1986 flashback: Lofton tops Hutson's mark

Some five hours after James Lofton had broken the fabled Don Hutson's 40-year-old Packer record for career receptions — one which had stood since the first year of Harry Truman's presidency — he and his lovely wife, Beverly, were on the telephone to Los Angeles.<p>

The purpose of the call: To celebrate the historic occasion with the gifted wide receiver's father, Emanuel "Mike" Lofton, who resides in the City of Angels.

"We usually call him when he doesn't get here to Wisconsin for a game or if it is now shown on television on the West Coast," James explained. "Beverly calls him and gives him a critique on the game. In this case, he knew about the record because he had seen it on the TV highlights."

Father didn't think he'd be very good

And the elder Lofton's reaction?

"He said he was really proud of me," James replied. "He said that when I was a little kid, he didn't think I would be very good at sports because I was so slow, but I surprised him."

Based on heredity, it appears the senior Lofton actually had reason to expect substantial accomplishment from his son, the youngest of four offspring.

"How good an athlete was my father?" James said, echoing the inevitable question. Flashing a facetious smile, he added, "Should I tell it like he would … or?"

In a more serious vein, Lofton continued, "He actually was a real good athlete. He went to Prairie View and lettered in football and track, and captained both teams. He was student body president."

James smiled again and quipped, "He's like old wine — his tales become better with age."

In truth, No. 80 could well have made the same observation about himself and his talents, which seldom have been more evident or impressive than they were on the afternoon of Oct. 5 when he eclipsed Hutson's venerable standard against the Cincinnati Bengals on the soggy turf of Milwaukee County Stadium.

As hoped, record comes on TD

His record-breaking 489th reception had come during the course of a seven-catch performance — the 32nd 100-yard receiving day of his career — which clearly delineated the lofty state of his art, representing a prototypical blend of tall, lean stature; world-class speed; precise move and deft hands. Poetically enough, as the recipient had hoped, the historic catch was registered on a touchdown — a pinpoint throw to the midsection from third-year quarterback Randy Wright as Lofton arrived in the end zone.

It was midway through the fourth quarter — the clock read 7:56 to be exact — when he hurdled the final obstacle to primacy in the Packer record book, which the legendary Hutson has dominated ever since the early 1940s. Along the nine-season route to this plateau, he earlier had passed such talented and productive receivers as Boyd Dowler, Max McGee, Bill Howton and Carroll Dale — all revered names in Green Bay's rich and colorful history.

Although an oft-irreverent exponent of the put-on, the former Stanford track All-American was not making light of this latest achievement. "It's great to be a record-holder for such a prominent franchise, a franchise that has been around for a long time and has been on top for a long time," he said with quiet pride. "It's a great honor."

'Just concentrated on catching it'

Surprisingly enough, Lofton claims no clear-cut of the record-breaking moment. "After I had tied it, I remembered that I had mentioned I wanted to break the record in the end zone," he recalled. "I guess the next pattern we called was a deep pattern. We ended up throwing it to Phil Epps because I had two men on my side of the play.

"When I broke it, I was concentrating more on just catching the ball than thinking about the record itself."

Earlier, he said, there had been an element of humor. "The funniest conversation was with the referee (Dick Hantak) when he told me, 'Two more receptions and you'll have the record, so be sure to give the ball back to me after you break the record so I can stop the game and give the ball back to you.'

"The odd thing," Lofton added, "is that if you have played a long time, you get to see a lot of the same officials and they're just like a teammate."

Lofton has no specific recollections of his teammates' reactions except that "everybody was pretty happy, patting me on the back…One thing that was nice was when I got home, Mike Douglass (a close friend and former roommate on road trips) called me. He's with the Chargers now and he was getting ready for a Monday night game against Seattle.

"It's funny looking at him and Paul (Coffman) in different uniforms — the guys I was close to…You still cheer for them when you watch them."

As might be expected, the significance of the record moment was lost upon the Loftons' son, David, just 32 months old. "When I got home," James confided with an amusing smile, "David said, ‘Did you have a good game Daddy?"

"And when I got home Monday night, he asked me again, ‘Did you have a good game, Daddy?' He had seen me on the ‘Forrest Gregg Show' that night and associated that with my playing football."

