People | Sports

'Night Train' Lane changed the game

By Jerry Green / The Detroit News
 
NEW ORLEANS–Dick “Night Train” Lane was a soldier riding in a bus along Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles when he spotted an office building through the window.
On the spur of the moment, he yanked the cord and jumped off.
Lane, who died Tuesday from a heart attack at age 73, walked into the building in his khaki uniform and offered his services. The building was occupied by the Los Angeles Rams.
Train told them he had played some football at Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska and was soon to receive his honorable discharge from the Army.
The Rams offered him a meager contract — $5,000 — and had him try out for the team during training camp.
It is a story Lane relished telling and retelling through the years.
“I was on that bus and saw the Rams sign and …,” he would say about that bus ride 50 years ago. How he arrived unannounced and become a part of NFL history.
Lane was so vibrant and so full of life. And now he has died — leaving visions of his gambling pass interceptions and streaking returns and of the necktie tackles that forced the NFL to alter the rules.

 Dick 'Night Train' Lane had 68 interceptions in his 14-year NFL career. (Detroit News archives)


Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane had 68 interceptions in his 14-year NFL career. (Detroit News archives)

Lane did not invent the cornerback position, but he perfected it during his 14 Hall of Fame seasons with the Rams, the Chicago Cardinals and Lions. He was named an All-Pro five of his six seasons with the Lions and voted to the Pro Bowl three times.
And Train’s impact remains here, even now in this Super Bowl XXXVI city.
“He taught me fundamentals and mechanics,” said Lem Barney, who arrived in New Orleans on Wednesday for Sunday’s game.
Barney was Train’s protege. The teaching was excellent.
“Night Train came down to Jackson State two weeks after I was drafted,” said Barney, who played the same position as Train and would later enter the Hall of Fame.
“He was a great, gentle giant. He was the prototype for all big cornerbacks. His record of 14 interceptions — nobody will break that for years to come.”
Lane, at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, set that season record for interceptions the year he walked in uninvited to the Rams’ offices. As a rookie, he bedeviled NFL quarterbacks with 14 interceptions in a 12-game season, playing a corner position then called defensive halfback.
That was a half-century ago, but the legend of Night Train — the nickname came from a popular song — remains.
It is not always so that modern-day millionaire athletes recognize the names and are aware of the feats of the ancients.
But St. Louis corner Aeneas Williams is another who regards Lane as a teacher.
“Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane is a trivia question that I’ve always asked other defensive backs who I think should know the answer to the question, ‘Who holds the single-season record for interceptions?'” said Williams, who was saddened by the news of Lane’s death.
Perhaps, ironically, Williams has received enormous media coverage at this Super Bowl for his interceptions while playing the same corner position for the same franchise as Lane did 50 years ago.
It was Williams’ daring interception last Sunday that was instrumental in the Rams’ NFC championship victory over the Eagles.
It was the sort of interception Lane styled — a gambling leap next to the receiver.
“I actually had the opportunity to meet him and ask him questions on how to play the cornerback position,” Williams said. “He’s one of the guys, I think, who transformed the cornerback position — a physical cornerback who could make plays on the ball.”
Train sure could.
One of the most vivid memories of Lane was of an interception he made near the end zone during a game at Tiger Stadium. He leaped in front of the receiver — he loved to take risks that way — and grabbed the pass. He put the ball into one hand, almost waving it as he ran, and returned it some 80 yards for a Lions touchdown.
Lane played football with flourishes.
And woe to the running back — be it Jim Brown or Gale Sayers — who circled right end against the Lions.
Lane’s trademark tackle was going for the jugular — neck level or higher.
The NFL ultimately put in the face-mask penalty rule because of Lane’s necktie tackles.
In 1974, fittingly, Lane was voted into the Hall of Fame — unanimously.
A perfect vote for his play at the position he perfected.
It was quite a bus ride.

Dick Lane

Dick Lane started his NFL career with the Rams after serving in the Army. (Associated Press)