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It lasted maybe two seconds," says James Lofton, rising from his seat in the cocktail lounge of the Midway Motor Lodge in Green Bay. "I went like this." He stands and takes a step forward, sweeping his right hand upward, middle finger extended, past his head and then quickly down. Lofton is a regal man—6'3", 198 pounds, angular and neatly bearded and dressed; the gesture, in its brief crudity, fits him ill.
Lofton returns to his seat. Here and there in the bar are hulking, thick-necked men, obviously Packers. But Lofton is one of those lucky NFL players who in street clothes look like normal human beings. Though his upper arms, lats, delts and traps are overdeveloped, his legs, waist, wrists and neck are slender. He can bench-press 350 pounds, but his wife of almost two years, Beverly, didn't know he played pro football until six weeks after they met, when she saw his trophies in his father's house in Los Angeles.
"A photographer was on the sidelines," continues Lofton with a shrug. "And he got it, just at that instant. That's the picture you saw."
The photo, seen all over Wisconsin, showed Lofton in uniform, flipping the bird to Green Bay fans. That was in 1979, his second year in the league, and he was having problems.
Lofton, a gifted wide receiver, had a brilliant rookie season, catching 46 passes for 818 yards and six touchdowns, being named NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year and gaining a berth in the Pro Bowl. But in 1979, with the Packers losing consistently—they would finish 5-11—he started losing his cool. After an early season overtime defeat to Minnesota, Lofton threw his pads into his locker during the Packers' postgame prayer and had words with Coach Bart Starr. He also dropped some passes observers felt he should have caught, leading a Green Bay newspaper to run a cartoon in which he was called a "ham-handed and overpaid receiver."
Then during a loss to the Jets at Green Bay in November, the fans booed Lofton for fumbling a fourth-quarter pass. Lofton replied by saluting them with his middle finger. He made things worse by stating in a postgame TV interview that he was generally bleeped-off at the stupid bleeps in the stands. That prompted a Packers public-relations man to say of him, "He needs to grow up. He's a prima donna."
"It was a bad time," Lofton says now, sipping a light beer and staring at the floor. "All I was doing, really, was rebelling against losing. I'd been a winner at so many things just before then. At Stanford my senior year we went 8-3 and won the Sun Bowl. Then I was named MVP in the Senior Bowl, and in the Challenge Bowl in the Kingdome I caught six passes for 158 yards. After that I won the NCAA long-jump championship and in another meet had a jump of 27', the best in the world that year. I was the sixth player taken in the first round of the 1978 NFL draft, and my first season in Green Bay we went 8-7-1.
"I came back that second year expecting things to get better, and when they didn't, I became frustrated. I complained about the coaches and the offense, and I felt this rage inside. I thought the anger would make me play better, but of course it didn't, and I knew that I had to change. I decided that during the off-season I was going to work to make myself a better person."
He pauses and then says something too corny not to be true: "That's when she came along."
"She" is the former Beverly Fanning of Malvern, Ark., the second runner-up in the 1975 Miss Arkansas contest and now Lofton's wife. They met at a New Year's Eve party at the end of 1979 in Los Angeles, where Beverly had moved to pursue a singing career. "My heart went pitty-pat," says Lofton of their first encounter. "Until then I was convinced I would be a searcher who would never find what he was after, a frustrated bachelor all my life."