Monday, September 24, 2007

UNUSUAL SPORTS LEGENDS--NIGHT TRAIN LANE



When it comes to defensive backs in football, Dick "Night Train" Lane stood head and shoulders above the others. For one thing, you've gotta love a guy with a name like that. In his rookie season in 1952, playing for the Los Angeles Rams, Night Train intercepted 14 passes, which is still the NFL record, and the teams played only 12 games in those days. Now they play 16 games, but his record is still intact.

Lane played one season of college ball, in 1947 at Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska (now Western Nebraska Community College). You can't get more obscure than that.

As far as I can tell only one other "famous" person came from Scottsbluff--Randy Meisner, the former bassist with the Eagles (not the Philadelphia ones).

Be that as it may, Lane had an unusual biography. His mother was a prostitute in Austin, Texas, and his father was a pimp known as Texas Slim, who was apparently not related to Amarillo Slim (KENSUSKINREPORT, April 15, 2007), or, for that matter, Mexican billionaire, Carlos Slim. Lane was abandoned in a dumpster when he was 3 months old. He was found there by Ella Lane, a widow with 2 other children, who raised him as one of her own. With that background, he quickly learned to be tough.

Although his adoptive mother, concerned for his safety, encouraged him to take up other hobbies than football, Lane, a fierce competitor, ignored her pleas. He went to Junior College for one semester (the football semester) and then joined the Army for the next 4 years. His athletic skills in the Army earned him an invitation for a football scholarship at Loyola (L.A.), but the school dropped its football program before he could accept. He had also gotten an invite to "drop by" the Los Angeles Rams.

Lane had recently gotten married and was working in a dead end job at an aircraft plant in Los Angeles, loading sheets of metal into bins. Frustrated, he decided to look for another job. While riding the Beverly Boulevard bus, he noticed the Hollywood offices of the Rams. He decided to "drop by" after work. He took his scrapbook of his high school and college exploits and talked his way into the Rams front office to see Coach Joe Stydahar. The coach was impressed by the scrapbook and signed Lane to a $4,500 contract.

The Rams weren't sure where to play him, and he played end on offense and cornerback on defense. At offensive end (wide receiver), he played behind future Hall of Famers Tom Fears and Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch. Eager to learn, Lane constantly came into teammate Fears' room to ask advice. Fears had a phonograph which played the Buddy Morrow song Night Train over and over again. According to the book Pro Football Hall of Fame All-Time Greats, one day a teammate entered the room, saw Lane and blurted out, "Hey, there's Night Train" and the name stuck.

Lane wasn't sure if he liked the name or not until, in his first exhibition game, he tackled Washington's Charlie Justice, breaking his collar bone. The headline in the newspaper the next day read, "Rookie Dick 'Night Train' Lane derails Charlie 'Choo Choo' Justice." Lane decided to keep the nickname.

Night Train went on to a 14 year NFL career, compiling 68 pass interceptions, including 5 returned for touchdowns. He also blocked many field goals and extra points. After playing for the Rams, he also played 6 years with the Chicago Cardinals and 6 more with the Detroit Lions and was voted to the All-Pro team 5 times. He played in the Pro Bowl 7 times. His interception return yardage ranks second in NFL history. His teammate on the Cardinals, Pat "True Value" Summerall said "I played with him and against him, and he was the best I've ever seen."

One of the hardest hitters in NFL history, he liked to tackle ball carriers by the head and neck, which led the NFL to outlaw that technique which was called a "Night Train Necktie" and was especially feared by NFL receivers. Despite the NFL ban, Night Train continued his ability to dominate games. In the 1999 Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, Night Train was ranked Number 19, the highest ranked defensive back. He was the Cardinals highest ranked player and the Lions' second ranked player (behind the great running back Barry Sanders).

In his personal life, he was married 3 times, the best known being his marriage to jazz singer Dinah Washington (What a Difference a Day Makes) He was the last of her 7 husbands, when she died in 1963. Lane died of a heart attack in 2002, but the legend of Night Train lives on at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

KENNETH SUSKIN
9/24/07

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5 Comments:

Blogger heels63 said...

I enjoyed your post "Unusual Sports Legends--Night Train Lane."

If I may, I'd like to make one slight correction. On August 21, 1952, "Night Train Lane" and the Los Angeles Rams played the Washington Redskins led by Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice. I'm sure during the course of the game Lane tackled Justice, but the play in question didn't happen as is often reported. During the game, Justice carried the ball 11 times and gained 199 yards. On his last run that evening, he carried the ball about 60 and was tackled by the Rams' Herb Rich, breaking his wrist, not his collar bone. Once again, Herb Rich made the tackle that sidlined Justice for several games. I have a newspaper photograph from the game and a video tape of the play.

Thank you very much for letting me makes these comments.

heels63

September 25, 2007 at 5:23 PM  
Blogger kenneth suskin said...

Thanks for the comment. It sounds like the headline was contrived so that the writer could get both names in there. Don't confuse him with the facts. Justice must have been a heck of a ballplayer.

sphinx711@aol.com (KEN SUSKIN)

September 28, 2007 at 9:33 PM  
Blogger kenneth suskin said...

I just want to add to the last comment that Justice was a star running back fot the North Carolina TarHeels in the late 1940's and was runner up for the Heisman Trophy 2 years in a row behind Doak Walker and Leon Hart. In the 1950 College All Star game, Justice was MVP as the College All Stars beat the HFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles 17-7. He acquired the name "Choo Choo" while playing football in the Navy for his hard charging running style. His NFL career was relatively brief because of injuries, but he did show flashes of brilliance, to-wit, the game in question and several others.

KENNETH SUSKIN

September 28, 2007 at 9:51 PM  
Blogger Qorban Ministries said...

I just wanted to say thank you for this very well documented story about Dick "Night Train" Lane.

Thank you as well for remembering him. He will always be remembered by me...as he was my father.

Thank you again and God bless.

Richard Lane

July 4, 2008 at 5:45 PM  
Blogger kenneth suskin said...

Rev. Lane

You can be very proud of your father. God bless you.

KEN SUSKIN

July 5, 2008 at 10:29 PM  

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