Lofton was Packers' first-round draft choice (6th player chosen overall) out of Stanford in 1978. His college credentials were befitting a top pick. An Academic All-America, he was also an accomplished track performer who won the NCAA long jump title as a senior. In the pros, Lofton blossomed into one of the most feared deep threats of the 1980s – or any other era, for that matter. He was durable as well, becoming the first NFL player to score a touchdown in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s over a 16-year career in which he pulled down 764 passes for 14,004 yards, an NFL record at the time of his retirement. He averaged 18.3 yards per catch. Nine times he caught more than 50 passes in a season and he had 43 games with 100 or more yards receiving. In 13 playoff appearances, Lofton caught 41 passes for 759 yards and eight touchdowns, including a seven-reception game in Super Bowl XXVI. In three of those playoff appearances, Lofton chalked up 100 yards.
Though Lofton played for a total of five NFL teams (Packers 1978-1986, L.A. Raiders 1987-88, Buffalo Bills 1989-1992, L.A. Rams & Philadelphia Eagles, 1993), it was in Green Bay that he was at his very best. The trio of Lofton, wide receiver John Jefferson and tight end Paul Coffman gave rocket-armed quarterback Lynn Dickey an impressive array of receiving targets. This explosive group of players propelled Bart Starr's Packers to a playoff berth in the strike-shortened 1982 season.
Consider but a sampling of Lofton's Green Bay numbers:
- Lofton was named to the Pro Bowl 7 times, 6 during his nine-year hitch in Titletown
- He gained more yards in pass receiving – 9,656 – than any other receiver in team history
- Lofton led the Packers in receptions for 7 consecutive seasons (1980-86) and posted the most 100-yard receiving games in team history with 32
- He shares club records (with Sterling Sharpe) for most seasons with 50 or more receptions (7) and most 1,000 yard seasons as a receiver (5)
- Lofton scored the fourth-most receiving touchdowns in Packer history with 49
- His lone rushing touchdown, an 83-yard reverse, is tied for the third longest run in Packer history
But describing Lofton with statistics is like trying to name the best part of a Rolls Royce. He was the complete package, a consummate performer. When Lofton was inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame in 1999 it was his longtime friend and Packer roommate, linebacker Mike Douglass, who presented him for induction. In a delightful turning of the tables, it was Lofton's turn to present Douglass for enshrinement in the Packer Hall on July 19. These are, indeed, happy times for Lofton, his wife Beverly and their three children. But when you ask Lofton for his thoughts about being inducted in Canton, he's still letting it all settle in.
"It's a little overwhelming," said Lofton prior to this year's induction banquet at the KI Center in downtown Green Bay. "I got a chance today to go with Bob Harlan over to Lambeau Field to look at the names on the Ring of Honor. To realize that you're up there with guys you used to think of as immortals in the football sense of it, that's a little overwhelming. Even though it was 25 years ago when I first started playing here, it still doesn't seem like it was that long ago."
Nor does it seem that long ago to the fans and others who got to watch Lofton play. Jim Irwin, himself a Packer Hall of Fame inductee after 30 years behind the microphone calling the action along the Packer radio network, remembers Lofton as a smooth, intelligent performer. Irwin said that Lofton's speed harkened back to another track star turned wide receiver, Bob Long who played on Vince Lombardi's triple-crown championship teams in the 1960s.
"They were both classic runners," said Irwin. "Bob Long was a speedster who happened to be in a football uniform and if the ball got there, he could catch it. He learned as he went along. Long would stretch the field for coach Lombardi by running a fly pattern while James Lofton could catch it over the middle, he could catch it short or he could fly long and he was a terrific player. He had great hands. You could compare him and Sterling Sharpe and maybe, had Robert Brooks not had so many injuries, he would have been in that same category of people who are game-breaking types of receivers. That's what Lofton was."
Douglass' friendship with Lofton goes all the way back to Los Angeles and the first time they faced each other in track competition.
"I've known James since we were in high school," said Douglass. "We used to long jump against each other. He's always been a competitor. We were drafted by Green Bay the same year and we competed in long ball throwing contests and everything else. James has met every opportunity that's come before him to show that he was one of the premier receivers in this league and I think (his enshrinement in Canton) is well deserved. It's time that he's inducted and I'm just happy that it's happening this year. It's a great time in his life. Now he's coaching in the NFL and he has a lot of young players now who can say that their coach is a Hall of Fame coach."
Lofton is currently a wide receivers coach with the San Diego Chargers. And, befitting his style, he has his sights on bigger and better things. Perhaps that's part of the reason he is not one to dwell on his many spectacular individual efforts on the playing field. What are his favorite memories from his days in Green Bay? The reply is effortless, fluid. Pure James Lofton.
"It's the people who I got to be around here who were able to influence me," he says. "Being a coach now, I hear myself saying the things that they said to me. It's kind of like when you used to think about the things your parents said to you that you teach to your kids. The things that Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg and Lew Carpenter, who was my position coach, said to me I find myself saying them now on the practice field to my players. There were things these guys learned from Vince Lombardi and they were words that were timeless – they were good in the 60s and they're good in 2003. On our staff, Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer really enforces our ability to teach and I think that's what a good head coach does." Does he want to be a head coach some day?
"Definitely!" comes the quick reply with his dazzling smile.
But first things first. It's on to Canton and a date with history. Lofton's oldest son, David, a freshman at Stanford, will present his dad for induction.
"When I got inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame, I mentioned to Bart Starr that if I ever got inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, would he consider presenting me," said Lofton. "He said he would be happy and honored to but he said if he had anything to do differently, he would possibly have had his son do it because he's seen some sons doing it subsequently. When he said that, it kind of dawned on me that it might be a nice thing to do. It's great timing. We've got three kids and David's the oldest so it will be a neat thing to have within the family."
And Lofton couldn't have picked a better moment in time to be honored as one of the game's all-time greats. Besides his immediate family, Lofton will have thousands of people from his extended family – Packer fans – in Canton to cheer him on once again. Then, he'll be able to sit back and watch the Packers battle the Chiefs in the Hall of Fame Game on Monday night.
Yes, timing is everything!