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Dick 'Night Train' Lane, 73; Set Record as Rookie on L.A. Rams

January 31, 2002|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dick "Night Train" Lane, a pro football Hall of Fame defensive back who had a record-setting rookie season for the Los Angeles Rams in 1952, has died. He was 73.

Lane died of a heart attack Tuesday night at an assisted living facility in Austin, Texas. He suffered from diabetes and chronic knee problems and had moved into the assisted living facility two years ago.

Lane was a Pro Bowl selection in six of his 14 NFL seasons with the Rams, Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions. His 68 career interceptions is third on the NFL's all-time list and his 1,207 return yards is second best.

He made 14 interceptions in 1952, his rookie season, which is still a record. And he did it in only 12 games--the NFL regular season has been 16 games since 1978.

"He was far and away the greatest pass interceptor of all time," said Bob Oates, who has covered pro football for newspapers in Los Angeles for more than 60 years.

"When I think of him, I think of how far in the air he used to get to make his interceptions. I've never seen a defensive back who could jump as high as Night Train. He could play today and be an All-Pro."

Lane got his nickname in his first training camp with the Rams because of his affinity for the Buddy Morrow song "Night Train."

Tom Fears, the Rams' great receiver, was the only player in camp who had a copy of Morrow's record, and Lane made regular visits to Fears' room to hear it on the phonograph--and talk football.

Initially, he didn't like the name. "I'd been called all sorts of names by that time, and I wasn't sure what they meant by that nickname," Lane told the Austin American-Statesman last year.

Gradually, he warmed to it. In 1954, after he was traded to the Chicago Cardinals, he was thrilled when, after a good game in a victory over the Washington Redskins and running back Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice, a Chicago newspaper headline read: "Night Train Derails Choo Choo."

A member of the NFL's All-Time Team for its first 75 years, Lane stood 6 feet 3 inches and weighed 185 pounds. He was bigger and faster than most receivers and, early in his career, he tackled opponents by wrapping his arms around their neck and taking them to the ground.

The move--dubbed the "Night Train Necktie"--was eventually banned by the league as too dangerous.

Jim Murray, the late Times columnist, once said of Lane: "He played the game with a ferocity that's seldom been equaled. Quarterbacks avoided Night Train's part of the field as a hunter would avoid a rattlesnake nest. There were games in which Night Train had more receptions than the receivers he was covering."

Lane was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1974. He was the second defensive back and seventh African American inducted.

"I played with him and against him, and he was the best I've ever seen," former New York Giants kicker Pat Summerall, now a broadcaster for Fox, once said.

Lane's Hall of Fame biography describes him as a "gambler on the field who made spectacular plays." But Lane once said he took only calculated chances. "I never gamble on the ball, just the angles I take on receivers," he told The Times in 1962. "And I study the receivers to perfect the angles."

The son of a prostitute and pimp, Lane was raised in Austin by a Ella Lane, a widow with two children who found him abandoned in a Dumpster when he was 3 months old.

Lane was a three-sport athlete at Anderson High. The school was part of the Prairie View Interscholastic League, which was made up of black schools throughout Texas. Lane led the football team to a state title in 1944.

He played one season for Scottsbluff (Neb.) Junior College and then joined the Army at age 19. He played receiver for service teams during his four-year military stint and was spotted by a Rams scout during an Army exhibition game. He was offered a tryout with the defending NFL champions upon his discharge.

Lane played two years for the Rams, six for Chicago and six for the Detroit Lions. He retired in 1965, never earning more than $25,000 a season.

He worked as a special assistant to Lion owner William Clay Ford from 1966 to 1972, spent a year as road manager for comedian Redd Foxx and had brief coaching stints at Southern University and Central State in Wilberforce, Ohio. Lane later became the first director of the Police Athletic League, a sports program for underprivileged children in Detroit. "I always knew I wanted to give something back to the community," he said. "That was important to me."

Lane was married and divorced three times. His second marriage was to legendary jazz singer Dinah Washington, who died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1963. Lane discovered her body.

Lane is survived by two sons, Richard Lane of St. Louis, and Richard Walker of Detroit. Funeral services were planned for Saturday.

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Associated Press contributed to this story.

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