Lofton, James 1956–
James Lofton 1956–
Professional football player, coach
Wide receiver James Lofton notched 764 pass receptions for 14,004 yards gained over his 16 seasons in the National Football League (NFL); the yardage was an NFL record when Lofton retired in 1993 and was still good for third place (behind Jerry Rice and Tim Brown) a decade later. Playing for the Green Bay Packers and later the Los Angeles Raiders and the Buffalo Bills, Lofton terrorized opponents not only with speed and quick hands but also with sheer intelligence; he was noted as a player with an encyclopedic understanding of football, and unlike most players he made an easy transition to broadcasting and coaching after his playing career ended. Lofton survived a nasty bout with scandal in 1986, and his career was notable for finishing as strongly as it had started. Lofton was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
James Lofton was born at Fort Ord, a military base in California, on July 5, 1956. He grew up, he said in his Hall of Fame induction speech (as quoted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), in a “reverse single-parent family,” raised by his father, Mike Lofton. “He always praised me,” Lofton recalled at his induction. “He found ways to challenge me, but he never really pushed me.” An unpromising 130-pounder in high school, Lofton began lifting weights (his playing weight surged to between 180 and 195) and training hard. A threat in two sports, track and football, Lofton enrolled at Stanford University.
Not the sort of athlete to take easy courses so he could breeze through, Lofton graduated with an engineering degree in 1978 and even contemplated a career in the field. “What would have been really great,” he mused in a Sport interview, “is if I had met the guys from Apple [Computer], maybe my sophomore year, and hooked up with them. That would have been more fun than playing football.” Lofton’s football career took a back seat to track at first, as he placed fifth in a sprint event at the 1976 U.S. Olympic trials. Missing spring football camp because of track competition, Lofton remained a lower-tier player for his first three years on Stanford’s football team.
That all changed when then-Stanford coach Bill Walsh spotted Lofton on the track one day and saw in him the makings of a champion wide receiver. Elevated to the starting lineup for his senior year in the 1977 season, Lofton caught 53 passes for 931 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Career: Green Bay Packers, wide receiver, 1978-86; Los Angeles Raiders, wide receiver, 1987-88; Buffalo Bills, wide receiver, 1989-92; Los Angeles Rams, wide receiver, 1993; Philadelphia Eagles, wide receiver, 1993; sports commentator, 1990s; San Diego Chargers, wide receiver coach, 2002-.
Selected awards: Appeared in eight Pro Bowl games, 1978-92; appeared in three Super Bowls, 1989-92; retired as record holder for most pass reception yardage in NFL history (third place in 2003); inductee, Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2003.
Pro scouts quickly got wind of Lofton’s size and speed, and he was chosen sixth in the 1978 NFL draft as the first pick of the Green Bay Packers.
In moving from California to Green Bay, Lofton, who had never experienced cold weather, faced a challenge, for games in northern Wisconsin later in the season often take place in the midst of violent snowstorms. But Lofton was unfazed. “You learn to adapt,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “After awhile, you take it as a badge of honor.” Lofton impressed Packers coaches immediately with his grasp of the game and absorbed all the complex details of the team’s offensive systems within weeks of arriving in camp. “It was like I had a coach in my room every night,” Lofton’s roommate Mike Douglass told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Lofton’s first-year performance was impressive; he caught 46 passes for 818 yards and was named to the season-ending Pro Bowl all-star game for the first of an eventual eight times. Lofton was the 1978 NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year. In 1979 he raised those totals to 54 catches for 968 yards, and between 1980 and 1985 he failed to top the 1,000-yard mark only once, in 1982. The best year of his career was 1984, with 1,361 yards gained. Lofton married the former Beverly Fanning, a former second runner-up for Miss Arkansas, in 1980, and the couple had three children, David, Daniel, and Rachel. They became well-known figures in Green Bay and also in Milwaukee, where the Packers played some of their games, serving on various organization boards and volunteering for community events.
Then, in mid-career, Lofton faced a major challenge. Twice, in October of 1984 and December of 1986, he was accused of sexual assault. Charges were dropped for lack of evidence in the first alleged incident, in which Lofton and teammate Eddie Lee Ivery were accused of assaulting an exotic dancer in a Milwaukee nightclub dressing room. The 1986 accusation, in which a Michigan woman claimed that Lofton had forced her to perform a sex act in the stairwell of a Green Bay club, went to trial. Lofton was found not guilty, but his reputation in Green Bay was damaged. “It’s like what the Lakers must be thinking … with Kobe Bryant,” Packers president Bob Harlan told the Wisconsin State Journal. “It’s devastating to you, to your organization and to the league.”
Lofton was traded to the Los Angeles Raiders for the 1987 season. Over two years with the Raiders his productivity on the field dropped, and he was cut by the team at the end of the 1988 season. A once-glorious career seemed to be at an end, but Lofton was picked up by the Buffalo Bills—a cold-weather team to rival the Packers. His career underwent a remarkable renaissance as he played for the Bills in three Super Bowls. In 1991, at age 35, Lofton became the oldest player in NFL history to top 1,000 in pass-reception yardage; in one game that year against the Cincinnati Bengals, he racked up 220 yards. After playing briefly for the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles in 1993, Lofton retired with a host of team and NFL records to his credit.
The well-spoken Lofton remained visible in the football world, working as a broadcast commentator for the CNN, NBC, and Fox Sports networks. In 2002 he accepted a position as wide receivers coach with the San Diego Chargers. Lofton’s induction into the Hall of Fame, as the first ex-Packer to reach that body since the team’s golden years under coach Vince Lombardi, was an emotional affair marked by testimonials from Lofton’s son David, by then a football player at Stanford himself. “He was a true gentleman and a great leader,” Bills teammate Marv Levy said of Lofton at the time (as quoted in the Akron Beacon Journal ). “There was no showboat in him, no hot dog in him. He did everything with class.”
Akron Beacon Journal, July 31, 2003, sports section.
Jet, August 18, 2003, p. 51.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 7, 2003, p. Z4.
New York Times, August 4, 2003, p. D2.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 3, 2003, p. CI.
Sport, October 1985, p. 31.
Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), August 3, 2003, p. El; August 4, 2003, p. CI.
“James Lofton,” Pro Football Hall of Fame, www.profootballhof.com (October 10, 2003).
“James Lofton,” San Diego Chargers, www.chargers.com/team/coachbio_lofton.cfm (October 10, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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