Lionel James

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Lionel James
refer to caption
James with the San Diego Chargers c. 1988
No. 26
Position:Running back
Personal information
Born:(1962-05-25)May 25, 1962
Albany, Georgia, U.S.
Died:February 25, 2022(2022-02-25) (aged 59)
Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.
Height:5 ft 6 in (1.68 m)
Weight:171 lb (78 kg)
Career information
High school:Dougherty (Albany, Georgia)
NFL Draft:1984 / Round: 5 / Pick: 118
Career history
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
Rushing yards:1,061
Rushing TDs:4
Receiving yards:2,278
Receiving TDs:10
Player stats at · PFR

Lionel "Little Train" James[1] (May 25, 1962 – February 25, 2022) was an American professional football player who was a running back for the San Diego Chargers in the National Football League (NFL). He played college football for the Auburn Tigers. Undersized at 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m) and 171 pounds (78 kg),[2][3] he spent his entire five-year NFL career with the Chargers from 1984 to 1988. His best year as a pro came during the 1985 season, when he set then-NFL season records for receiving yards by a running back and all-purpose yardage. He also led the American Football Conference (AFC) in receptions that year.

High school and college career[edit]

James was born in Albany, Georgia,[1] where he attended Dougherty High School, playing football, basketball, and running track. Because of his small stature of 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m) and 150 pounds (68 kg), Auburn University was the only major college to recruit him.[3] He played college football for the Tigers, sharing the backfield with Bo Jackson.[4] James was Auburn's leading rusher with 561 yards in 1981, head coach Pat Dye's first year with the team. He ran for over 700 yards in consecutive seasons as a junior and senior.[5] James also led the team in all-purpose yardage in 1981 and 1982,[1] when he also led the nation in punt returns with a 15.8-yard average.[6] He was a captain in 1983,[1] when the Tigers won the Southeast Conference championship and the 1984 Sugar Bowl.[7] Auburn finished 11–1 and ranked No. 3 by the Associated Press.[8] James was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.[9]

Professional career[edit]

James with the Chargers c. 1985

James was selected by the San Diego Chargers in the fifth round of the 1984 NFL Draft.[5] In 1985, he set the NFL record for all-purpose yards in a season with 2,535 yards. He also set the record for receiving yards by a running back with 1,027 yards,[10] becoming the first running back with a 1,000-yard receiving season in the league.[11] He led the AFC in receptions with 86, and led the Chargers in yardage from rushing (516), punt returns (213), and kickoff returns (779).[a][5] On November 10, 1985, James had his best day as a pro versus the Los Angeles Raiders. He gained 345 all-purpose yards including a career best 168 yards receiving and scored the winning touchdown in a 40–34 overtime victory.[10] The total yardage was second at the time only to the 373 yards by Billy Cannon in 1961, and remains a Chargers franchise record. He might have broken the record in an earlier game that season against the Cincinnati Bengals except for a Chargers penalty that cost him 89 yards of a 100-yard kickoff return. James finished that game with 316 yards.[13]

James missed nine games in 1986 with an ankle injury. He rebounded the following season to score a team-high six touchdowns, including an 81-yard punt return.[14] However, San Diego limited his opportunities after the ankle injury, playing him at wide receiver and less in the backfield, while also limiting him to punt returns and not kickoffs.[15] James was hampered by a hip flexor injury in 1988, although he still managed to catch 36 passes. He was waived during preseason in 1989, when the Chargers opted for a quicker running back, rookie Dana Brinson.[14] The Kansas City Chiefs claimed James, planning to use him primarily as a wide receiver.[11] They waived him days later after a failed physical examination due to his hip.[16][17]

James ended his career with 1,061 yards rushing and 2,278 receiving yards. He scored 16 career touchdowns, including two on punt returns.[5] He was voted as the kick returner on the Chargers 40th Anniversary Team.[18] His record for receiving yards by a running back was broken by Marshall Faulk (1,048) in 1999,[19] and his all-purpose yardage record was eclipsed in 2000 by Derrick Mason (2,690 yards).[20]

Coaching career[edit]

James began his coaching career with stints at Terrell Middle High in Dawson, Georgia; Woodlawn High in Birmingham, Alabama; and Appalachian State.[21] He returned to Auburn to coach tight ends under head coach Terry Bowden from 1996 to 1997.[1] James left in 1998 to become the running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs.[22][23] He was the offensive coordinator of the Birmingham Steeldogs of the arenafootball2 in 2000,[24] and served as the running backs coach for the Birmingham Thunderbolts of the XFL in 2001.[25]

