Lionel James, Speedy Back Who Covered A Lot Of Territory, Dies At 59

Lionel James, a fast and elusive running back nicknamed Little Train, who shared the backfield with Bo Jackson at Auburn University and ...


Lionel James, a fast and elusive running back nicknamed Little Train, who shared the backfield with Bo Jackson at Auburn University and set an NFL single-season record for all-purpose yards that stood 15 years, died February 25 in Birmingham, Ala. He was 59 years old.

His wife, Kesha Mallory James, confirmed his death but did not specify the cause, saying only that it was a long illness.

James used his speed and dart movement with the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers during the 1985 season to amass 2,535 yards from scrimmage: 516 as a running back, 1,027 as a receiver, 779 as a kick returner and 213 as a punt returner. , surpassing the previous record set in 1975 by Terry Metcalf of the St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals.

James was nearly unstoppable in a game late that season against the Los Angeles (now Las Vegas) Raiders. He had 345 all-purpose yards (the second-most in a single game in league history until then), including a 34-yard touchdown pass from Dan Fouts in the third quarter and a 17-yard touchdown that won the match, 40 -34, in overtime.

“When I burst into the open,” James told the Los Angeles Times after the game, “I was like, ‘This is like heaven’.”

Standing 5ft 6.5in and weighing 170lbs, James was probably the smallest player in the league, making him hard to spot as he quickly slid past big, meaty linemen. And his 33-inch vertical leap has allowed him to be competitive for passes against taller defensive backs.

His size hadn’t been an obstacle, in college or in the NFL

“That’s how I understand it” he told Sports Illustrated during the 1985 season. “If a guy is taller than me, then he’s not as fast, and if he’s as fast, then I guess it’s time for me to leave the league.”

James never came close to matching his all-around yardage record in his next three seasons, and shortly before the start of the 1989 season, the Chargers cut him in favor of a similarly skilled rookie. , Dana Brinson, who was a bit taller. but whose career would soon run out of steam.

“I loved what he did the first two years,” new San Diego head coach Dan Henning said after releasing James, “and if I thought he could still do that, he would still be there.”

Lionel James was born on May 25, 1962 in Albany, Ga. His father, Joseph, was a master electrician. His mother, Cherrine (Wright) James, was a high school physical education teacher.

After attending Dougherty High School, Lionel received a scholarship to Auburn. After rushing for 561 yards in 1981, he rushed for 779 yards in 1982 when he teamed up with Jackson, who had 829 yards.

In a November game, with Auburn’s record 8-1, James took a pitch from quarterback Randy Campbell and nearly got caught in the backfield, but broke free, cut left and ran intact for an 87-yard touchdown, one of the longest in team history.

“The ball probably shouldn’t have been thrown,” Auburn offensive coordinator Jack Crowe said, “because their guy was right in his face. Lionel just missed him.

Auburn took the lead but Georgia won, 19-14.

The next season — when James gained 728 yards and Jackson 1,213 – Auburn finished 11-1 and was ranked No. 3 in the latest Associated Press college football poll. They then beat Michigan in the Sugar Bowl.

James was drafted by the Chargers in the fifth round of the 1984 NFL Draft. In his first training camp, he quickly showed he wasn’t intimidated.

“The train will stand up to anyone,” trainer Don Coryell told The Times. “He doesn’t back down from linebackers or linemen who are twice his size.”

During his five seasons with San Diego, James gained 6,619 scrimmage yards, including 2,278 as a receiver and 2,094 as a kick returner.

After his playing career, he opened a sporting goods store and taught math at schools in Dawson, Georgia, and Birmingham, where he also coached football.

Over the next few years, James served as an assistant coach at Appalachian State University in North Carolina; the tight ends coach at Auburn under Coach Terry Bowden; and running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs under Marty Schottenheimer in the 1998 season, his only year with the team.

In early 1999, he was hospitalized for two months with pancreatitis.

After coaching in 2000 with the Birmingham Steeldogs of the AF2, the Arena Football League’s development league, and with the Birmingham Thunderbolts of the XFL in 2001, James returned to teaching high school maths in Birmingham for several years.

It was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.

Besides his wife, he is survived by his mother; his daughters, Kasey James and Janet Jones; his son, Lionel II; two grandsons; one sister, Devorah Simon; and two brothers, Edgar and Tim.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Lionel James, Speedy Back Who Covered A Lot Of Territory, Dies At 59
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