In the last seven seasons, we have witnessed Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and Kenny Irons under Tommy Tuberville. Lost amongst these Auburn stars was a 5-7, 170 pound speedster by the name of Lionel "Little Train" James.
After carrying the ball only two times for five yards in 1980, Pat Dye singled out Lionel James during Dye's first team meeting in 1981 after coming to Auburn from Wyoming. Referring only to his size, the new Auburn head coach pointed out Lionel James as one of the reasons why Auburn was not winning. Later that spring, James would prove to Dye, as well as the entire team, that he had the heart and soul to play at the college level.
The running back would later credit Barfield for talking James out of quitting the team before the 1980 season. Armed with the Auburn spirit and the nickname "Little Train," he would lead the Tigers in rushing during the 1981 campaign with 561 yards and a 5.1 average per carry. He was the second leading rusher on the team in 1982 and 1983 behind Bo Jackson.
Much like Jackson, James' individual numbers were hindered by the fact he played in a wishbone offense. When given the opportunity, James produced on the field and Auburn began to win on a consistent basis. He rushed for more than 70 yards against Tennessee and LSU and posted a season high of 94 yards against Georgia Tech in 1981. During those three games, James averaged 6.5 yards per carry on 38 carries.
Lionel James runs the football during his Auburn career.
In 1982, James opened the season with 118 yards against Wake Forest. He racked up 129 yards rushing against Tennessee and 138 yards against Mississippi State. During a heartbreaking loss to Georgia, James rushed for 111 yards, including a spectacular 87-yard touchdown run, to give the Tigers a 14-13 lead late in the game.
He finished the season with 101 yards rushing against Boston College in the Tangerine Bowl. With the combination of Jackson and James, Auburn finished the season with a 9-3 record and a final ranking of 14th in the Associated Press poll.
The Tigers entered the 1983 season as one of the top teams in the country and James was poised to be a team leader his senior year. He bolted for 172 yards during the season opener against Southern Mississippi. Though he only carried the ball five times against Mississippi State, he rushed for 83 yards. James gained 73 against Florida, 115 against Maryland and 84 against the Georgia Bulldogs.
He capped his senior year with 83 yards rushing against Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. Jackson realized what James meant to the Auburn Tigers, presenting his MVP trophy from the Sugar Bowl to "Little Train" in the Auburn locker room.
Including his bowl game statistics, James rushed for 1,691 yards during his final two seasons, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. During his career, James averaged 99 yards rushing per game,when he carried the ball at least 14 times.
He had seven 100-yard games and nine runs of 30 yards or more. He played in 36 college games, carrying the ball at least 14 times on 10 occasions. James averaged 6.2 yards per carry in those 10 games of 14 carries or more. He also finished number three in school history with a career average of 15.3 yards per punt return.
Playing in the shadow of Jackson, James never received the full recognition he earned on the field. Since 1983, James' career numbers have been buried by other great Auburn running backs.
In 1984, the San Diego Chargers drafted James in the fifth round. During his brief pro career, James accumulated 6,627 all-purpose yards, including a NFL record of 2,535 yards during the 1985 season. Though his name doesn't appear at the top of any Auburn records, no other Auburn running back ran with more heart and desire than Lionel James.