Imagine for a moment that you are working at a job you really hate.
On your way home from work one day, you spot a professional football team practicing.
You stop, walk into the team’s offices and ask to try out.
Surprisingly, not only do you receive a tryout, but you make the team!
Your future has been forever altered.
Of course, for many pro football fans, this is a wild, wonderful fantasy.
However, this actually happened.
Richard Lane was working at a job he didn’t enjoy in Los Angeles.
On his way home one day, he made a stop that forever changed his life.
Lane’s life did not begin well and almost ended as an infant.
He rose from the depths of despair to become one of the best defensive backs in NFL history.
This is the story of Dick “Night Train” Lane.
— Gridiron Icon (@IconGridiron) March 31, 2020
Early Life through High School
Richard Lane was born on April 16, 1927 in Austin, Texas.
Lane’s mother was a prostitute and his father was a pimp by the name of ‘Texas Slim.’
When he was only a few months old, Lane’s mother placed him in a dumpster and left him there.
Fortunately, a woman by the name of Ella Lane was passing by.
She heard what sounded like a cat, looked in the dumpster and saw a baby wrapped in old newspapers.
She picked up the baby, brought him home, and adopted him.
“My father was called Texas Slim. I never saw him – I don’t know if he’s the one that told my mother to throw me away. A pimp told my mother I had to go. They put me in a trash can and took off. Some people heard me crying. They thought it was a cat,” Lane said years later.
“I never made any attempt to meet my dad. I figured if he didn’t want me around, I didn’t want to meet him, either,” Lane said.
As Lane got older, he helped his adopted mother by working odd jobs around Austin.
Lane also played football with the neighborhood children, though Ella was not particularly thrilled with the idea.
When Lane came home one day after playing football, his mother noticed his tattered clothes, evidence of yet another game on the gridiron.
Ms. Lane then proceeded to spank her son with a leather belt.
“He became familiar with that leather strap many times,” Rick Cantu of the Austin American-Statesman wrote.
Lane said, according to Cantu: “I’m screaming and yelling so hard, some people yelled over the back fence, ‘Ella, what are you doin’ to that boy?’ I’m sure they thought I was being murdered.”
In addition to his football hijinks, Lane acquired the nickname “Cue Ball” when he was young after a spirited game of pool.
“I was in a pool hall in 12th street. We were playing for money, maybe a dime. As soon as I made the eight ball, the other guy took off running. He didn’t want to pay. I grabbed that cue ball and just as he made the corner I threw it and hit him upside the head. The guy didn’t know what had hit him. I’d never seen a cue ball thrown like a curve,” Lane said.
When Lane finally got to high school, all his pent up energy was put to good use in athletics.
While at L.C. Anderson High School in Austin, Lane played in three sports. He loved basketball, but there was no denying Lane’s football skills.
In 1944, Anderson High won the state championship. In 1945, the team was a state runner up.
Negro Leagues, Junior College, and Military Service
By the time Lane graduated from high school, he had met and reconciled with his birth mother, Etta Mae King.
King had relocated to Council Bluffs, Nebraska where she and an acquaintance had opened a tavern.
Lane moved to Nebraska to be with his mother.
Then, while in Council Bluffs, Lane was spotted by a Negro Leagues baseball scout.
He was signed and played for a while with the Omaha Rockets, a farm team of the Kansas City Monarchs.
In 1947, Lane wanted to enroll at nearby Scottsbluff Junior College.
King helped pay his tuition and Lane played football that year with Scottsbluff.
He was the only African-American on the team, though his skills were quickly recognized.
“He is outstanding for his vicious tackles, hard running and pass snatching,” said a clipping of Lane in the college’s newspaper.
Scottsbluff went 5-3-1 in ‘47 and finished in third place in the Nebraska Junior College Conference.
Lane was chosen as a member of the All-Nebraska team and the NJCAA All-American team.
One of the hardest hitting players of all time!
Dick “Night Train” Lane will be honored during the inaugural NJCAA Foundation Awards event, presented by the Nicole & David Foundation, tonight at 6:30 PM ET.
— NJCAA (@NJCAA) June 24, 2021
After only one year at Scottsbluff, Lane left Nebraska and joined the Army.
