The gang—my grandkids, Maddie, Jordan and John—were gathered in the usual meeting place (my kitchen) when Ms. L excitedly announced that we had tickets for the production of the Nina Simone stage event. A voice piped up from the peanut gallery, “Who is Nina Simone?” It took me about a heartbeat to realize this was another teaching moment. I cleared my throat and dug in.
Nina Simone was one of the most popular entertainers back in the day. Along with Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Billie Holliday, she was one of the most popular female singers of color at the time. All of these ladies are members of the Grammy Hall of Fame. As I warmed to the task, I noticed their eyes were starting to glaze over. This audience will give their undivided attention if the topic is sports, but they couldn’t care less about some dead singers who couldn’t rap.
Trying to find a way to segue into sports, I remembered that Dinah Washington was married to Dick “Night Train” Lane. Lane was a Hall of Fame cornerback for the Rams and Lions. All eyes were at full attention now and there may have been a little drool running down John’s chin.
Dick “Night Train” Lane grew up in California, and not finding many job opportunities, he joined the U.S. Army during the period between WWII and Korea. After serving four years he was back on the streets of Los Angeles. He found himself in a dead-end job in an airplane factory. Being an ex-football player in school, he decided to walk on at the L.A. Rams facility.
This was basically a do-or-die situation for a kid who was born to a prostitute mother and a pimp father who abandoned him in a dumpster at three months old. Fortunately a woman, Ella Lane, heard his cries and took him home to join her two sons as part of her family.
Dick was so impressive at the Rams’ camp that offensive and defensive coaches fought for the rights to coach him. They settled on defense and the legend began. He was 24 years old at the time.
When he came to the attention of football fans he was already sporting the moniker “Night Train.” Thus began speculation over the origin of the name. Some said he was afraid of flying so he caught overnight trains to meet the team for games (untrue). Another version pointed to the fact that he hit receivers so hard they thought they had boarded the night train (untrue). Actually the name came from teammate Tom Fears. Tom had his radio cranked up in the locker room all of the time. Dick was especially fond of the 1952 hit “Night Train.” When Dick approached, Tom would shout, “Here comes the Night Train,” and the moniker stuck.
Dick had an affection for using his forearm to tackle opponents. This tactic was dubbed the clothesline or the night train necktie. Players from that era who had experienced the necktie still gaze around the room prepared to duck when they hear the mention of “Night Train” Lane. So effective was the necktie that Giants All-Pro running back Frank Gifford needed a year’s vacation after an encounter. Frank spent the time answering door bells that weren’t ringing. Frank could have probably played, but he couldn’t find his way to the stadium.
Dick spent nine years with the Rams until he went to Detroit to join Lem Barney with the Lions. Having to face that duo, a lot of receivers wished they could call in sick. Dick was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.
This teaching moment is over, and I am looking at some smiling faces—after I handed John a napkin to catch the drool.