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At 5'6" and 172 pounds, Lionel James, the San Diego Chargers' second-year running back, wide receiver, kick returner and weaver of wonderful deeds, knows the book says that one day some huge, fire-breathing linebacker will catch him and turn him into a belt and a matching pair of shoes. "But what's funny," he says, "is that I've never been hurt playing football, other than a few ankle problems." He also says, "I know what I'm doing out there. Don't fear for me. The hardest I've ever been hit was by [ Seattle safety] Kenny Easley last year. It was a classic shot—headgear, forearm, everything he had. He hit me high. And you know what? I twisted my ankle."
James is a study in little moves made right. He has gained 2,194 all-purpose (receiving, rushing and kick returns) yards this season and, with two games left, could break Terry Metcalf's NFL record of 2,462 yards for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1975. James's size obviously hasn't hurt him; that's because he hasn't let it. "This is the way I figure it," he says. "If some guy's bigger than me, then he's not as fast, and if he's as fast—then I guess it's about time for me to get out of the league."
This year, James has twice been named AFC Offensive Player of the Week, once after a 316-yard game against the Bengals on Sept. 22, and again after a 345-yard day against the Raiders on Nov. 10. The latter performance was just 28 yards shy of the single-game record of 373 all-purpose yards set by Billy Cannon of the AFL's Houston Oilers in December 1961. After Sunday's games, James was first in the league in pass receptions with 75 and had scored three TDs of 50 yards or more. Yet here he was joking about being run out of the NFL. "Oh, no, my Lionel won't brag about anything he's done," says Cherrine James, Lionel's mother. "He does it and then he's through with it."
"All season, Lionel has been the most dynamic force on our offense," says Charger receivers coach Al Saunders. "He's so smart, so gifted at taking the proper running angles. He has great body control and a change of direction defenders can't cope with." Cleveland linebacker Tom Cousineau puts it more succinctly: "The big problem with Lionel is finding him."
James grew up, he says, "like in Little House on the Prairie." The house stands in Putney, Ga., and the James family is still in residence. Cherrine and Joe James have five children—Edgar, Tim, Lionel. Deborah and Barbara—and when Lionel was growing up, four grandparents lived at the house, as did a great-grandparent, Rosa Wright. Says James, "They all agreed on one thing. Do it right."
One day, little Lionel, 8, took his worst lick. He was riding his bicycle on one of the few paved roads around when he was hit by a Ford Falcon. His left leg was fractured and cartilage was damaged in the knee. After Lionel's accident, Cherrine James didn't want him anywhere near a football. "What is football but a lot of little car wrecks?" she asks. "I couldn't stand him being broken up again. I wanted Lionel in the high school band, playing his trumpet." But James played football basketball and ran track at Dougherty High in Albany, where Mrs. James taught business classes. James returned kicks, played halfback and free safety. A 5'6" free safety? "Even though he was a short kid, he could dunk a basketball and was very knowledgeable, with great vision," says Dougherty High coach Mitch Harrington. "He could make a great football play on great football sense."
Because James was 5'6", 150 pounds, only one major college—Auburn—recruited him. And Auburn, 120 miles from Putney, was where James would go in 1980. He became a fixture in Pat Dye's wishbone and was tagged "Little Train." When Bo Jackson arrived on the Auburn campus two years later, he was tagged "Big Train." The two were inseparable. Jackson says, "Lionel showed me just how tough a football player could be."
"The first time we put him in the back-field was against the Raiders last year," says San Diego center Don Macek. "Tough baptism. He showed us he belonged. He ran on the Raiders." That was an important game for James because, he says, "I idolize Marcus Allen. He's complete." How many NFL players are big enough to admit they idolize one of their peers? "Why not give talent credit?" James asks.
With 17 seconds left in the third quarter of his 316-yard game against Cincinnati, James scored on a 56-yard run, angling away from Bengals' safety Bobby Kemp. James runs only a 4.7 40, but sagely says, "There's clock speed, there's game speed and then there's quickness." Later, he was tackled short of a first down by Kemp, who screamed, "I got your little ass that time, Lionel James!" With 3:45 left, James tied the game with a 60-yard touchdown reception—over Kemp—from Dan Fouts. San Diego eventually won 44-41.