Dick Night Train Lane did not invent the cornerback position. He merely perfected it.
One of the most ferocious defenders in pro football history, Lane played 14 NFL seasons. Few players have instilled more fear in receivers or running backs. In 2009, NFL Films ranked Lane behind only Dick Butkus on its list of most vicious tacklers in league history. A six-time All-NFL performer and seven-time Pro Bowler, Lane intercepted 68 career passes, fourth on the all-time list. As a rookie in 1952, Night Train set the still-standing NFL single-season record with 14 interceptions. He did it in a 12-game season and estimated he dropped ten more that year. The NFL later voted Lane’s 1952 campaign the fourth greatest single-season performance in league history.
Dick Lane was the prototype for the physical cornerback that later became a mainstay in the NFL. Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Lem Barney, who replaced Lane at corner upon his retirement in 1965, called his mentor “the godfather of cornerbacks” who paved the way for players like Herb Adderley, Mel Blount, Mel Renfro, and Willie Brown. In 1962, Lane put a lick on Y.A. Tittle that, according to George Plimpton’s book, Paper Lion, knocked the plays out of the New York Giants quarterback’s head. Following the hit, Tittle was unable to remember any of the Giants plays until after halftime.
Lane was an extraordinary cornerback who covered like Champ Bailey, ran like Deion Sanders, and hit like Dick Butkus.
Night Train was ferocious, and his style of play led to changes in the rules of the game. In 1961, he tackled Jon Arnett by the face mask, leaving the Rams halfback lying motionless on the field for several minutes. The NFL outlawed the grasping of an opponent’s face mask the following season. The original headhunter, Lane was responsible for the banishment of the clothesline tackle – previously known as the Night Train Necktie.
A superb open-field tackler with cat-like quickness, Dick Lane was swift and powerful. “Train had great size and speed,” said Lions teammate Joe Schmidt, who played in ten Pro Bowls. “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.” Lane was a gifted athlete. Used occasionally as a receiver, he turned in a 98-yard touchdown reception in 1955 and scored five career touchdowns on interception returns – including an 80-yard pick-six off the great Johnny Unitas.
At 6’2”, 194, Lane was fearless and possessed superb instincts. He pioneered the corner blitz and once intercepted passes in six consecutive games. The only player in NFL history out of Scottsbluff Junior College [now Western Nebraska Community College], Lane broke in with the Los Angeles Rams and played six seasons with the Chicago [now Arizona] Cardinals, later becoming a charter member of the franchise’s Ring of Honor. By the time he arrived in Detroit for the final six years of his career, Night Train was a household name.
Lane twice led the league in both interceptions and interception return yardage. His 1,207 return yards is still sixth-best in NFL history. “I’ve played with him and against him,” said ten-year NFL veteran Pat Summerall, “and he’s the best I’ve seen.” As tough as a two-dollar steak, he played in the 1962 Pro Bowl with appendicitis. Despite the pain, Night Train blocked an extra point and returned an interception off Y.A. Tittle for 42 yards. He checked into a Los Angeles hospital the next day and had his appendix removed.
My job is to stop the guy before he gains another inch. There is nothing I hate worse than a first down.
Born in Austin, Texas, April 16, 1928, to a prostitute mother and father who was a pimp, Richard was adopted at three months by Ella Lane. A widow with two children, she found the infant lying in a dumpster, left for dead. She rescued him, brought him home and treated the child as one of her own. A three-sport star at all-black L.C. Anderson High School, Lane led Anderson to a state title in 1944. Following graduation, he played baseball with the Omaha Rockets, a farm team for the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs.
In 1947, Lane enrolled at Scottsbluff Junior College in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The only African-American on the team, he played one season before enlisting in the Army. Stationed at Fort Ord on Monterey Bay, he played on the football team and earned first-team All-Army honors in 1951. Following his discharge as a Lieutenant Colonel, Lane made his way to Los Angeles and found a job in an airplane factory.
While riding the bus to work one day in 1952, Lane passed the offices of the Los Angeles Rams. He returned with a scrapbook of his clippings and asked for a tryout. The Rams decided to take a gamble on Lane and, during the team’s first scrimmage, he earned a roster spot after chasing down and flattening speedy wide receiver Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. Lane quickly befriended teammate Tom Fears, a defensive back who had been converted to offense. The first offensive end to take his place on the line of scrimmage away from the tackle, Fears was the first wide receiver in NFL history and broke the single-season receptions record in just his second year in the league. During training camp, Fears often played the 1952 Tommy Forrest hit, Night Train. Lane enjoyed dancing to it and teammates dubbed him “Night Train.” The name stuck.
After a dominating performance over the Washington Redskins and their star running back, Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice in 1954, a Chicago newspaper blared the headline: Night Train derails Choo-Choo.
In addition to having perhaps the coolest nickname in pro football history, Dick Lane was also one of the game’s greatest players. A member of the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team, he was voted, in 1969, the best cornerback in the first 50 years of the NFL. Five years later, Train was enshrined in Canton. Lane was named to the 75th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1994. In 1999, he was ranked #20 – higher than any defensive back ever to play the game — on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. A charter member of the Detroit Lions Ring of Honor, Lane was named to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1988. Thirteen years later, he was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
After retiring as a player in 1965, Richard Lane became the first African-American to work in the front office of the Detroit Lions. He later coached at Southern University and Central State University before working as a bodyguard and personal assistant for comedian Redd Foxx. From 1975 to 1992, Lane ran Detroit’s Police Athletic League, where he worked to expand after-school programs for disadvantaged youth. Night Train was married three times. He married his second wife, Dinah Washington, in Las Vegas in 1963. Wilt Chamberlain served as Best Man.
Richard Lane moved back to Austin in 1994 and fell into declining health. The greatest cornerback in NFL history died of a heart attack January 29, 2002. Mr. Lane was 73.
On this date in 1956, Night Train Lane intercepted a second-quarter pass off New York Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The pick-six gave the Chicago Cardinals a one-point lead in a game they would go on to win, 35-27.