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.
December 6, 1982
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."
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."
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."
When James was in the sixth grade his teacher sent a note to his father asking him to drop by school the next Monday. "That was on a Friday," Mr. Lofton recalls, "and I worried all weekend. Was it drugs? What had he done? When I got to school his teacher said, 'Where's Mrs. Lofton?' I said, 'There isn't one now. But what has my boy done?' 'Nothing,' she said. 'He's an A student and I just wanted to meet his parents.' "
Bill Walsh told Lofton back at Stanford that success demands a certain display of confidence and class, that when he made it big he should buy himself a Porsche. Lofton has one, a dark blue 911 SC. He also has a lunch pail that, according to Beverly, tells you as much about her husband as you need to know. "The thing I've found is that James is partly a romantic, a man who loves the arts and sentimental things, and that he's partly a little boy. Some of the Packers take their lunches to work. Well, James decided he needed a lunch pail. So he went to the store and when he came out he said, 'Wait till you see what I got!' He had this little square lunch pail with monsters on it. He was excited because it was the last one in the store. So now he drives to practice in his Porsche with his briefcase and his little monster lunch pail."
This isn't to imply that Lofton has gone soft. Hardly. In the Packers' last preseason game, against New England, an official ruled Lofton had caught a ball out of bounds. Furious, he threw the ball behind him and the Pats' bench. On the next play he was hit late after gaining 15 yards on an end around, and this time he threw the ball in anger over his head and into the stands. Lofton remains aggressive, confident, aloof, but he knows a little better now how the world works and how it can be used to his advantage.
"I know this," he says. "If you don't say you're the best, nobody else will. Not long ago a reporter asked me who I thought the five best wide receivers in the NFL were. His magazine was picking the best player at each position. So I said first was me, second was J.J., third was Wes Chandler, fourth was Jerry Butler and fifth was Tony Hill. And when the magazine came out, I was rated the top wide receiver, just as I said." Well, fine. We can live with gestures like that.