CINCINNATI — Lionel James had heard all the jokes long before Randy Newman came along and recorded a hit song about short people.
At 5 feet 6 inches, James is the shortest of the short people in pro football. He is tired of the subject, but he patiently answers any and all questions about his stature, or the lack thereof.
James admitted to a different form of fatigue Sunday after accumulating 316 total yards in the Chargers' 44-41 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
James said he was worn out after returning a third-quarter kickoff 100 yards for an apparent touchdown, only to look back and spot a gold penalty marker at the opposite end of the field. A teammate had thrown an illegal block.
"I wasn't upset," James said. "I was more tired than upset. I'd have stopped at the 50 to save my wind if I'd known there was a penalty."
It didn't appear either the Chargers or the Bengals would stop at 50--points, that is.
The Chargers just barely missed, using a 34-yard field goal by Bob Thomas with four seconds left to win a game in which the combined yardage totalled 965.
James, who had 290 yards in last week's 49-34 loss to Seattle, had 316 this time as he rushed for 127 yards, caught 5 passes for 118, returned two kicks 47 yards and ran a punt back 24. All that, plus the 100-yard kickoff return that was called back.
It was the second most prolific output in Charger history, trailing only the 320 yards by Keith Lincoln on Jan. 5, 1964.
The little guy's weight plummeted from 170 to 165 pounds.
"His little tongue was hanging out," said quarterback Dan Fouts, who out-dueled the Bengals' Boomer Esiason by the length of a couple of short people.
Fouts, who moved into third place on the all-time passing yardage list, threw for 344 yards and 4 touchdowns. Esiason had 320 yards and 3 scores.
"I know it seemed like the defenses were non-existent," said the Bengals' Cris Collinsworth, who had 10 receptions for 161 yards. "I know 44 points sounds like a lot. . . . "
He struggled to finish the thought. Coach Sam Wyche helped, saying: "The Chargers are that good. This was no fluke. If you give Dan time to throw, he'll have a good day. Period."
Fouts definitely made good use of James, who broke a draw play 56 yards for a touchdown to tie the game, 34-34, late in the third quarter.
"That's my favorite play," James said. "It gives me an opportunity to run anywhere I want."
Fouts later delivered a 60-yard scoring pass to James after the Bengals had taken a 41-34 lead.
"I thought I had overthrown him," Fouts said. "I knew he was tired, and I didn't know if he could get to it.
"When I let it go, I said, 'Oh, no.' But I saw him accelerate to the ball, and I knew he was gone."
The score was 41-41 with 3:45 to play.
On the sideline, Fouts huddled with Thomas, who was signed recently to replace the injured Rolf Benirschke.
Ten years of pro football couldn't prepare Thomas for the things he saw and heard Sunday. He had spent most of his career in Chicago, where 44 points is a season.
"I didn't see too many like this with the Bears," he said. "After the touchdown pass to Lionel, Dan came over and said, 'It's not over. We may get to 50.' Then he asked me if I wanted us to win on a touchdown or a field goal.
"That was easy for me to answer. 'Let's make it a field goal, Dan. That way, people will learn my name.' "
The Chargers got the ball at the Bengal 43 when linebacker Billy Ray Smith recovered a fumble by James Brooks, who had been hit by noseman Chuck Ehin.
The Chargers drove to the 16 in five plays, then Thomas ran onto the field. After missing three extra points--two of them blocked--in his San Diego debut last week, Thomas had reason to be nervous.
"There was no doubt in my mind," he said. "I can't afford to think much in that situation. I just say a little prayer and let muscle memory take over."
Muscle memory produced a field goal that left Bengal fans grumbling about a winless team and a defense that has given up an average of 37.7 points and 420 yards a game.