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As of the moment this total definition fits MacArthur Lane well. Why, how and where does he run? Is he a detour or a freeway? "Mac the Truck" is the nickname his teammates have given him from high school through the pros, but the man has something of the sports car circuit about him. Perhaps a Porsche, like the tan 911T he tools around St. Louis, startling the wrinkled cops and scaring the henna-haired old ladies into conniptions. He is a cool, together, ominously large and languid black man with a wraparound mustache, a great beak of a nose and steady, almond eyes. Born in Alabama and raised in California, he comes on like an ad for Coastal Soul: velvet bells, fringed buckskin jacket, a wet-look Lennon hat and Isaac Hayes buttering it up on the stereo in the background while Mac clips his nails. For a newcomer to professional celebrity, Lane is a shade long in the tooth: 28 years old, to be precise. Back in Oakland, Calif. he has a wife and three kids—one his own, two adopted. "If you can afford it, you gotta help out," he says. "I earn $30,000 a year—having asked, of course, for $50,000—and the kids are first-rate."
Actually, the children Lane adopted are the step-sibs of his wife, Edna. "Six days after we got married, my mother-in-law died," he says. "It was rough, and the best place for the kids was with us. I guess you got to be a pretty tough guy to be a football player, but where do you leave your commitments? Living is commitment, I suppose. Look at my old man—how many years has he been working at tough jobs, construction, making it for a batch of kids? When the hurts catch up with me, I've already got a plan. I'm gonna buy a farm for the folks up in Oregon or Northern California—they grew up on farms in Alabama, and they probably still would like it. Or maybe not. But for me, I like to hunt and fish. I knock them stripers dead in San Francisco Bay. Up to 35 pounds, I've taken them. Old Otis Redding, what was he doing there, sitting on the dock of the Bay? Could have been fishing. What I'd like to do is get me a pet store, maybe a chain of them. You can sell them mollies for $2.50 a pair, and if you get a good breeding pair, man, you're set for life. Or maybe a worm farm. Shoot, they charge you 90¢ a dozen for good night crawlers out along the Bay. Get yourself a piece of swamp somewhere and raise worms! That's gonna help folks and make you a living, too."
The Cardinals are a bit vague about Lane's history. Between high school and college, they point out, he worked as a machinist's apprentice in Oakland. Then he may have been in the Army. ("Nope," says Lane with the mystery appropriate to an emerging star, "no Army. Just a-working.") Anyway, he was at Utah State when the Cards drafted him No. 1 in 1968. That selection derived from Lane's superlative performance at a school that has given the game Lionel Aldridge, Merlin Olsen, Jim Turner and Earsell Mackbee. In 1967, his senior year at Utah State, Lane was running second only to O.J. Simpson when a torn thigh muscle forced him to miss the last four games. Still, he gained 627 yards in 96 carries for a 6.5-yard average. Lane saw little action in his rookie season and last year ruptured an artery in his left hand when he tried to brace himself against the ground while being tackled. "I couldn't handle the ball too good after that," he says, "nor could I clobber too well with that forearm."
Thus, except to the scouts, his arrival this season as a top runner came as a surprise. "I'd always run well," says Lane. "Growing up in Alameda, we played all those agility games that kids love but grownups seem to forget. Walking the railroad tracks, diving off bridges, climbing up the sides of new buildings, dodging traffic. When we played tackle in the parks and vacant lots, none of the kids could take me down. Then I also had the advantage of size—quick maturity. In the 12th grade, I was 5'11" and 195 pounds, sometimes 200. Shucks, I've only grown an inch and gained 20 pounds since then. I went the track route, too. In high school I pole-vaulted 12 feet and slang that shot 57'3"—which is still a record at Fremont High."
So the physical thing is important to the running back. But other qualities are just as necessary. Mac Lane learned a lot about shiftiness as a linebacker at Utah State. "Everyone says hitting is the name of the game," he says, "but it's only the first name. The full name of the game is: Hitting Avoiding. I dearly, truly love to hit people, and as a linebacker at Utah State I tried to punish people physically. Then in my junior year they moved me primarily to running back, and when I tried to punish people physically I got tackled. You learn the art of invisibility. As a runner I still try to punish people, but I punish them mentally. By not being there when they try to hit me."
There has to be some quality of magic in the elusiveness of the best running backs. Mere physics can no more explain the missed or broken tackles that mark every long run from scrimmage than mere chemistry can explain the excitement such a performance arouses in the spectator. "I don't really know what I'm doing during a run," admits Lane. "Technically, I should be looking straight ahead and carefully computing where I'm going to step next. Actually, I seem to be looking down, not ahead. When you're running through the line, you gotta know where the bodies are. In my little flashes of memory after a run, like the 74-yard TD against the Saints, I see myself stepping on people. 'Well, hello there, Richard Absher, what you doing down there?' Sometimes I think that the mind is just going along for the ride on a run like that. You know, the foot is finding its own way and the mind is just minding its own business, watching what's going on and saying, like, 'Gee whiz!' Maybe that's what they mean by reckless abandon."
Lane's detachment from the route his legs are pursuing may very well end when the inevitable punishment of his profession catches up with his flight path. "It could be tomorrow, any tomorrow," says Green Bay's Donny Anderson, who is finally living up to his billing. "Doesn't matter if you're a $600,000 back or a $30,000 back." Right now, Lane is the first to admit that the baddies have not caught up with him, at least not in earnest. "Nitschke hit me once with a forearm and knocked me dead," he recalls with a slow, cool grin. "Butkus bit me once, and then tried to break my ankle another time. He tried to break it like it was a piece of kindling—just sort of picked up the lower end of the leg and cracked it over his knee. Didn't work—too green, I guess."
For the moment Mac the Truck is content to roll along his personal highway. "I don't have to psych myself up just yet," he says. "I can't see sitting in a locker room, growling like some damned dog. I get up for the game the first time I'm hit, and when you're a running back, you get hit on the first play. And I don't even try to psych out the opposition very much. Taylor had that bad mouth, and Brown did it by getting up real slow, as if he was hurt bad, and then he'd run at them just as tough the next time. Me, I just get up and trot back to the huddle. If a guy puts some extra effort into hurting me, I might tell him: 'Shucks, my little girl can hit harder than that and she's only 5." Next time, maybe he'll overshoot."