Sunday, April 22, 2012

Abdandoned, Undrafted Night Train a True Underdog Tale

The fact that no one wanted the football player from Scottsbluff Junior College—that’s in Nebraska, by the way—and thus never drafted him turned out to be par for the young man’s course.

No one wanted Richard Lane, from the moment he was born. Literally.

Twenty-five years before showing up at the Los Angeles Rams’ training camp, looking for a job because the one he had at an aircraft factory was unfulfilling, baby Richard was taken in as an abandoned infant in Austin, TX.

True story.

The woman was named Ella Lane, and she raised Richard as her very own.

Richard Lane grew up with an athlete’s body: gangly arms and a long torso. No one wanted him at a four-year university, so he played a year for Scottsbluff JuCo.

The theme of no one wanting Richard Lane was a running one.

Lane was a defender and a receiver for Scottsbluff, but football didn’t really grip him. So it was off to the Army for four years, serving in that brief peacetime between WWII and the Korean War.

Lane got a job at an aircraft factory during the Korean conflict. That didn’t really grab him, either.

With his resume thin on experience in anything else, Lane decided to give football another shot.

So he shows up as a walk-on at the Rams camp in 1952, and the coaches look at him and think he’s got a receiver’s body: tall and lanky with those long arms.

The Rams were the NFL’s glamour team back then. They scored on the field and off it. The quarterback, Bob Waterfield, was married to knockout actress Jane Russell.

Lane even took a receiver’s number, 81, in anticipation of joining the Rams’ talented pass-catching corps.

It was the number he wore into Hall of Fame status—as a defensive back.

Richard Lane didn’t impress so much as a receiver, but he took to practicing with the defense, and it was realized that those long arms and that size could be just as useful in defending passes as in catching them.

The Rams had a receiver, Tom Fears, and he liked playing a popular song of the day on his phonograph (that’s right): “Night Train,” a jazzy number by Jimmy Forest.

The Rams players levied the nickname “Night Train” on Richard Lane because of the ferocity with which he tackled. Richard didn’t care for it at first, but the moniker grew on him.

It grew on him partially because one of his vicious tackles was described in print in the L.A. papers as “Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane derails Charlie ‘Choo Choo’ Justice.”

Just like that, Richard became “Dick” and “Night Train” in one fell swoop.

Night Train’s whistle didn’t alert ball-carriers nearly soon enough before they were leveled by a favorite Lane defensive method: the now-illegal clothesline tackle.

It became Lane’s signature move. He rarely made a tackle below the jaw line.

They even had a name for it: The Night Train Necktie.

Lane could tackle, yes, but in 1952, in his rookie season—the walk-on made the team as a DB with flying colors—Night Train set a league record for interceptions, with 14.

It was a 12-game season in 1952. And today, some 60 years later, with the NFL playing a 16-game season since 1978, Lane’s single-season interception record still stands. It hasn’t really been threatened in years, in fact.

Lane was traded by the Rams to the Chicago Cardinals in 1954. He played six seasons for the Cards before being dealt to Detroit. By that time—1960—Night Train was the unquestioned premier cornerback in football.

Lane played the secondary but tackled like a middle linebacker. He was feared for what he could do with the football in the air and with it tucked under a receiver’s arm.

Night Train made All-NFL in his first four seasons with the Lions. He had a tight end’s size and the countenance of a bear awakened early from hibernation.

After Lane retired from the Lions in 1965 at age 38, the defensive back position became less about brawn and more about elegance and style. Rules changed. The clothesline tackle was out, for example. Being physical with receivers didn’t earn respect, only penalty flags.

The position became dominated by players like another Lion, Lem Barney, and Mel Renfro of Dallas and Herb Adderley of the Packers—smaller finesse guys with catlike quickness.

And they wore numbers in the 20s, not 81.

And they were all drafted. And presumably not abandoned shortly after birth.

It’s not talked about a whole lot, but I wonder if Night Train Lane’s 14 interceptions in 1952 will be eclipsed someday. Today’s players have four more regular-season games to work with than Lane had, yet they still can’t touch his record.

Night Train died over 10 years ago, in January 2002. After his playing days, he became a champion of Detroit’s inner city kids, working especially closely with the Police Athletic League. With PAL, he tried to give drugs and gang life the Night Train Necktie.

Richard Lane comes to mind as we move closer to another NFL Draft.

The undrafted player is, at the very best, only the 225th-best college football player in the country, theoretically. Thirty-two teams, seven rounds, and that makes 224 drafted kids.

But when you consider how many young men play college football—including all the NCAA Divisions and the junior colleges—being no. 224 ain’t bad.

But it still isn’t likely to equal winning a job in the pros.

As for the undrafted players?

Vegas wouldn’t touch their odds.

Richard Lane probably wasn’t calculating odds or consulting polling experts when he showed up at Rams camp in 1952 as an undrafted, unfulfilled aircraft factory worker.

He just wanted to try football again.

Assessing the skills of college players in 1952 didn’t involve nearly the due diligence we see these days. But could even today’s NFL personnel gurus miss out on a Night Train Lane, with all their bells and whistles of preparation and surveillance?

Undrafted free agents flood NFL training camps every summer. Few make their respective teams. Even fewer become stars.

Richard Lane’s life before pro football was something ripped from a dime store novel.

Abandoned as an infant. Played one year of football for a junior college. Took four years off from the sport to serve in the Army. Arrived uninvited to the day’s most glamorous pro team’s camp. Tried out at receiver but was moved to cornerback. Set a new record for interceptions in one season, as a rookie. Became a Hall of Famer and was named the best defensive back of all time for the NFL’s first 50 seasons.

Wonder what Vegas would have given those odds.

Will there be another Night Train Lane, left unchosen at this year’s draft?

Well, there hasn’t been one in 60 years, so why should the streak end now?

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