There were very few San Diego Chargers that were more popular than Lionel “Little Train” James. He was exciting to watch on the field and provided many big plays for the Air Coryell era San Diego Chargers. The fact James was tiny in terms of football size endeared him to the fans and made his accomplishments even more stellar.
Lionel James had a decent career at Auburn University playing alongside All American Bo Jackson. James was the perfect complement to Jackson and his power running game. In his four seasons at Auburn, James totaled 2,073 yards on 350 carries and scored 12 rushing touchdowns. He also had 30 receptions out of the backfield for 153 yards and a touchdown. A very nice collegiate career for the 5 foot, 6 inch 171 lb running back out of the state of Georgia.
When the 1984 NFL draft came around, the San Diego Chargers invested a 5th round pick in Lionel James. He was selected by the team with the 118th overall pick in the draft. James made a nice complement to Gary Anderson in the Chargers backfield.
During the 1984 season, his rookie year, James was used mostly as a returner. He set a record for kick return yardage gained with 959 yards as a rookie. That record has since been broken, but very impressive for a rookie to gain that many yards on kick returns. He had 43 returns for the record 959 yards. He also returned 30 punts for 208 yards and a touchdown that rookie year. James spent minimal time at running back, rushing for 115 yards on 25 carries. He did, however catch 23 balls for 206 yards and the Chargers seemed to have found a new versatile weapon.
The 1985 season saw James playing time increase. He would be used as the primary kick-off and punt returner, and on top of that, he was used as a third-down back. James gained 779 yards returning kicks and 213 yards returning punts for the Chargers in 1985.
He also set a new NFL record with 86 receptions and 1,027 yards from the running back spot. A grand total of 2,535 all-purpose yards was also a new NFL record. That record was eventually broken by Derrick Mason in 2000, but James total is still fourth all-time in the history of the game. On November 10th, 1985 James gained 345 all-purpose yards, including 168 yards receiving. He also scored the winning TD in the 40-34 overtime victory against the Los Angeles Raiders. The “Little Train” was rolling along, and Chargers fans loved seeing him perform.
During training camp and off-season of the 1986 season, James injured his right knee a couple of times. The swollen knee allowed James to only play seven games that year for the Chargers. It was a lost year for the Chargers running back, as he only gained 806 all-purpose yards.
Lingering knee issues limited the running back to 12 games in 1987, but he still put up decent numbers. Totaling 1,128 all-purpose yards and scoring four touchdowns for the Chargers. James ran for 102 yards on 27 carries while catching 41 balls for 593 yards and three touchdowns. He was still used effectively by the Chargers and still seemed to have something left in the tank.
The 1988 season proved to be his last season as a San Diego Charger. At the age of 26, James played in all 16 games for the Chargers but lost carries to Tim Spencer. He managed 23 carries for 105 yards and caught 36 balls for 279 yards and a touchdown. James was now only being used as the punt returner and never managed to return one kickoff for the team. Losing that job to wide receiver Anthony Miller. James did return 28 punts for 278 yards, but those numbers were a far cry from his norm.
The next season coming into camp, James was expected to have a comeback year. The tandem of Gary Anderson and Lionel James had to be revived if the Chargers planned on competing in the AFC West. Coach Dan Henning cut James pretty early in training camp to almost everyone’s surprise. The first-year coach was certainly not endearing himself to his players as James was popular with his teammates. James did have a down year in 1988 (the year before), but he had managed to play all 16 games for the Chargers. His dismissal to this day bothers me. I believe he still had some football left in his body.
In the end, it was James’ $300,000 salary that hurt him. Considering Dan Fouts made $850,000, the salary of Little Train was in excess. The always frugal Chargers decided to keep rookie Dana Brinson, who seemed to be making progress in camp. Brinson was cheap and showed upside, and that was enough for the Bolts.
The move destroyed a lot of Chargers fans as James was hugely popular among the fan base. The Kansas City Chiefs immediately signed Lionel James, but he failed to make their squad. James never played a down of NFL football again. Retiring after only five seasons with the San Diego Chargers.
Lionel James totaled 1,061 rushing yards on 231 carries while scoring four touchdowns. His forte on offense was catching the ball out of the backfield, where he caught 209 balls for 2,278 yards and ten touchdowns. Those were incredible numbers for a running back. His special team’s efforts were also monumental, as he totaled 1,193 yards on 124 punt returns. James also returned 99 kick-offs for 2,094 yards in his five-year career. He was all over the place on the field for the Chargers despite his small stature.
These days James is the running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. He before that worked for Auburn University as their tight ends coach. James stayed involved in the game he has a great passion for. That passion was on display every time he took the field. The fans remember and will always love him for that display. Thank you, Mr. James.