American football player Dick “Night Train” Lane played fourteen years in the National Football League as a defensive back. Lane was born on April 16, 1928, in Austin, Texas. His father, a local pimp known as “Texas Slim,” and his mother, a prostitute named Ella Mae King, gave Lane up at the age of three months. The couple abandoned him in a dumpster where widowed Ella Lane found him. Originally mistaking the baby’s crying for the yowling of a cat, Ella Lane adopted the baby, whom she named Richard, and raised him with her own two children.
Growing up in Austin, Dick Lane graduated from Austin’s African American high school, L.C. Anderson, in 1947. He excelled in athletics and competed in track, basketball, and football. In 1944 he led his football team to a state championship as a part of the Prairie View Interscholastic League, the association that governed intermural activities for African American schools in Texas.
Lane moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa, after graduating from high school. His birth mother reconnected with Lane during his childhood, and he decided to live for a short time with her and her new husband. After working at his mother and stepfather’s tavern for a few months, Lane enrolled at Scottsbluff Junior College in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. At Scottsbluff, Lane went out for football; he was the only African American on the team.
After one season in junior college, Lane left and joined the United States Army. Stationed at Fort Ord on Monterey Bay in California, he continued his football playing with the base team. He excelled at Fort Ord and made Second Team All-Army in 1949 and First Team All-Army in 1951.
When his four-year enlistment ended, Lane was discharged, and he began working in a Los Angeles plant making airplanes. He disliked the work, which consisted of lifting heavy sheets of metal and placing them in bins. One day in 1952, Lane entered the offices of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Carrying only a scrapbook of press clippings from his high school, college, and Army playing days, Lane asked for a position on the team. While accounts vary regarding the level of knowledge the team possessed on Lane, that he received a contract with very little playing experience is a significant accomplishment.
Standing 6’3” and weighing 185 pounds, Lane wanted to play on the offensive line. The Rams’ coaching staff, though, moved him to cornerback. Lane used his excellent speed as a weapon and stayed back far enough from receivers to entice quarterbacks to attempt passes in his direction. He then closed the distance before the ball arrived, either intercepting the ball or breaking up the pass. This technique allowed Lane to set the NFL record for the most interceptions in a single year during his rookie season of 1952. In the twelve-game schedule, Lane intercepted fourteen passes, a record that still stands, even though the league now features an extra four games each year. During his career, Lane totaled sixty-eight interceptions, the second most in the league at the time of his retirement and fourth over-all in 2017.
Lane acquired his famous nickname, “Night Train,” during his rookie year with the Rams. The moniker came from the popular song of the same name by Buddy Morrow. Stories vary on how exactly Lane received the name, but most of the accounts involve fellow teammate Tom Fears playing the song repeatedly on his record player for Lane. Lane originally disliked the nickname and worried that it involved a critique of his ethnicity. Over time, though, he came to enjoy the title.
Lane and his nickname also became synonymous for his signature form of tackling on the field. The “Night Train Necktie” (also known as the clothesline tackle) involved Lane using his speed and strength to generate force as he hooked his arm around ball carriers’ necks and slung them to the ground. This vicious form of tackling excited fans but was eventually declared illegal by the NFL out of fear of significant injuries to the players receiving the hit.
After two seasons, the Los Angeles Rams traded Lane to the Chicago Cardinals. After six seasons in Chicago, the Cardinals traded Lane to the Detroit Lions, with whom he finished his career. During his fourteen years in the NFL, Lane led the league in interceptions twice, 1952 and 1954. He also made seven Pro Bowls (1954–56, 1958, 1960–62), and was named First Team All-Pro six times (1956, 1959–63). The NFL named Lane to its All-Decade team for the 1950s as well as to its 75th Anniversary All-time Team. The Sporting News also ranked him No. 20 on their list of the 100 greatest football players. In 1969 he was chosen as the NFL’s best cornerback of the league’s first fifty years. In 1974 Lane received induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and also the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.
After retiring from football in 1966, Lane worked as a special assistant with the Detroit Lions for the next six years. Other post-career jobs included working as a road manager for comedian Redd Foxx and coaching at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Lane also served as the first director of the Police Athletic League for underprivileged children in Detroit.
In his personal life, Lane was married three times. He and his first wife, Geraldine Dandridge, were married in 1951; they divorced in 1963. He married his second wife, jazz singer Dinah Washington, in July 1963. Five months after their marriage, Lane found her dead from an overdose of sleeping pills in their Detroit home. His marriage to his third wife, Mary Cowser, lasted ten years, and produced a son, Richard Ladimir Lane. He was also the father of Richard Andrew Walker.
In 1994 Lane returned to his hometown of Austin, Texas. Struggling with complications of diabetes and knee problems, he spent the last few years of his life in an assisted living facility. On January 29, 2002, Dick “Night Train” Lane passed away from a heart attack. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Austin.