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After a year of courting they married in Hawaii, and the change in Lofton's attitude was dramatic. "Before, when my feathers got ruffled, I had to show it to everybody," he says. "Now, I have somebody I can talk to and be myself with. I can treat each day of football like another day at the office; I don't have to be like those guys who go out and smash up bars when they're frustrated."
Beverly, a cheerful, considerate woman who put aside her show-business aspirations to move to Green Bay, wishes only that she had encountered Lofton sooner. "When I met him, he had a real desire to change," she says. "He was unhappy, and he knew he had to get down off his high horse and stop thinking he was better than everybody else. But those things he did that year—I just don't think he would have done them if I'd been around."
Tranquillity has been good to Lofton. In each of the two seasons since he met Beverly, 1980 and '81, he caught 71 passes for more than 1,200 yards. His total last year, 1,294 yards, broke a 29-year-old Packer receiving record and was second in the NFL to the 1,358 yards gained by Atlanta's Alfred Jenkins. This year in the Packer wins in their two pre-strike games, Lofton caught eight passes for 160 yards and one touchdown, and he provided the most memorable moment of the early season with his 83-yard scoring run on an end around against the Giants in a Monday night game, the last before the players walked out. As Green Bay's player rep he was busy during the strike, keeping his teammates up to date, organizing workouts and serving as team spokesman. He also spent 14 days in New York at the end of the negotiations. In the Packers' two games since the settlement—a 26-7 win over Minnesota and a 15-13 loss to the Jets, giving Green Bay a 3-1 season mark—he has caught five passes for 84 yards.
There is, indeed, a growing sentiment that Lofton is the best wide receiver in the league. Last year, for instance, he got more All-Pro votes than any other offensive player. Many of his receptions, because they come in Green Bay's less-than-ideal weather conditions, are recognized as exceptional achievements. And the old bad-hands rap clearly was twaddle. Against the Rams last year he caught a TD pass and then raised the ball in victorious salute, all without ever touching it with his left hand.
And of course there's his speed. Lofton has run a 4.3 40. "I've always envied him," sighs Packer Tight End Paul Coffman. "He's a gazelle, while I'm one of those guys about whom they always said, 'If he could run, he could play in the NFL.' " At Stanford, which Lofton attended on a track scholarship, he qualified for the 1978 NCAA Track & Field Championships in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes as well as in the long jump. "He's got, like, this afterburner," explains New England Cornerback Ray Clayborn. "It seems the longer he goes, the faster he gets."
"Mike Boit [1972 Olympic bronze medalist in the 800 meters] was in grad school when I was at Stanford, and he was the first great athlete I ever saw train," says Lofton. "He did things I didn't think were humanly possible. He would let other runners get 30 yards ahead of him in a 220 and then he'd beat them. He'd do that 20 times in a row. When he kicked in a meet, it would look effortless. But I knew what he'd done to make it look that way. And that's what I'd like to be able to do myself, to make things appear effortless." As a wide receiver, he's now very close.
But it wasn't always that way. Because he ran track each spring, Lofton was treated with a certain disdain when he came out for football at Stanford every fall. At Washington High School in Los Angeles, he'd been a skinny quarterback with long strides but little else going for him. "If I'd been any good I think USC or UCLA would have recruited me," Lofton says. He became a receiver at Stanford, where he started only in his senior year. He might not have been a regular even then had Bill Walsh, now the esteemed coach of the 49ers, not arrived at Stanford from the San Diego Chargers that season. Walsh saw Lofton's potential, showed him films of Bengal All-Pro Receiver Isaac Curtis' moves and imbued him with, according to Lofton, "one simple philosophy: 'You've got to believe you're better than anybody else.' "
Dick Corrick, the Packers' Director of Player Personnel, scouted Lofton at Stanford and was impressed even when Lofton didn't play much. "Before he was a starter he did a great job on special teams," says Corrick. "He certainly didn't lack for courage. You could tell he'd only get better if he could concentrate on just one sport."
And Lofton had yet another athletic gift to offer: intelligence. As an industrial engineering major at Stanford, he had a B+ average, and he found the symbols and technological jargon of advanced football strategy easy to assimilate. Veteran Packer Quarterback Lynn Dickey recalls a film session at the beginning of Green Bay's 1978 training camp when an unfamiliar voice at the back of the room kept hollering out the correct coverages each time Receiver Coach Lew Carpenter asked a question. "Finally I had to turn around in the dark to see who it was," says Dickey. "It was James. He'd only been in camp two days and he already knew the whole system. I've never seen a rookie pick things up as fast as he did."
Green Bay Offensive Backfield Coach Pete Kettela was the receiver coach at Stanford during Lofton's first three years there, and he recalls the Stanford-Cal game in Lofton's sophomore season. "James was sprinting downfield covering a punt that apparently was going to be fair-caught," Kettela says. "He looked back, saw the ball was going to clear the receiver, ran around him, caught the ball on the fly and downed it on the two-yard line. Now, not many guys even know you can catch your own team's punt. But to get down there that fast, realize the receiver is faking a fair catch, look back into the sun, run around the man without touching him, set up and catch the ball—that's amazing."