While in the Army, Lane continued to play football.
At Fort Ord in Monterey Bay, California, Lane garnered Second-team All-Army in 1949 and First-team All-Army in 1951.
During the ‘51 season, he caught 18 touchdown passes for Fort Ord.
The Career that Almost Wasn’t
When Lane’s four-year military commitment ended, he made his way to Los Angeles to work at an aircraft plant.
His job at the plant was to lift heavy sheets of metal out of a bin and place them on a press.
It wasn’t long before Lane could see there was no future in the job.
If he was to alter his life, he would have to take it upon himself.
Each day when he went to work, Lane’s bus would pass by the LA Rams team facility.
One day in 1952, Lane had the bus pull over as it passed by the Rams’ offices.
He walked into the building and asked for a tryout.
The only proof Lane had that he had played football was a scrapbook he kept of his newspaper clippings from Scottsbluff.
Thankfully, a former Fort Ord teammate, Gabby Sims, was already with the organization and also vouched for Lane.
Lane first tried out as receiver, a position he had played in the Army.
However, the Rams coaching staff moved him to defensive back, a position where he could best utilize his 6’2” frame.
During the Rams’ first scrimmage, Lane attacked each play as if it was his last.
His speed helped him track down and tackle teammate Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.
When the scrimmage concluded, LA head coach Joe Stydahar was blown away by the skills of his unknown rookie.
“Lane came out here to make the ball club. Well, last night he got himself a job.”
The Birth of “Night Train”
Lane became an immediate hit with his new teammates.
The rookie wanted to learn his new position and he frequently sought advice from many of the Rams vets.
One veteran, receiver Tom Fears, helped tutor Lane on the finer points of pass patterns and defensive schemes.
During some of Lane’s visits to Fears’ room during the 1952 training camp, Fears could be found playing a favorite song of his from singer Buddy Morrow.
The song would eventually become a nickname as Lane explained years later.
“Fears liked to play records, and his favorite was ‘Night Train,'” Lane recalled of the Buddy Morrow tune, as quoted in the New York Times . “Every day I’d be going in his room and he’d be playing it. He roomed with a guy named Ben Sheets, and whenever I’d walk into the room, Sheets would say, ‘Here comes Night Train.’ He started calling me that, and it stuck.”
It would be understandable if Lane had to struggle through a period of adjustment.
After all, he was learning a new position and adapting to the game of professional football.
However, Lane was a quick study and started right away for the Rams.
His rookie season of 1952 would become one of the single best seasons by a defensive back in NFL history.
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) February 15, 2019
That year, Lane picked off no less than 14 passes, which became an NFL record.
Even more remarkable, the NFL at that time played a 12 game season.
Lane also had 298 interception return yards and two touchdowns.
Despite his new found success, Lane downplayed his numbers.
“I probably dropped 10 passes the year I caught 14,” he recalled to Cantu. “But I kept getting hit in the head with the ball.”
The fun began during Lane’s first NFL game. In Week 1 versus the Browns, Cleveland crushed LA 37-7.
However, Lane played very well from his backfield position.
The LA Times noted that day that Lane played, “a positively sensational game at defensive halfback (he made about 50% of the tackles).”
During a December game against Green Bay, Lane intercepted three passes.
The next week, Lane picked off three more passes, one of which he returned for a score.
Unfortunately, after his third pick, Lane badly sprained his ankle.
The injury knocked him out of LA’s playoff game against Detroit which the Rams ended up losing 31-21.
All the pressure in the world was on Lane in 1953 to repeat his ‘52 performance.
During a July scrimmage, it looked like Lane had picked up where he left off when he blocked two field goal attempts.
New Rams head coach Hamp Pool could not get used to the sight of Lane dominating as he did.
“Night Train has the reflexes of a cat. It just doesn’t seem possible that a man can come in from so far out and get in front of the ball in a matter of a couple of seconds.”
In 1953, Lane started 11 games but did not have nearly the same success as he had the year before.
That season, he picked off three passes and had three fumble recoveries.
During a game against the Packers, Lane blocked a kick and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown.
LA missed the postseason that year with an 8-3-1 record.
Night Train is Traded to the Cardinals
In early 1954, the Chicago Cardinals and LA orchestrated a three team deal that sent Lane to the Cardinals.
