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Lionel James Is Charger Runner for All Reasons

September 28, 1985|Dave Distel

If it looks at times like the Chargers are playing with only 10 men, or maybe 10 1/2, that's fine with them.

They don't mind fooling people. That's the name of the game in football.

The Chargers have seemingly sprung the most secret of weapons on the National Football League. This guy is like a guerrilla warrior, attacking everywhere from nowhere. No one seems to realize he's there until it's too late.

Lionel James stands 5-feet 6-inches and weighs 170 pounds, and neither of those numbers might stand up to a serious audit. At that, he is the smallest man in a game populated by the continent's largest men.

Trying to tackle Lionel James is a little bit like going on an Easter egg hunt. The point is, you have to find him before you can hit him. In truth, once you've found him, he's not that easy to hit.

Cincinnati should have figured this out two weeks ago when he handled the ball 23 times against Seattle and gained 290 yards. If it did, it didn't make any difference. James handled the ball 20 times against the Bengals and gained 316 yards--and had a 100-yard kickoff return nullified by a penalty.

To put James' last two games in perspective, consider that only one Charger player has had a bigger all-purpose day. That would have been Keith Lincoln with 329 yards in 1964.

It also might be considered that this is a football team renowned for putting up numbers faster than a stock exchange.

To amass such numbers in combined yardage, a fellow has to be sort of a decathlete in pads. All-purpose yardage includes rushing, receiving, kickoff returns and punt returns. Against Cincinnati, for example, James rushed 12 times for 127 yards, caught five passes for 118 yards, returned two kickoffs for 47 yards and returned one punt for 24 yards. But for an illegal block on that 100-yard kickoff return, James would have had the greatest all-purpose day in NFL history.

Though the single-day record got away, James is on a pace which would obliterate the season record. Terry Metcalf gained 2,462 all-purpose yards for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1975, and James' pace would give him 3,456 yards this year.

A common denominator? Coach Don Coryell. He unleashed Metcalf just as he has unleashed James.

The Coryell System creates rather heroic numbers, but James understands that the system can also take those numbers away.

"This offense is ideal for the things I do," he said. "It doesn't try to punch the ball three and four yards with runs. It's a complicated scheme that relies on individual talent, and there's a lot of individual talent. Anybody can have a big day because we take what the defense gives us."

After gaining a combined 606 yards in back-to-back games, James is not likely to be overlooked by Cleveland on Sunday afternoon at the stadium. The Browns will be out to stop him, if they can figure out where he is.

This marked man, this latest of so many Charger offensive heroes, has always been a rather unlikely star.

Most of this is because of his size, which has never been very big. He went out for football in the eighth grade, when he stood 5-0 and weighed 135 pounds. The coach probably asked him if he wanted to carry water, and James told him he would prefer carrying the football.

Perhaps fearful of the beating the youngster might take, the coach made him a flanker.

"I dropped everything," he said. "I think I caught one pass the whole year."

As long as James was going to inhibit a passing attack, the coach decided it may as well be the other team's. Thus, Lionel James became a defensive back.

When an injury took a star running back out of the lineup at Dougherty High School in Albany, Ga., James was handed the ball. In his senior year, he carried 160 times for 1,777 yards and ended up with a scholarship at Auburn.

Why Auburn? Because no one else called. Something about size.

"They all look at size," James said, "and I didn't fare too well with the computers. But they didn't realize the football isn't very heavy."

It's always been that way. He has always been told he was too small for the game.

"I've been told that on every level," he said. "Junior high school. High school. College. Pros. I just never believed it. Size has nothing to do with it. You make whatever happens happen."

James made things happen at Auburn whether or not he had the ball. Not only did he gain 2,956 all-purpose yards, but he also gained a reputation as Bo Jackson's blocker. Coaches become greatly enamored with athletes who have the skills to handle the football and the selfless toughness to do a job when they don't.

However, there was still this bugaboo about size, and the Chargers waited until the fifth round to draft him.

"In the beginning," he said, "every step was a proving step. I had anxieties, but I also had confidence in myself. It's easy to say you can do it, but it's harder to do it. I knew I could return punts and kickoffs, but I didn't know if I'd get to do much else."

As it has turned out, he has gotten to do just about everything. He was so besieged by interview requests this week that he wondered aloud what it would be like if he put together a 500-yard game.

"You do that," publicist Rick Smith told him, "and you'll get calls from Reagan and the Pope."

James shrugged and said what he would really like is a perfect game. Smith was puzzled, but quickly figured it out.

"You mean score a touchdown rushing, receiving, kickoff returning and punt returning?" he asked.

"That's right," James said.

Folks are already (finally?) looking up to Lionel James, but a game like that would put him on his own planet.

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