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Little Big Man
They called him “Little Train” and boy could he chug.
Lionel James was one of the smallest running backs in Chargers history. He was listed on the roster as 5-foot-7, but by his own admission was much closer 5-foot-5¾. Even so, the mighty-mite eluded defenders with his shifty moves and lightning speed on the way to securing his place in the Chargers’ record book.
On Nov. 10, 1985, James celebrated his finest hour in a San Diego uniform. He piled up 345 all-purpose yards – then the second-highest total in NFL history – while helping the Chargers defeat the Los Angeles Raiders, 40-34, in overtime.
James gained a career-high 168 yards receiving that game, but his biggest contribution came out of the backfield. With only 3:44 gone in the overtime period, No. 26 took a handoff from quarterback Dan Fouts at the Raiders’ 17-yard line and dashed and darted his way into the end zone, giving the Chargers their first victory over the Raiders since 1981.
The team celebrated by carrying James off the field on its shoulders in a fitting gesture that easily made the shortest player on the field the tallest.
In 1985, James completed the most productive season in NFL history with 2,535 all-purpose yards. He also broke another mark – 1,027 yards receiving by a running back. His offensive output that season, which included leading the team in rushing, receiving, kickoff and punt return yardage, earned him the Chargers’ Most Valuable Player award.
During his five seasons with the Chargers (1984-88), “Little Train” showed that he wasn’t too small to play with the big boys.
“You get to the point where you just say, ‘I'm going to prove to them I can do it,’” said James, reflecting back. “In this league you can be 6-4, 6-5; that doesn't mean you can play running back. You can be 5-2, 5-3 and do some things those 6-5 guys can’t do.”
Lionel James was proof that sometimes good things come in small packages.
Paula Bott contributed to this story.