Redeemed Lofton slows as dreams catch up to him

MIKE LITTWIN

January 24, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

TAMPA,FLA. — TAMPA, Fla. -- The title of this chapter could be: In Which James Lofton Wins One for Ernie Banks.

That's the way Lofton would love it to read, anyway.

It's the Super Bowl, and that's where these stories get told. We have in Lofton an aged wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills, hanging on more with guile than speed, having already caught his many hundred passes, having already played in all those Pro Bowls, finally, finally getting his shot in the Big One, savoring every minute of it, thanking whoever it is we thank for such gifts that, at age 34, nearly two years after being waived, he's here and how nobody can ever take that away from him.

The story is even better once you talk to Lofton, who is glib, bright, charming and even self-effacing. He may be the Golden Boy gone gray, but gracefully so. Here's who we're talking about: a Stanford man, world-class long jumper and a football academic All-American. A licensed stockbroker -- "So your teammates think you're smart," he says. A past member of the board of directors of the Milwaukee ballet -- so your teammates think you're cultured.

And he has been waiting for this moment, the culmination of a career, his entire life.

Certainly, he has his lines ready.

On his age: "The advantage of being old on this team is that I can lie to the rookies. I tell them, 'Yeah, I was in the Super Bowl with the Raiders. I caught two touchdown passes. Don't you remember?' And the rookies say, 'Oh, yeah.' "

On his declining speed: "I used to run a 4.3 [over 40 yards]. Now it's 4.5. That's like I was a car that could go 150 miles an hour. Now, it's a car that goes 130. But I probably get better gas mileage."

On the no-huddle offense: "You've probably seen me bent over, trying to catch my breath. Sometimes, I want to call over and say, 'Hey guys, why don't we just huddle up and call a play?' "

The story would be perfect, except that Lofton, for all his gifts, isn't perfect, or nearly so. He has a flaw, one that has led him once to trial -- he was found innocent -- and once to be chastised by a district attorney who said his behavior was "reprehensible and depraved."

In the first instance, he and a Green Bay Packers teammate were accused of barging into an exotic dancer's dressing room and demanding sex. They were never charged with a sexual crime, but were fined $500 for trespassing.

Two years later, in December 1986, he was in a bar with two teammates, and they picked up three women. One would accuse Lofton of taking her into a stairwell and forcing her to have oral sex. The jury cleared him in less than two hours, and one juror would say later that it should never have come to trial.

L "I was innocent," Lofton said. "No one ever remembers that."

He was innocent -- and he wasn't. At the least, he was guilty of running around on his wife, twice publicly humiliating her and himself as well as assuring he would be traded. He went from Green Bay to the Raiders and, finally, to Buffalo.

He took the questions yesterday as he sat at a table with a dozen or so reporters. He took the tough ones along with the setups with equanimity and charm. In fact, when asked if he had to write a term paper on his life, how he would treat his off-field incidents, Lofton said, "I'd put them in footnotes -- and I'd lose them."

But he wouldn't address the topic in detail, pleading it was old news. In an old story written in the Los Angeles Times, though, he did discuss the incidents, and not necessarily to his credit.

In that story, Lofton said he was offered sex wherever he went and that he gave in to it.

"Oh, come on," Lofton told the Times, "anybody could be in that bar. Anyone could sit around and let women flirt with them. How many men turn down sex? I think that really is the question."

He was asked if that included married public figures who had just been in a highly publicized incident two years before.

"At some point," Lofton said, "you think to yourself, 'Relax, be at least a normal football player. Be like everyone else. Don't be so ++ guarded.' At some point the brain turns off. I'm having a good time, so what the heck." Lofton would point to Gary Hart as someone who had more to lose and still yielded to temptation. All he was facing, Lofton said, was the possibility "that somebody could tell your wife, and the next day I'd say, 'No, I wasn't.' That's all I was risking in my mind."

He risked something more. Here was a man who coveted fame, and found all that went with it. Sitting at the table with the reporters, he recalled a scene in his rookie season at the Pro Bowl at a restaurant where Lynn Swann, his idol, was swarmed by autograph seekers.

"I knew I didn't want that," he said. "But at the same time I knew I did."

Now, he wants it back on his own terms. He's trying to get a new story written, about the old pro who calls himself "a speed receiver with an asterisk" and who tells us about the joy of raising his three children and that what he's learned as a wily veteran is "how to change diapers."

He recalls all the years that he'd sit at home watching the Super Bowl -- "Finally, I crossed it off my Christmas wish list" -- and tell himself how he was better than the receivers on the field. "Now, they can watch me and say they're better than he is," Lofton said.

He'd love to be remembered this way. Smiling. Glib. Smart. Funny. Picked up a month into the 1989 season by the Bills, he is often credited with helping reshape an underachieving team at odds with itself. And now they're in the Super Bowl together. How much better a story do you want?

And when he finally got up from the interview, Lofton shook the hand of each reporter there and said, in turn, "Thanks."

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