• Kevin Damask

Little Train, Big Year: Lionel James' Record-Breaking 1985 Season

In the midst of the 1985 NFL season, no moment was too big for Lionel James.

Despite standing barely over 5-feet-6 inches and tipping the scales at a lithe 171 pounds, James, a wide receiver/running back/kick and punt returner, was the San Diego Chargers’ highlight of the year in an otherwise mediocre season.

Dubbed “Little Train” as an ode to his size and hard-charging playing style, James was the Chargers’ Swiss Army knife in ’85. He did it all. James was the shortest player in the league that season, but he never let his size get in the way of huge opportunities. He would be called upon for the biggest moment of his career on Nov. 10, 1985.

1985 Topps Lionel James Rookie #376

Locked in 34-34 overtime tie with the hated Los Angeles Raiders, James lined up in the backfield behind quarterback Dan Fouts. First down and 10, ball on the Raiders’ 17-yard line. Running out of the Power-I formation, Fouts handed off to the littlest man on the field. “Little Train” sprinted up a hole on the right side, cut to the inside and found nothing but green grass and paradise. Touchdown. Chargers 40, Raiders 34. Game over.

James stood in the end zone, hands raised in triumph. Teammates quickly swarmed their hero, lifted him upon their broad shoulders and carried him for a few spectacular moments.

Bob Criqui, capturing the moment on play-by-play for NBC, said “The smallest man in the NFL is 8-feet tall. Lionel “Little Train” James wins it!”

James’ triumphant score was a fitting end to one of the great performances in NFL history. “Little Train” walked off the field at Jack Murphy Stadium that Sunday having amassed 345 all-purpose yards. He broke a Chargers’ franchise record and ranked second (at the time) in NFL single-game all-purpose yards to Oilers’ great Billy Cannon.

The Raiders had no solution for James. He hauled in 11 receptions for 168 yards and a touchdown, rushed seven times for 51 yards, including the 17-yard game-winning TD, and had five kickoff returns for 126 yards, averaging more than 25 yards per return.

James was ‘The Man’ in ’85

In a Los Angeles Times article that ran the following day, fellow Charger running back Gary Anderson told reporters “he’s the man for us.”

1986 Topps Lionel James RB #3

No kidding. In ’85, James set an NFL record with 2,535 all-purpose yards, breaking Terry Metcalfe’s previous mark of 2,462 in 1975 with the St. Louis Cardinals. James’ 86 receptions led the AFC and he chalked up 1,027 receiving yards – most ever by a running back. The Titans’ Derrick Mason eventually broke James’ all-purpose yardage mark in 2000 (2,690 yards) and, the previous season, Rams Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk surpassed James’ record for reception yards by a running back (1,048).

In ’85, “Little Train” roared downfield in a blue and gold blur. He averaged an astounding 8.1 yards per touch.

Despite his small stature, San Diego wide receivers coach Al Saunders told the Times James “has a 33-inch vertical leap.” Saunders believed the pairing of the versatile, lightning-quick James with the rugged, durable Anderson would “revolutionize” San Diego’s offense.

James told the Times head coach Don Coryell’s innovative offense suited his play-making abilities. “It’s a complex scheme,” James said, “that relies on individual talent.”

1986 Topps Receiving Leaders #226

James, an engineering major at Auburn, possessed the sharp intellect to grasp Coryell’s dynamic attack. James had speed and elusiveness to thwart defenders, but could also stretch the field at wide receiver.

“I always had decent hands,” James told the Times.

“Little Train” was a fluid runner with exceptional cutting ability. Running backs are often told to maintain a low center of gravity for the ability to shift direction in a split second and elude tacklers. At 5-6, that was no problem for James.

In an interview with the Times, James said “you can always do more than you thought. I go all-out every day.”

James earned the “Little Train” moniker from Auburn teammate and good friend Bo Jackson. The tandem shared a backfield for a couple seasons at Auburn where James blocked for Jackson. Imagine that; James throwing all of his 170 pounds into the hole to spring the nearly 230-pound Jackson.

“Size had nothing to do with it,” James told the Times. “You just make whatever happens happen.”

Yet teams were always skeptical of James’ ability. Following a stellar senior year at Dougherty High School near Albany, Georgia, James had one offer, from Auburn. He led the Tigers in rushing in ’81, racked up 2,956 career all-purpose yards and helped lead Auburn to an SEC title and a Sugar Bowl victory in ’83. His reward? Falling to the fifth round of the ’84 draft before the Chargers scooped him up.

“Little Train” was always out to prove himself. After ’85 he no longer needed to.

1986 Topps 1000 YC Lionel James #24

Season a constant highlight-reel

Perhaps the Raiders didn’t see James’ earlier season gutting of the Cincinnati Bengals. On Sept. 22, “Little Train” gashed the Bengals for 316 all-purpose yards in a 44-41 victory at Riverfront Stadium. He could have tacked on another 100 yards to that total, but a Charger penalty robbed him of a kickoff return touchdown.

The win at Cincinnati was a game James likely dreamt throughout his football life. Late in the third quarter, James took the ball on a draw play – his favorite – and broke loose for a 56-yard touchdown romp to tie the high-scoring affair 34-34.

In the fourth, with the Bengals having pulled ahead 41-34, Fouts found James for a 60-yard scoring pass. Fouts thought he overthrew his target, but the speedy James caught up to the ball and found the end zone.

“There are no limits on what he can do,” Fouts told the L.A. Times’ Chris Cobbs in a Dec. 20, 1985 feature on James.

Against the Bengals James rushed for 127 yards on 12 carries, hauled in five receptions for 118 yards, and finished with 71 combined yards on three kickoff and punt returns.

Other season highlights include:

  • Six receptions for 96 yards (16-yard average); six kickoff returns for 134 yards (22.33 average) in a 49-35 loss to Seattle Sept. 15.

  • Four returns for 86 yards in a 34-21 loss to the Raiders on Oct. 28.

  • Eleven receptions for 93 yards, one touchdown; 15 carries for 64 yards in a 30-24 setback to the Broncos on Nov. 17.

  • Four receptions for 99 yards and a TD in a 37-35 loss at Houston Nov. 24.

  • Five returns for 96 yards in a 54-44 victory versus the Steelers on Dec. 8.

  • Seven returns for 141 yards; eight receptions for 42 yards and 10 carries for 43 yards in 38-34 loss to the Chiefs on Dec. 22.

Despite winning three of their last four contests, the ’85 Chargers sputtered to an 8-8 record, missing the playoffs. Shockingly, James was shunned from the Pro Bowl and didn’t receive Associated Press All-Pro status. United Press International named him second-team All-Pro.

1988 Topps Lionel James #207

James played three more seasons with San Diego before retiring in 1988. He played in 67 games, finishing with 209 receptions, 2,278 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. James also had 1,062 rushing yards on 231 carries and four scores. James had a solid rookie season in ’84 with a league-leading 43 kickoff returns for 959 yards. In ’87, after collecting 1,128 yards on kick returns, Pro Football Weekly named James to the magazine’s first-team all-conference squad. He was later named to the Chargers’ 40th anniversary team.

In the Times’ feature story, James said he often had to pinch himself thinking about his amazing ’85 season.

“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”


Kevin Damask is an 80sFootballCards.com contributor as well as

the Weeklies Editor of Capital Newspapers - North, in Wisconsin.

You can contact Kevin at kdamask@live.com

Follow Kevin on Twitter @kdamask