Personal life[edit]

James graduated from Auburn with a degree in mathematics in 1989.[1] He was also a math teacher while he was coaching in high school. After his coaching career ended, he returned to teaching high school math in Birmingham.[8]

After a long illness, James died in Birmingham on February 25, 2022, at the age of 59.[1][8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ James was second on the Chargers in receiving yards behind Wes Chandler (1,199).[12]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Posner, Jay (February 25, 2022). "Former Chargers star Lionel 'Little Train' James dies at 59". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved February 25, 2022.
  2. ^ "Lionel James". Retrieved February 25, 2022.
  3. ^ a b Wiley, Ralph (December 16, 1985). "Little Train on a Fast Track". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved February 25, 2022.
  4. ^ Distel, Dave (September 28, 1985). "Lionel James Is Charger Runner for All Reasons". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 25, 2022.
  5. ^ a b c d Green, Tom (February 25, 2022). "Legendary Auburn running back Lionel 'Little Train' James dead at 59". Retrieved February 26, 2022.
  6. ^ "Auburn places nine on preseason All-SEC". The Advertiser. August 25, 1983. Football '83, p. 8. Retrieved February 27, 2022 – via
  7. ^ Barnhart, Tony. "Auburn Wins 1984 Sugar Bowl, but National Championship Still Eludes Tigers". Retrieved February 25, 2022.
  8. ^ a b c Sandomir, Richard (March 4, 2022). "Lionel James, Speedy Back Who Covered a Lot of Turf, Dies at 59". The New York Times. Retrieved March 4, 2022.
  9. ^ "The Alabama Sports Hall of Fame announces class of 2006". October 10, 2005. Retrieved February 25, 2022.
  10. ^ a b Neville, David (March 31, 2003). "Little Big Man". San Diego Chargers. Archived from the original on May 28, 2013. Retrieved February 3, 2011.
  11. ^ a b "Chiefs make cuts, claim Lionel James". The Iola Register. AP. August 30, 1989. p. 9. Retrieved February 27, 2022 – via
  12. ^ "1985 San Diego Chargers Statistics & Players". Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  13. ^ Janofsky, Michael (November 12, 1985). "Smallest Player Aims For Biggest Gain". The New York Times. Retrieved August 25, 2011.
  14. ^ a b Scattareggia, Kevin (August 27, 1989). "'Little Train' axed". Times-Advocate. pp. D1, D6. Retrieved February 27, 2022 – via
  15. ^ Gaines, Bob (August 29, 1989). "Train's career finally just ran out of steam". Times-Advocate. pp. D1, D2. Retrieved February 27, 2022 – via
  16. ^ "Chiefs sign kicker Nick Lowery". United Press International. August 31, 1989. Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  17. ^ "Lowery's signing costs Porter". The Salina Journal. AP. September 1, 1989. p. 15. Retrieved February 27, 2022 – via
  18. ^ Trotter, Jim (October 6, 2000). "Elite from 40 seasons in San Diego honored". The San Diego Union-Tribune. p. D-1.
  19. ^ Lahman, Sean (2008). The Pro Football Historical Abstract: A Hardcore Fan's Guide to All-Time Player Rankings. Globe Pequot. p. 119. ISBN 978-1-59228-940-0. Retrieved August 26, 2011.
  20. ^ "NFL Single-Season All-Purpose Yards Leaders". Retrieved August 26, 2011.
  21. ^ Patterson, Ken (January 10, 1996). "AU Hires James; Bivens Stays at AHS". The Anniston Star. p. 1C. Retrieved February 27, 2022 – via
  22. ^ Sims, Kelvin (March 3, 1998). "Chiefs lure James to NFL". Montgomery Advertiser. p. C1. Retrieved February 27, 2022 – via
  23. ^ "Chiefs sign two assistant coaches". The Salina Journal. March 4, 1998. p. D3. Retrieved February 27, 2022 – via
  24. ^ "Steeldogs' debut gets positive fan response". The Anniston Star. Associated Press. April 2, 2000. p. 3C. Retrieved February 27, 2022 – via
  25. ^ "Birmingham Thunderbolts". Philadelphia Daily News. February 1, 2001. p. 92. Retrieved February 27, 2022 – via

External links[edit]