Defensive back Dick "Night Train" Lane (1928–2002) overcame a rough-and-tumble upbringing to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As a rookie in 1952, Lane set the National Football League (NFL) record for interceptions in a season, with 14. Though the NFL later expanded its schedule to 16 games from 12, the record still stood as of 2006. Over a 14-year career, Lane played in seven Pro Bowl all-star games. "I've played with him and against him, and he was the best I've ever seen," Pat Summerall, a former placekicker and broadcaster for Fox Sports, told the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.
Overcame Hardscrabble Upbringing
Lane was born in 1928. His mother was a prostitute who abandoned him when he was three months old; his father was a pimp that people called Texas Slim. Ella Lane, a woman living on East 9th Street in Austin, Texas, heard a crying baby in a dumpster, and first thought it was a cat. To her astonishment, it was a child swathed in old
Lane's rough upbringing extended into adolescence. He earned the nickname "Cue Ball" after an incident in which a teenaged Lane won a pool match and the vanquished opponent tried to renege on a ten-cent bet. Lane threw a cue ball at the youth, hitting him on the back of the head. "It was a curve ball," a smiling Lane told Rick Cantu of the Statesman in 2001. "I'd never seen a cue ball thrown like a curve."
Ella Lane tried to keep her adoptive son on the straight and narrow. She assigned him such household chores as cleaning the chicken coops, washing clothes, and emptying washtubs. She once beat him with a leather belt for ripping his clothes while playing football in the neighborhood. "He became familiar with that leather strap many times," Cantu wrote. Lane said, according to Cantu: "I'm screaming and yelling so hard, some people yelled over the back fence, 'Ella, what are you doin' to that boy?' I'm sure they thought I was being murdered."
Lane sharpened his football skills in the streets of Austin, even in the wilting summer humidity and despite Ella's urgings to pursue other activities. He was a three-sport athlete at L.C. Anderson High School in Austin. Although he enjoyed basketball the most, he was best in football. He helped Anderson, who played in an all-black conference, win the state championship in 1944. Head Coach W.E. Pigford was a big influence on Lane, even in later years.
Not anticipating a pro football career, Lane joined the Army at age 19, following one season at Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska. He served as a lieutenant colonel in World War II and then in the Korean War, while he continued to play football recreationally. When he left the military, he worked at an aircraft plant, lifting sheets of oil-covered metal into bins.
Rams Gave Him a Chance
In 1952 Lane walked into the office of the defending NFL champion Los Angeles Rams, armed with clippings of his high school and junior college achievements, and asked for a tryout. He wanted to be a wide receiver, but the Rams were well-stocked at that position with the likes of Tom Fears, Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, and Bob Boyd. Head Coach Joe Stydahar put him on defense, at cornerback, a position that involved pass coverage. Not having played at a four-year college, Lane struggled with such concepts as pass patterns and defensive schemes. Fears tutored him on the game's finer points during training camp. "Lane went to Fears' dorm room so many times, it became a running joke," Cantu wrote.
Lane got more than tutoring from those visits—he got a permanent nickname. "Fears liked to play records, and his favorite was 'Night Train,'" Lane recalled of the Buddy Morrow tune, as quoted in the New York Times . "Every day I'd be going in his room and he'd be playing it. He roomed with a guy named Ben Sheets, and whenever I'd walk into the room, Sheets would say, 'Here comes Night Train.' He started calling me that, and it stuck."
Playing for only $4,500 as a rookie, Lane picked up 14 passes in the 12-game season. He gave short shrift to his accomplishment. "I probably dropped 10 passes the year I caught 14," he recalled to Cantu. "But I kept getting hit in the head with the ball." Still, Lane combined speed, reflexes and work ethic to play regularly on a Rams team that won nine of 12 games, then lost a National Division tiebreaker playoff to the Detroit Lions, 31-21 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Lane proved adept at tackling as well as pass coverage.
Lane played two more seasons for the Rams before they traded him to the Chicago Cardinals in 1954. He spent six years in Chicago and six more years with the Detroit Lions, with whom he had his best years. He was an all-pro in 1960 through 1962, inclusive; in all, he made seven Pro Bowls in his 14 seasons. Overall, he picked off 68 passes, five for touchdowns, with 1,207 return yards. He retired after the 1965 season, and entered the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Remembered as All-Time Great
Lane, despite playing mostly on losing teams, helped revolutionize defensive secondary play. "He's one of the guys who transformed the cornerback position: a physical cornerback who could also make plays on the ball," said Aeneas Williams, a frequent all-pro at that position during his NFL career from 1991 through 2006. "He'll always be remembered as one of the great cornerbacks who played this game," Williams said, according to William C. Rhoden of the New York Times .
