A Journey Down A Rabbit Hole

I had a recent sports related experience of falling down a rabbit hole and it all began with a casual chat at a social gathering.  Someone who is only the most casual of sports fans said that he saw a photograph of Red Grange and that Grange was not wearing a face mask back in the 1930s.  He wanted to know if I knew when facemasks became part of NFL football.  I said that I did and proceeded to tell him the following facts:

  1. The facemask was “invented” in the 1950s supposedly by Cleveland Browns’ coach Paul Brown.
  2. The first facemasks were made of plastic.
  3. Today, players are required to wear facemasks from a set of designs approved by the league.
  4. There was a player in the 1950s who was so adept at grabbing a facemask and pulling an opponent to the ground that the NFL introduced the “facemask penalty” if it was done to any player not carrying the ball.  Today, the rule applies to grabbing the face mask of any opponent.

There you have a simple, straightforward conversation held over a glass of wine that then proceeded on to some other topic that I cannot recall at the moment.  But I did make a mental note of that fourth item on the list.  That “player in the 1950s” who caused the rule change was “Night Train” Lane, but I realized that I had no idea where he went to college or how he got the nickname, “Night Train”.  So, Google got a workout…

Dick “Night Train” Lane attended Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska.  Learning that made me feel good about not associating Lane with one of the blueblood football college programs.  He began his career with the LA Rams as an undrafted free agent; even the scouts for NFL teams at the time did not pay close attention to Scottsbluff Junior College.  The way he came to the attention of the Rams was by walking into the Rams’ office with clippings of newspaper reports about his time in college and asking for a tryout.  They gave him one and signed him to a rookie deal.

Now, I was hooked…  Remember “Night Train” Lane was named as a Top 100 player in the NFL all time; and I knew he did not finish his career with the Rams – – so, what happened?  Turns out that Lane’s rookie year was 1952 and in his rookie year he set an NFL record that stands today, 70 years later.

  • In a 12-game regular season, “Night Train” Lane intercepted 14 passes.
  • The NFL season has expanded to 14 games and then to 16 games and as of last year to 17 games.  No matter; 14 INTs in a season is still the record.

While gathering that information, I also learned that “Night Train” did more than get the rule changed about facemask grabbing.  He also used to tackle runners with a  clothesline tackle aimed at the head and neck which was perfectly legal and came to be known as a “Night Train Necktie”.  That too was ruled out of the NFL game.

For reasons I did not learn, Lane was traded from the Rams to the Chicago Cardinals and then from the Cardinals to the Detroit Lions.  He played through the 1965 season and recorded a total of 68 INTs placing him fourth on the all-time list for career interceptions.

But thinking about his facemask tackling made me go back and think about the “invention”/”evolution” of face masks.  Supposedly, in a Browns’ game in the 50s, QB Otto Graham took and elbow to the face in the first half of a game and at halftime coach Paul Brown attached a piece of plastic across the front of Graham’s helmet to keep him from taking another blow to the face.  Plastic facemasks began to find popularity; evidently, Graham was not the only player getting hit in the face.  The problem is that the plastic could break – even shatter – and that posed a threat to players eyes.  So, plastic facemasks were outlawed but metal ones were allowed.

By the early 1960s almost everyone in the NFL wore a facemask.  I recall that Tommy McDonald did not wear a mask and wondered who else chose not to.

  • McDonald – a WR – was the last position player not to wear a facemask.
  • Jess Richardson – a defensive tackle with the Eagles and Patriots – is considered to be the last lineman to play without a mask.
  • Garo Yepremian – a kicker – played into the 1970s without a mask.

[Aside:  Tommy McDonald once took a blow to the face that broke his jaw but did not keep him out of action.  He played the next week with his jaw wired shut – – and without a face mask.]

And last, I did not know how or why Richard Lane got the nickname, “Night Train”.  Frankly, I thought that it might have had some sort of racial implication because Lane was one of the few Black players in the NFL when he started his career in 1952.  Such is not the case; he got the nickname because he loved a popular R&B song called “Night Train”.  In his first training camp with the Rams, his teammate Tom Fears had a copy of the record of that song and when Fears would play it, Lane would dash over to Fears’ room to dance to the music.  Now you know…

Finally, today’s rant is a meandering journey to learn some facts.  The metaphor of going down a rabbit hole is an homage to Lewis Carroll’s tale of Alice in Wonderland.  So, I shall close today with an observation about journeys made by Lewis Carroll:

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



3 thoughts on “A Journey Down A Rabbit Hole”

  1. Good article.

    I think the most-valuable quarterback–arguably the most important position on most NFL rosters–that disdained wearing a facemask for his entire fifteen years (1948-1962) was Bobby Layne. Mr. Layne was a better quarterback than even Garo Yepremian.

    Bobby Layne and Dick Lane–because of their love of jazz and blues–were friends.

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