It’s one of the coolest nicknames in sports history.
Who wouldn’t want to walk down the street and have people call out, “There goes the Night Train.” Cool, huh?
That’s the stuff of legends, and the legendary cornerback Dick Lane earned that nickname for reasons that may be unfamiliar to many football fans. That’s because there are several false stories out there about the origins of “Night Train.”
He was born plain old Richard Lane in Austin, Texas, in 1928. Richard or Dick would do just fine for the big man from the big lone star state, at least during his prep and college days on the gridiron. Always a little bit bigger and faster than most everyone he played with or against, Lane was a standout almost immediately upon strapping on his helmet. He was 6’2 and 210 pounds in his peak physical shape, with great speed and incredible instincts.
Was he tough? Well, he was raised by a single woman named Ella Lane when she found him abandoned as an infant, circumstances which would probably make anyone mentally tough. He grew to be a strong, muscular man, and spent four years in the United States Army in the years between World War II and the Korean War. When he got out of the service in California, he took a job working in an airplane factory. Unhappy with that occupation, he walked onto a Los Angeles Rams practice field and made the team. He was 24 years old.
He was so good that the offensive and defensive coaches fought over who would get to have him. Eventually Lane was turned into a cornerback, a position he seemed born to play. He was the first large man to play the position, helping to pioneer the notion of a physical yet fast defensive back.
To his teammates on the Rams he was simply Dick Lane, but this is where it gets interesting. Some sources say that Lane was afraid of flying so he took trains to and from games, rather than go into the skies with his teammates. Hence “Night Train.” That’s hogwash, of course. Lane had flown on planes several times before in the military.
Another source says that Lane was called Night Train because of his ferocious, lightning quick hits on receivers. While that certainly makes for a great story, and Lane was a hard hitter, it’s also false.
Amazingly, one source on the Internet says that Lane received his nickname from his wife, who was gospel singer Dinah Washington. But Lane had the nickname “Night Train” well before joining Dinah in the kitchen, so to speak.
No, the nickname that would help to make him so memorable was given to Lane in his first season as a professional football player. Possibly as soon as the first few weeks he was with the Rams. Lane’s teammate Tom Fears gave it to him.
Fears was a remarkable man in his own right. He was the first player to line up on the line of scrimmage away from the tackle, making him the first wide receiver in NFL history. He was a good one, catching as many as 84 balls in a season, a record. He once caught 18 passes in one game, in an era when the forward pass was far less common. In addition to being a great receiver, Fears was a lover of music and a great teammate. He often played music in the locker room and he had a pet name for almost everyone on the club. One of Fears’ favorite tunes was the 1052 hit “Night Train” which was recorded by Jimmy Forrest. At some point, Fears matched the song title to Lane and thus was born one of the most enduring (and phonically pleasing) nicknames in sports history.
Dick Lane was Dick “Night Train” Lane to his Rams teammates. Within a year or two, he was almost universally known by the name, so much so that many people never called him Dick.
In his rookie season, Lane set an NFL single season record for interceptions with 14, which stands to this day even though the length of the season at the time was only 12 games. After that, many NFL quarterbacks simply stopped throwing his way, but Lane found other ways to disrupt the offense. At various times during the game, Night Train would bolt from his defensive position and run past the receiver he was assigned to defend, taking a direct route toward the quarterback. It had never been seen before, because no other player had shown the nerve and speed to pull it off. “The Corner Blitz” was thus born.
Lane also perfected an arm tackle applied to the receiver’s neck that became known as the “Clothesline Tackle” or the “Night Train Necktie” and was later banned in large part because of how effectively he was able to utilize it.
After those 14 picks as a rookie, and as he started to inflict pain on opposing receivers and quarterbacks, everyone knew Lane’s name. “By the time he arrived in Detroit for the final six seasons of his career, “Night Train” was a household name in the NFL.
In 1969, Lane was selected as the best defensive back in the first 50 years of pro football. Five years later he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As recently as 1999, “Night Train” was ranked as the 19th greatest player in football history by The Sporting News, making him the highest rated defensive back on the list.