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A Picture-Perfect End
Rick Telander
December 06, 1982
That's Green Bay's James Lofton, a troubled young man until he met the woman who gave new focus to his life
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December 06, 1982

A Picture-perfect End

That's Green Bay's James Lofton, a troubled young man until he met the woman who gave new focus to his life

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But the label of "best receiver" probably would sit easier on Lofton's shoulders if another candidate for the title didn't dress in the locker next to his: three-time All-Pro John Jefferson, the safety-glassed, glue-fingered bundle of high-fives the Packers acquired from San Diego early last season. Jefferson caught only 39 passes in 13 games for the Packers in 1981, but he thrilled fans with his reckless enthusiasm. His stats with San Diego—three 1,000-plus-yard seasons, 199 total catches, 36 TDs—indicate that more big numbers could well be on the way. Indeed, The Sporting News predicted that Jefferson would be this year's NFL Player of the Year.

For now, though, the ebullient Jefferson accepts his role as Pancho to Lofton's Cisco Kid. "Hey, I look at it like this," he says. "I've probably already gained about as much publicity as a guy needs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. And anyway, the way it's set up here, it seems that if one of us does halfway decent and the other does super, both of us will benefit. There aren't that many stars on this team, so basically we're it."

Lofton and Jefferson are pals, and their synchronized, flying hand-jive displays after touchdowns are almost as carefully choreographed as the production numbers in A Chorus Line. Indeed, Jefferson's presence on the Packers seems to have considerably lightened up the sometimes remote, stone-faced Lofton. Various pictures of the two receivers adorn the walls of the Packers' complex. Socks pulled high, double wristbands on each forearm, towels flapping from waistbands, the two always seem just about to giggle. And both openly wish success for the other. "I think I work the hardest when I'm running decoy for J.J.," says Lofton. "I want to make sure he has the best chance possible and that he doesn't get hurt. I know he does the same for me."

Lofton has long since forgotten the words he had with Starr in the locker room several years ago. "I love Bart," he says. "He's the most honest, sincere man I've ever met." Says Starr, "James is a great team player and leader."

But some of the uneasiness Lofton felt back then had nothing to do with his coach or losing. It had to do with being black in a small, ultra-white community (pop. 87,899; .25% blacks). It's a situation all black Packers must deal with sooner or later. Some, such as former Cornerback Willie Buchanon, who demanded to be traded at any cost, can't deal with the alienation. Others, like Jefferson, who recently formed a four-man teammate singing group called the Pac-Men, work hard to adapt. The Pac-Men, says Jefferson, plan to tour the state during the off-season, singing at benefits and business meetings, to crank up enthusiasm for the team. Why didn't Jefferson recruit Lofton? "I considered it," he says, "but have you heard him sing?"

For Lofton, an urban California native, coming to terms with Green Bay just took some calming down. He had to get used to living in a place where people started sentences with "Yah hey" and where, as a 1981 report in The Milwaukee Journal on the difficulties black people encounter living in Green Bay stated, "being black is still a novelty." It was at an autograph-signing session at a Green Bay car dealership his rookie year that Lofton had his eyes opened. A man approached with his shy son and pointed at Lofton. "Do you know what he is?" the man asked the boy. The boy remained mute. "He's a nigger," said the father. "And do you know what else he is?" The boy said nothing. "He's a Packer. Get his autograph."

"The man didn't even mean it in a derogatory way," says Lofton, shaking his head. "It was great." Lofton is a kidder, a man who likes to keep people off-balance by pulling their legs. In past Packer press guides he has listed "earthquake study" and "whale watching" as two of his hobbies. But he couldn't joke away the discomfort blacks feel in pale-skinned Green Bay, where as recently as last year a district attorney couldn't even form a lineup after apprehending a black suspect because there weren't any other blacks around. "How do you get a lineup?" asked the D.A. "Ask Bart Starr to send over 10 people?"

Since settling down with Beverly, Lofton has decided to make the best of it in the Great White North. He has bought a house in Green Bay—and purchased a condominium in Milwaukee—to go with two homes in California and another in Little Rock, Ark. which are now investment properties. He has become active in charities and said nothing but good things about the Packers and their fans. And Beverly helped the Lofton image by singing the national anthem at the Packers' last four home games of 1981.

"I'm leaning on staying," says Lofton. "I've become familiar with things up here. I like it. There are some things about the culture I don't understand, but then I don't think they understand all of it, either." To show that he can still fool around, Lofton updated his press-guide hobbies to include "active whale watching."

Lofton's parents divorced when he was seven, and in what Lofton describes as "the opposite of the experience of most blacks" in that situation he was raised by his father. Michael Lofton, 68, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and civilian banking executive, recalls James as the most motivated and competitive of his four children, of whom James was the youngest. "He was an average little boy who loved hot dogs and Kool-Aid," says Mr. Lofton, who still lives in the Los Angeles house he has resided in since the divorce. "But he had to do the best he could at everything—games, sports, even schoolwork."

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