helmet off (they called that illegal, eventually).
And when the NFL outlawed his favorite moves, he came up with new ones — such as the forearm shiver to a ball carrier’s head. Night Train once told Glanville that he longed to hit somebody so hard that he would BREAK HIS OWN ARM.
“This is a different type guy,” Glanville said.
Oh yes. Night Train was different.
Lane did not get much acclaim in his early years. He led the NFL in interceptions in two of his first four seasons. He was widely regarded as the most fearsome tackler in the game. But he was not named first-team All-Pro until his fifth season. He was traded twice — first to the Chicago Cardinals and then to the Detroit Lions.
And after he retired, he felt mistreated by the league. He served as something called a “special staff assistant” with the Lions, but felt, in the words of one story about him at the time: “stymied by the subtle bigotry which exists in professional football, where a Black man with any kind of authority, or future, is a rarity.” He quit, and later, when he tried to get back into football, found there were no openings. He tried different things in his later years, briefly working as a road manager for comedian Redd Foxx and then spending 17 years managing Detroit’s Police Athletic League.
In 1969, Lane was named the best cornerback in the first 50 years of the NFL, but bizarrely he was not actually elected to the Hall of Fame until 1974. It took too long, but he was grateful to get there.
“Those really were the days,” he said, talking about his early years. “We didn’t fly first class. We didn’t stay at the Holiday Inns. We didn’t even have Gatorade. We just played some of the best football ever.”
Sadly, the story cannot end with that happy thought. In football, stories do tend to have sad endings. Lane died of a heart attack in 2002. And, indeed, his family believed that he suffered from CTE. His final years were apparently excruciating.
“He suffered a lot and really lost all his dignity,” his son Richard Lane told Ian O’Connor. “He couldn’t bathe or clothe himself and he had a hard time remembering his grandkids’ names. … I remember getting a call in the middle of the night from the Austin police department that Dad was at a Denny’s with no idea of who he was or where he lived.”
This makes it hard to go back and enjoy those old Night Train Lane highlights. But those highlights do tell the story of a man possessed, just like the nickname.