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DERAILED YEAR : Lionel James Copes With His Injuries, Chargers' 10 Losses

November 28, 1986|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The shortest player in the National Football League grew about a foot in his own eyes during the 1985 season.

Lionel (Little Train) James of the Chargers set an NFL record with 2,535 all-purpose yards. Not too surprisingly, he began to think of himself, to use his expression, "as the baddest kid on the block."

A year later, he's back to being just a 5-foot-6 guy without much attention.

Thanks to a succession of injuries that limited him to eight games and forced him to go on the injured reserve list Oct. 21, his productivity was slashed by almost two-thirds. He decreased from 516 yards rushing to 224; from 1,027 yards receiving to 173, and from 779 kick return yards to 409.

"I've been pretty human this year," he said. "I hope it doesn't happen again."

This has been a season to forget--"a heartbreaking season," he said.

It began with off-season knee surgery, then a lengthy contract dispute that ended with James signing a three-year deal shortly after training camp began.

A few days later, he wrenched his knee in practice and was sidelined for nearly a month.

James' preparations for the regular season received another setback when he sprained a foot and twisted an ankle in the final exhibition game.

He never really recovered before suffering a season-ending foot injury Oct. 19 against Kansas City.

"It was a sprain of the ligaments across my foot, and it was the most painful thing I ever felt," he said. "I caught my foot in the artificial turf. My shoe was stuck and my foot rolled to the right. I thought I would throw up, it hurt so bad.

"It was just never comfortable in any position for a long time. It's an injury I don't want to reminisce about. After this year, no more injuries for me."

The disappointment and pain of the injuries have been compounded by the team's 2-10 record.

"It wouldn't be as bad if we were winning, but all the losing magnifies things 10 times over," he said. "You think a lot about what you could have and should have and would have done."

James knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to match his numbers of 1985, but there was no way he expected the disappointments of 1986.

"Last year was just a storybook year all the way," he said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself to be better, but I knew it would be hard to have the same statistics. Now, I just have to wait for next year. . . ."

He is curious to see what changes Coach Al Saunders will make in the team's approach.

"It takes a while to get to know and understand what he wants," James said. "He wants to win his way. I'm not quite sure what his way is. As far as offense, it seems to be a balance between running and passing. I think we're just getting an idea now about Coach Saunders."

Saunders was the guiding force in the transformation of James into a three-dimensional player before the 1985 season.

"He was the making of my career," James said.

Saunders spent a couple of months helping James adjust to being a receiver and to hone his running skills.

"I was just a body with physical talent," James said. "He really helped mold me mentally. I didn't have doubts about myself, but I wanted to do everything 100% right, and it was frustrating when I would make mistakes and forget things."

Saunders looked beyond the small physical package and perceived an athlete with great skills.

"There was never any doubt about Lionel being blessed with great coordination," Saunders said. "He doesn't have great speed, but he does have great change of direction and what I call athletic aptitude. He is very intelligent and has a feel for the game that not many players can equal."

James and Saunders speak so highly of each other it gets sort of mushy.

"Coach Saunders pushed me to the point where I had to learn," James said. "And the way they wound up using me was an offensive player's dream. I was getting the ball (in 1985) in situations that were advantageous to me."

He wound up leading the team in rushing, receiving and kick returns. His receiving yardage set an NFL record for running backs. He was named the team's most valuable player.

Saunders understands James' frustration this year.

"He had a phenomenal year in 1985," Saunders said. "I know this has been a very unsettling year for him. He has gone from being the most prolific player in the league in all-purpose yardage and our MVP to a season full of injuries. It has been tough on him, and it has affected our team a great deal as well. He is so versatile, it is hard to replace all the things he does."

Saunders launched one more volley of superlatives.

"Lionel is my kind of player," he said. "He will do all he can to win and create a positive environment. He is a very proud athlete and has what I would call a Charlie Joiner work ethic. He wants to be a great player. What we want now is just to get him well for next year."

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