James Lofton reflects on 40 years in professional football

By Ross Forman

James Lofton celebrated his 40th year in professional football in 2017, spending time as a player, broadcaster, coach, and broadcaster once again.

Lofton was selected sixth overall in the 1978 NFL Draft out of Stanford, landing in Green Bay, where he played through 1986. He also played wide receiver for the Los Angeles Raiders from 1987-88, the Buffalo Bills from 1989-92, with his final season, 1993, split between the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles.  

In 16 seasons, Lofton caught 764 passes for 14,004 yards and 75 touchdowns. He averaged 20 yards or more per catch in five seasons, leading the league in 1983 and 1984 with an average of 22.4 and 22 yards, respectively.

Lofton was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

He first got into coaching in 2002 when he was the wide receiver coach for the San Diego Chargers. He held that position until early 2008. The Raiders then hired Lofton as their wide receivers coach in 2008, but he stayed only one season.

On the broadcasting side, Lofton served as a color analyst and sideline reporter for NFL coverage on Westwood One radio from 1999-2001. In 2009, he re-joined the network to team with Dave Sims and later Kevin Kugler on Sunday Night Football broadcasts. He moved to a television position on the NFL on CBS in 2017, replacing Solomon Wilcots.

“In radio (broadcasting), you’re painting a picture, as most people are in the car or maybe at work; rarely do they have the TV on with the volume down. So you really have to describe what’s going on on the field. You don’t have the advantage of replays,” Lofton said. “What I tried to do (on radio was) describe what’s actually happening on the field, not what’s happening on the TV monitor because that’s not what the people are seeing.

“For TV (broadcasting announcers), the (press box) booth is normally lower in the stadium, on the 50 yard-line. For radio, you’re up higher, in a corner, thus you are so far away from the field that the players look like ants.

“It definitely is a different view (for the broadcasters) of radio and TV.”

Lofton was an 8-time Pro Bowl receiver who was named to the NFL 1980s All-Decade Team. He also is a member of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.

In the 1978 NFL Draft he was drafted sixth overall, following Earl Campbell, Art Still, Wes Chandler, Chris Ward and Terry Miller. The 1978 NFL Draft also featured Clay Matthews (12th overall), Doug Williams (17th) and Ozzie Newsome (23rd), among others.

The NFL Draft, Lofton noted, “is not an exact science.”

After all, every year top picks get booed in their new city – because some fans wanted another player picked instead. That, Lofton said, “is the nature of fans. Take, for instance, Donovan McNabb. The crowd in Philadelphia booed him immediately, yet he turned out to be a great player.”

Lofton walked into the Football Hall of Fame in 2003, inducted by his son, David, who was 19 at the time.

“Obviously that was really neat,” Lofton said. “Going into the Hall was a lot of fun, and my son did a great job on his speech. My wife planned all our parties (around the induction). It’s like you’re planning a wedding, inviting people as far back as Pop Warner Football through teammates and coaches in the NFL.”

He added, “I got to play for a long time and am grateful for that. My last calendar year as a player (was) 1993. I played in the Super Bowl with the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 31, 1993. I went to training camp with the Los Angeles Raiders in July, but was released (during) the last cut. I ultimately played three games for the L.A. Rams in 1993, then played the last 10 games of the season for the Philadelphia Eagles, culminating with the final regular-season game against the San Francisco 49ers, winning in overtime. In fact, I caught a pass, my last reception, to set up the game-winning field goal.

“So, over 12 months, I wore four uniforms … that’s when I knew the writing was on the wall to retire.”

Lofton had 57 receptions for Buffalo in 1991, including one of the most memorable from his career. They were playing the New York Jets and if the Bills won, they’d win the division and home-field advantage.

His son David was 7 years-old at the time, and though he normally sat with his mom high in the stands, Lofton spotted David and two friends sitting in Row 1.

Lofton ultimately caught the game-winning pass, and though he normally would just give the ball to an official, he instead raced through his cheering teammates and handed the ball to David in the stands.

“I was planning to put the ball on the mantle, it would be a special ball,” Lofton said.

After the game, Lofton met up with his wife and a younger son. But not David.
Instead, David was in the parking lot, playing football – with, the ball.

“That ball was scuffed up, dirty, muddy,” Lofton said, laughing. “I remember that and thought how happy he must have been to play with that ball.”

So where’s that football today?

“I don’t know,” Lofton said, smiling.

Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.

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