His peers on both sides of the ball highly praised Lane. "Lane was an icon for the cornerback position," former Lions defensive back Lem Barney said in the Chicago Tribune . Barney replaced Lane at left cornerback in 1965. "Guys like Herb Adderley, Mel Blount, Mel Renfro, Willie Brown and myself [all of whom played in the 1960s and 1970s] called him the 'Godfather of the Cornerbacks.'… Train was a prototype."
Known for his physical play, Lane frequently tackled players with a maneuver known as the "Night Train Necktie," a clothesline-style tackle, often involving a blow to the neck or head—that the league since has banned. "At 6 feet 3 inches and 185 chiseled pounds, Lane was often taller and faster than his opponents. He tackled players by wrapping his long arms around their necks and taking them to the ground like a rodeo calf," Cantu wrote. "I told him once, 'Night Train, you need to tackle a little lower—for my health,'" Hall of Fame wide receiver Tommy McDonald told the Chicago Tribune . Dave Robinson, a linebacker on three Green Bay Packers' championship teams from 1963 through 1972, said many players feared Lane, and cited one play when the defensive back hammered Robinson's teammate, fullback Jim Taylor. "I remember a streak of blue," Robinson told Cantu. "It was Night Train blowing by us, jumping over the guard, crushing our guy. It might be the last thing Jim Taylor remembered."
Lane, who had originally objected to his nickname, finally took to liking it, especially when he saw a headline in 1954 after his Chicago Cardinals dominated the Washington Redskins, 38-16. He was particularly adept that day against Redskins running back Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice. A Chicago newspaper sported a headline the next day: "Night Train Derails Choo Choo."
He retired in 1965. His accomplishments included intercepting passes in six consecutive games. He wanted to coach in the NFL, but the Lions did little to help him. Owner William Clay Ford instead hired him as special staff assistant, a position he held from 1966 to 1972. "The Detroit Lions, and by extension the NFL, never did right by Lane," Rhoden said. "Like so many great players, he was allowed to fade away. Players come and go, and few are kept around as treasures. The league too often treats the past like a worn pair of shoulder pads."
Experienced Personal Tragedy
Lane married and divorced three times. His best-known marriage was his second one, to singer Dinah Washington, often called the "Queen of the Blues." Basketball standout Wilt Chamberlain was best man at that wedding. The marriage, however, lasted less than one year. Broken marriages and struggles with alcohol and hard drugs burdened Washington for much of her life, and shortly before Christmas in 1963, Lane found her unconscious with an empty bottle of pills nearby. She died at age 39.
Lane, meanwhile, remained active with football after his playing days. He coached at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Then, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young named him the first director of the Police Athletic League, which provided a sports outlet and adult guidance for underprivileged youngsters. Memories of his rough adolescence motivated Lane to make the program a success. He also served briefly as a road manager for entertainer Redd Foxx, although that arrangement dissipated after a year.
In his later years, Lane developed diabetes and high blood pressure. His pension from the NFL was a mere $200 a month, at a time when modern athletes make millions. The pension and Social Security paid his rent in Austin. Lane's highest annual salary was $25,000. But, "I have no regrets; absolutely no regrets," he told Cantu. He had two sons but saw them infrequently.
Lane died of a heart attack on January 29, 2002, in Austin. He had listened to jazz music that evening. "I just helped him to bed," his personal care worker, Terry Yates, said in the Chicago Tribune . "When he lay down he took a big gasp of air. He was having difficulty breathing. It wasn't 20 minutes before he was gone."
Players and non-players alike remembered him for his toughness on and off the field and for his loyalty as a friend. "Train had great size and speed," said Hall of Fame middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, a teammate of Lane's in Detroit, also in the Chicago Tribune . "I have never seen anyone with the type of closing speed on a receiver that he had. Train took pride in getting to the receiver and making the tackle."
People paid respects to Lane at his funeral in Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church in Austin. "He was like a magnet," his niece, Dorothy Yancy, told the Austin American-Statesman . "You would fall in love with him the moment you met him. If you didn't, something was wrong with you. He had a twinkle in his eye and a smile that lit up the place."
Pastor Gaylon Clark noted Lane's survival instincts. "You don't go from being the son of a prostitute and reach the NFL Hall of Fame without fighting," he said, according to Cantu. He raised his voice to emphasize the message.
Austin American-Statesman , January 19, 2001; February 3, 2002.
Chicago Tribune , January 30, 2002.
Jet , February 25, 2002.
New York Times , January 31, 2002; February 1, 2002.
Dick (Night Train) Lane Official Website, http://www.cmgworldwide.com/football/lane/index.php (December 5, 2006).
"Dick (Night Train) Lane," Pro Football Hall of Fame, http://www.profootballhof.com/hof/member.jsp?player_id=120 (December 5, 2006).