With the sixth pick of the fifth round of the 1984 NFL Draft, the San Diego Chargers selected, Lionel “Little Train” James, Running Back, Auburn University. Part Darren Sproles, part Danny Woodhead, James was easily the most dynamic player in that year’s draft. He stood all of 5’5” (though he was listed as 5’7”) and weighed 172 lbs. He was lightning quick, but had lost his starting job in college, resulting in his draft stock falling. (The coaches thought some guy named Bo Jackson was better.)
It was a good thing that the Chargers pulled the trigger and selected James when they did. 1984 was without question the worst draft in franchise history. Don’t believe me? Check this out: First Round - Mossy Cade, CB, Texas; Second Round - Mike Guendling, LB, Northwestern; Third Round - No pick; Fourth Round - No pick; Fifth Round - Lionel James, RB, Auburn; Sixth Round - Keith Guthrie, DT, Texas A&M; Seventh Round - Jesse Bendross, WR, Alabama; Eighth Round - Ray Woodard, DT, Texas; Eighth Round - Bob Craighead, RB, NE Louisiana; Ninth Round - Zack Barnes, DT, Alabama State; Eleventh Round - Buford McGee, RB, Mississippi; Twelfth Round - Paine Harper, WR, LaVerne. (Yuck. Just yuck.) If I’m being fair, the Chargers did select Lee Williams in the Special Supplemental Draft who went on to play in two Pro Bowls.
In his junior and senior at Auburn, James played in 23 games, rushing the ball 237 times for 1540 yards and 11 TDs. Interestingly, over that same span, he only caught 25 passes for 114 yards and a TD. I note this as interesting because despite a dearth of opportunities at Auburn, Coach Coryell obviously saw something on tape that led him to believe that James was a receiving threat in the NFL. In a short five year pro career, Little Train only ran 231 times for 1072 yards and 4 TDs, but he had 209 receptions for 2278 yards and 10 TDs.
Unlike the first two installments of this series, this story is not simply one of unrealized potential, but also of maximizing talent. What he lacked in height, he made up for in blazing speed and an oversized heart. His first year in the NFL, he led the league in kickoff and punt return yardage. Given more playing time with the offense, he set the NFL record for all-purpose yards with 2535 in 1985. In addition, he set the record for reception yards by RB and led the AFC that year in receptions regardless of position.
On November 10, 1985, he was the star of one of the greatest games in franchise history. He recorded 345 all-purpose yards (post-merger NFL record) including 168 receiving and scored a 17-yard TD in overtime to defeat the Los Angeles Raiders 40-34. Arguably it wasn’t even his best game of the year as he finished with 316 yards against the Bengals despite his 100-yard kickoff return being called back due to penalty. He was literally nearly undefendable; of course, it helps to be on an offense with Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, Kellen Winslow, Wes Chandler, Chuck Muncie and Gary Anderson. (Wow. Just wow.)
Unfortunately, James was forced into retirement in 1988 due to ironically the same condition Bo Jackson suffered from: avascular neurosis (degenerative hip condition). He was told that the next hit on his hip he received could be the last time he walked. James decided that football was not worth possibly spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair and hung up his cleats. Just like that, one of the most dynamic players in NFL history was just another retiree.
He spent his post-football years teaching and coaching around Auburn University. Unfortunately, James’ life took a turn for the worst when he was charged with DUI three times (3!) between July and November of 2008. He has tried to get his life together in the last few years with middling success.
In summary, Little Train was one of most exciting, most fun-to-watch players in the NFL during the 1980s. His career tailed off fairly dramatically toward the end due to injuries, but while his star didn’t burn for long, it sure as hell burned brightly.