At the time, he was making $4,500 and the Rams offered Lane a $2,500 increase for 1954.
However, Lane wanted more money and he was not happy with LA’s offer.
“I told them no, it wasn’t enough money, and to get rid of me,” Lane said. “And they did. They traded me to Chicago.”
Lane was also reunited with Stydahar who had become Chicago’s head coach in 1953.
Stydahar left LA one game into the 1952 season after a dispute with Pool.
Lane endeared himself quickly with his new city in 1954 when he picked off 10 passes for 181 return yards.
His interception total led the NFL that season and he was finally named to his first Pro Bowl.
The team went 2-10 for the year and Stydahar was fired.
For the next three seasons, new head coach Ray Richards’ Cardinals teams struggled in the win column.
The best season during that stretch was 1956 which saw the team post a 7-5 record.
By the end of Chicago’s 2-10, 1957 season, the organization had not been to the postseason in nine years.
Cardinals Ring of Honor member Dick "Night Train" Lane was born on this day 90 years ago.
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) April 16, 2018
Meanwhile, Lane was continuing his ascension as one of the greatest defensive backs to ever play the game.
During Richards’ tenure, Lane accumulated 15 total interceptions for 322 return yards and a touchdown.
He was named to the Pro Bowl after the ‘55 and ‘56 seasons and was chosen as a First-team All-Pro in 1956 and 1957.
Richards was fired by Chicago after the 1957 season with only 14 wins in three years.
1958 & 1959
The 1958 and 1959 seasons weren’t overly great for Lane or the Cardinals.
Lane himself only had five total picks during this time, although he did have 125 return yards and a score in ‘59.
Those numbers helped him to a third First-team All-Pro selection.
Lane also went to his fourth Pro Bowl after 1958 despite only two interceptions.
The Cardinals organization did not improve with new coach Pop Ivy.
During his first two seasons with the club, Ivy could only muster four wins against 19 losses and a tie.
That gave Chicago 11 straight seasons without a playoff appearance.
Lane Traded to Detroit
Thankfully, after six seasons of losing football, Lane was traded to a slightly better Detroit Lions team.
When the trade was announced (Lane was swapped for lineman Gerry Perry) it was praised as a boon for the Lions.
Linebacker Joe Schmidt called the trade, “one of the greatest trades that will ever be made in any sport.”
Head coach George Wilson also explained to the media why they traded for Night Train.
“He has a reputation as a gambler. We are aware of that but he still has speed and experience.”
Lane quickly became a fan favorite during the first game of the 1960 season.
In the Week 1 game against Johnny Unitas and Baltimore, Lane intercepted Unitas and ran the ball back 80 yards for a touchdown.
His interception that day was the first of five he would get during the year.
Lane was named a First-team All-Pro again and selected for another Pro Bowl.
Detroit finished the season at 7-5 and played in the Playoff Bowl.
From 1960-1969, the Playoff Bowl was played to settle who would be the third place team in the final NFL standings.
The Lions won the inaugural game 17-16 against Cleveland.
#Lions' "Night Train" Lane goes for the block of Packers' Max McGee's punt from his own end zone, Thanksgiving 1962 at Detroit's Tiger Stadium.
Lane was flagged for roughing on the play, but his Lions had the last laugh that day in a 26-14 win. pic.twitter.com/obPBNTt5Mb
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) October 3, 2020
In 1961, Lane had six picks for 73 return yards, was named First-team All-Pro and selected for the Pro Bowl.
Lane played in the Pro Bowl despite suffering from appendicitis.
Enduring the pain, he managed to block a P.A.T and pick off the Giants’ Y.A.Tittle and return the ball 42 yards.
The day after the game, Lane checked into a hospital and had his appendix removed.
Detroit ended the year with a 8-5-1 record and won the second Playoff Bowl 38-10 against the Eagles.
The Lions went 11-3 in ‘62, matching the most wins by the club since the 1931 season.
The team played in their third straight Playoff Bowl and defeated Pittsburgh 17-10.
Lane played in his seventh Pro Bowl after the season and was named First-team All-Pro.
That season, he collected four interceptions for 16 return yards and had a fumble recovery.