Lofton, Hutson have never met

Lofton, who has now surpassed two of Hutson's major career records, has never met his famed predecessor, currently living in retirement in Rancho Mirage, Calif. There has however, been contact. "I got a note from him a year ago, congratulating me on (breaking) the yardage record," James reported.

"You know, when you look at all the guys around the League who are setting records; Charlie Joiner and Steve Largent for example, we're just guys who are falling in line," he continued. "(Hutson) was the original; he was the first. Everybody is still going to be second to him.

The storied No. 14, it was noted, had invented pass patterns.

Lofton chuckled and appended, "And we still haven't gotten 'em right yet."

At this point, the fourth-ranking receiver now active in the NFL and 15th overall in professional football history with 490 receptions, Lofton attributes his imposing productivity to a blend of talents. "I think it's been a combination of physical skills, rather than one particular asset," he said. "Because everybody is made up a little differently. The thing where I've been lucky is in terms of durability."

Able to play with pain, as he has done on occasion, Lofton has started every game the packers have played since he joined them as a first-round draft choice in 1978 and owns the longest consecutive-game streak — now 127 — on the current active roster.

It is an obvious badge of honor to James, who for years has been regarded as the premier receiver in the game. "I think every player takes pride in his durability," he says. "You always want to line up and play."

As a kid, didn't know Packers existed

His multiple achievements, welcome as they may be, are hardly the culmination of a childhood dream, though. "I didn't even know they existed," said Lofton, who launched his football career as a quarterback at Los Angeles Washington High School and was transferred to wide receiver as a freshman at Stanford. "Not all all. I guess when I was growing up — when the Packers were winning — I was six or seven years old (more like 10 or 11). I guess I didn't put the correlation in there that you grow up. I just thought you were a kid… I guess now kids are more aware of such things because television has emphasized them so much."

Three significant Packer records still belong to Hutson — most touchdowns in a career (99; also a League record); most receptions in a season (74) and most receptions in a game (14). Lofton admits he would like to also put these in his collection. "They're all within reach," he said. "It would be nice to have all the records, I guess. But it's not a motivating factor. Once you get all the records, then what do you do? I love the game and it would be hard to find something to replace it."

At the moment, he has his sights on another pair of milestones. "The 500th reception, that would be a big one," he said. "That and 10,000 yards would be big."

James considers coaching eventually

And after football? "In recent years, I have thought more and more about going into coaching. This past spring, I had a chance to do some coaching. I helped out the receivers at Stanford," Lofton said, noting with a sly smile, "I think that's why they're doing so well this year. They're 4-0 and their receivers are doing well. They have one who might make a few All-America teams this year. His name is Jeff James.

"I think," he added, 'I'd make a good coach."

Would he like to see David play football? "Sure," was the prompt reply. "I think I'll enjoy watching him play sports. I really hope he's a good athlete because I enjoy watching athletics…I hope he's graceful and strong.

"He shows a lot of interest in all sports. Looking at people's parents, you can pretty well tell what kind of an athlete a child will be. Beverly has some of the attributes I don't have. She has amazing foot quickness playing racquetball. And she probably has more of a killer instinct than I have. She's the top woman in her racquetball league and I'm really proud of her."

Wants to play in a Super Bowl

Do not get the impression from all this that the seven-time Pro Bowl nominee feels has he done it all. "Not at all," he insists. 'I think the biggest reason (to continue playing) is not what you still want to accomplish, but if you still enjoy playing the game. I still enjoy the game. It's still fun every time you go out there.

"I think when you're involved in something, you develop a bond toward it. The more you're in it, the deeper it grows.

"I feel pretty good right now. It's really hard to put a finger (on how much longer he hopes to play) because if you put a finger on it, you're kind of limiting yourself. I'll keep showing up until they tell me to go away, I guess." Personal records, incidentally are not his first priority as he looks to the future. "I think every player dreams of playing in the Super Bow," he said, pinpointing his primary goal. "If we can get this team back on track in the next year or two, I think we have a good shot at it.

"I think the fact we are going through tough times right now, that will strengthen the resolve of the younger players and, once we do get back on track, we'll stay there."

Editor's note: This story appeared in the Oct. 20, 1986 issue of Packer Report.

Packer Report Top Stories