Monday, February 26, 2024

Austin’s Greatest Athlete, Dick “Night Train” Lane

1997 Westlake High grad Drew Brees erased Dan Marino’s NFL single-season passing yardage record in 2011 by four football fields, airing it out for 5,476 yards. But the Saints QB isn’t the only Austinite to hold a major NFL record: Richard “Night Train” Lane, who graduated from all-black L.C. Anderson High in East Austin in 1946, intercepted 14 passes (in a 12-game season) as an undrafted rookie with the Los Angeles Rams in 1952.

That’s one of the NFL’s unbreakable records, even as the schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978.

Lane benefited from the element of surprise his rookie season. At 6’2″ and 210 pounds and wearing #81, he was huge for a defensive back and quarterbacks figured him for lumber in coverage. But he had a quick break on the ball and often cut in front of surprised receivers and took it the other way.

Or he’d just wrestle the ball away.

Lane was a fierce hitter who had to find other takedown points when his “Night Train Necktie” led to the banning of clothesline tackles. After a tough upbringing in East Austin, where he was abandoned by his birth mother, a prostitute, Lane hurt people with that chip on his shoulder pads.

Who’s the greatest Austin athlete of all time? Let’s put an asterisk next to Lance Armstrong, for growing up and starting his career in the Dallas suburbs (not for that other thing). We’re talking about folks who grew up here, not the likes of Kevin Durant, Roger Clemens, golfer Betsy Rawls or all those football players and Olympic swimmers who came here for college and maybe stayed. Earl Campbell was not nicknamed “the Austin Rose.”

Although Brees was not recruited by the University of Texas (who went out of state for Major Applewhite and Greg Cicero at QB in ’97) and went to college at Purdue, he was born and raised here, so he’s a true Austin athlete. The competion for greatest ever from here has gotta include Brees (whose status actually grew in a heartbreaking loss to the 49ers Saturday), former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw and Negro League shortstop Willie Wells, who was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Also in the discussion are baseball player Don Baylor, the 1979 American League MVP, former Dallas Cowboys great Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and tennis stud Andy Roddick.

But there’s a strong case to be made for Lane, who died ten years ago Jan. 29 at age 73 in an Austin nursing home. “Night Train” changed the concept of the defensive back, paving the way for Jack Tatum, Ronnie Lott, Rod Woodson and other hard-hitting cover men.

“He was the prototype for all big cornerbacks,” his former Lions teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Lem Barney has been quoted. Vince Lombardi called Lane the best DB he’d ever seen- and Herb Addeley agreed. “I’ve never seen a defensive back hit the way he hit,” said Packers great Adderley. “I mean he’d take them down, whether it be Jim Taylor or Jim Brown.”

After a 14-season career playing for the Rams (’52-’53), the Chicago Cardinals (’54-’59) and the Detroit Lions (’60- ’65), Night Train was a Hall of Fame no-brainer in 1974. In 1999, Lane was voted to the all-time NFL team and later was named the best #81 to ever play the game. Not bad for an NFL walk-on who played just one year of college ball, at a Nebraska junior college.

Comparing athletes from different sports, from eras that varied on access to athletes of color. is a case of Apples and P.C.s. It’s up for debate. But there’s little question that Dick Lane has the most compelling backstory to his success. Yeah, Roddick’s wife is the gorgeous supermodel Brooklyn Decker, but Night Train was married to freaking Dinah Washington, the jazz singing legend.

Dick Lane’s story is well told in the 2001 biography Night Train Lane– Life of Hall of Famer Richard `Night Train’ Lane,’ by Austin author Mike Burns. Lane did hours of interviews for the book, which is available at the Austin History Center.

Lane’s father, an abusive pimp they called Texas Slim, told his bottom girl “either the baby goes or you go” in the summer of 1928. And so with tears Johnnie Mae King wrapped her 3-month-old baby in newspapers and put him in a dumpster on the 1900 block of East 9th St.

A widow, Emma Lane, heard what she thought was a cat yowling in the trash bin and was shocked to see a baby boy.

Well, that’s the after school special version, but it’s more likely the prostitute gave her baby away. He became Emma’s and she raised him up, not afraid to use the belt, with her two older boys. A younger woman started visiting the Lane house when Dick was six or seven. She was nice to him and sometimes pressed a 50-cent piece in his hand. When he was 11, Emma Lane told the boy that the woman was his birth mother. From a tough emotional distance, Johnnie Mae King watched her son grow into an all-round athlete at L.C. Anderson High, whose coach W.E. Pigford was a strict, yet fair, father figure to Lane.

One night Texas Slim beat King and went to bed and he never woke up. After shooting her pimp in the head, Lane’s mother spent a couple years in prison, then moved to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where she married and opened a restaurant/ bar.

While finishing up at Anderson, Lane got a job as a short order cook at the Nighthawk Diner at S. Congress and Riverside. His birth mother offered him a job at her diner in Nebraska and Lane got permission from Ella, his mom, to check out the situation. King had a lot of time to think about her life’s mistakes and desperately wanted to make it up to the son she discarded.

She and her new husband offered to pay for Dick to attend Scottsbluff Junior College. After a year there, Lane put in a four-year-stint in the Army, where he always played on the post football team.

Lane is buried in Austin's Evergreen Cemetery

After one of his Army buddies, Gabby Simms, was drafted by the Rams, he brought Lane along to informal team workouts in a city park. A coach remembered Lane from an Army exhibition game and when he kept winning sprints against smaller men, Lane was signed to the team for a $4,000 a year contract. Lane wanted to play receiver, a position he excelled at as an Anderson Yellow Jacket, but since the Rams already had future Hall of Fame receivers Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, the coach moved Lane to defensive back.

Lane got his nickname from Fears, who was playing the 1952 Buddy Morrow hit “Night Train” one night when Lane stopped by to talk about formations, as he often did. One of the few black players in the NFL at the time, Lane  didn’t care for the racial connotation of his new nickname. But then he saw it in a headline — “Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane derails Charlie ‘Choo Choo’ Justice” and loved it. Lane hit with locomotive intensity and knocked their lights out. “Night Train” indeed.

During his final of seven All-Pro seasons, with Detroit in 1963, Lane married “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington. Wilt Chamberlain was best man. But Lane would be widowed within a year. The last of Dinah’s eight husbands, Lane woke up the morning of Dec. 14, 1963 to find his new wife slumped over and unresponsive. Dinah Washington was dead from an accidental overdose of pills at age 39.

After retiring from football, Lane worked for a  short while as Redd Foxx’s minder/ manager, but he found his post-career calling as the director of the Detroit Police Athletic League. The experience of working with kids like himself, growing up poor, neglected, with little prospects of a better life, was what he needed to pull him out of the funk of losing a career and a bride. He wanted to make a difference and found his role model in Emma Lane, who heard a cry and didn’t think twice about stepping up. Hs birth was an accident dumped on someone else. And there was the blessing. There was the strength of character that taught him to be a man.

Richard “Night Train” Lane, who accomplished so much from so little, is buried in Austin’s Evergreen Cemetery.

4 thoughts on “Austin’s Greatest Athlete, Dick “Night Train” Lane

  1. Just stumbled across this and loved it, though I’m a little embarrased I didn’t already know this story. Looks like I’m going to be spending some serious time with your website. Thanks for posting.

  2. Hello…nice article on one of the NFL Greatest of All-Time! I am trying to reach the Author of the Night Train Lane book, Mr. Mike Burns. If anyone knows how to reach him please let me know at….nttrain81@gmail.com. Thanks

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