— Tigers History (@TigersHistory) December 3, 2020
Before the 1963 season, Lane married jazz singer Dinah Washington and became her manager.
It was thought that his decision to manage Washington’s career meant that Lane was retiring.
However, he signed a new contract with Detroit during the summer.
As he played his 12th pro season, Lane struggled with injuries yet managed to haul in five interceptions for 70 return yards and two fumble recoveries.
He was selected for the seventh time as a First-team All-Pro but did not make the Pro Bowl.
Detroit struggled on the field and fell to 5-8-1 for the year.
Night Train Lane pic.twitter.com/EKAHYV9EQn
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) February 2, 2021
The Lions improved to 7-5-2 in 1964, but Lane was absent for the first part of the year.
In a preseason game, he had surgery on his knee and was limited to seven games, starting only four.
The reduction in play led to Lane’s lowest interception total of his career, one pick for 11 yards.
In September of 1965, Lane had another knee surgery and was released by the Lions.
He returned to Detroit after no other team claimed him.
That season, Lane started only three games and could produce only one fumble recovery.
Retirement, Legacy, and Death
Once the ‘65 season concluded, the writing was on the wall.
Lane’s age caught up with him and he retired from the NFL.
In 14 seasons with the Rams, Cardinals and Lions, Lane had a total of 68 interceptions, 1,207 return yards, and five touchdowns.
He was selected to the Pro Bowl seven times and was named a First-team All-Pro seven times as well.
Additionally, Lane was the NFL’s interception leader in 1952 and 1954 and was selected to the NFL’s 50th, 75th, and 100th Anniversary All-Time teams.
He was later placed in the Cardinals and Lions Rings of Honor.
After his retirement was official, NFL receivers breathed a little easier.
Facing Night Train was a dubious task.
Not only could he pick off passes, Lane was known as a ferocious tackler.
His standard tackle was basically a clothesline (unofficially called the “Night Train Necktie” by opponents) where Lane would grab the ball carrier by the neck and head and slam him to the turf. The move was later banned by the league.
Night Train Lane used to decapitate guys back when that was just considered good tackling. pic.twitter.com/IxatbE7Rpp
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) April 23, 2019
“I told him once, ‘Night Train, you need to tackle a little lower—for my health,'” Hall of Fame wide receiver Tommy McDonald told the Chicago Tribune.
Lane later explained the reason for tackling the way he did.
“My object is to stop the guy before he gains another inch. … [I]f I hit them in the legs they may fall forward for a first down. … I grab them around the neck so I can go back to the bench and sit down.”
In retirement, Lane stayed with the Lions for a few years and served in an administrative role.
He left Detroit in 1972 and was an assistant coach for two years at Southern University and Central State University.
Lane was officially recognized as one of the NFL’s all time greats when the Pro Football Hall of Fame came calling in 1974.
In 1975, Lane was hired to manage Detroit’s Police Athletic League, a position he held until 1992.
Dick “Night Train” Lane is one of the 7 cornerbacks selected to the #NFL100 All-Time Team!
⭐️ 3x All-Pro, 7x Pro Bowl selection
⭐️ Career: 68 INT (4th in NFL history)
⭐️ Single-season NFL record 14 INT in 1952 (as a rookie) pic.twitter.com/HBXdkAGv24
— NFL (@NFL) December 7, 2019
During his life, Lane was married three times.
His second wife, singer Washington, died of a suspected overdose of sleeping pills in December 1963.
Lane remarried the following year, but divorced his third wife ten years later.
Lane was eventually worn down by complications from diabetes and reduced mobility from numerous knee surgeries.
He died of a heart attack at an assisted living center in Austin on January 29, 2002. He was 74 years old.
Even long after his passing, Lane is still remembered with fondness.
“He’s one of the guys who transformed the cornerback position: a physical cornerback who could also make plays on the ball,” said Aeneas Williams, a frequent all-pro at that position during his NFL career from 1991 through 2006. “He’ll always be remembered as one of the great cornerbacks who played this game,” Williams said.
“He was like a magnet,” his niece, Dorothy Yancy, told the Austin American-Statesman . “You would fall in love with him the moment you met him. If you didn’t, something was wrong with you. He had a twinkle in his eye and a smile that lit up the place.”