by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

TAMPA, Fla. — When the coffee turned cold and the fruit plates were empty, the announcement came that the morning interviews were over. All around the huge ballroom, the Buffalo Bills headed for the exits. James Lofton stayed where he was, sitting at a table, surrounded by reporters. He answered more questions — about his age, about his years in Green Bay. Soon the room was half-empty, and the kitchen staff was collecting plates and clanging silverware. Lofton stayed, answering more questions — about being cut by the

Raiders, about catching passes now from Jim Kelly, about how it feels to reach a Super Bowl after all these years.

Finally, with most of his teammates gone and the chairs being collected by the cleanup crew, Lofton rose. “Thank you,” he said. He then reached over and shook hands with every reporter at the table. He went around, he didn’t miss anyone. Some smiled, some nodded. All seemed surprised. He’s shaking our hands? In a world where athletes would rather kiss a snake than acknowledge a sports writer, such a move is cause for curiosity.

But so, too, is James Lofton. You must make up your mind about him, because he will play with it. On the surface, Lofton is the best story in this Super Bowl: He gave his youth to the Green Bay Packers and never came close to the Big Game, despite making the Pro Bowl seven times, despite setting all sorts of pass-catching records. He seemed doomed to retire without championship glory, great stats, no ring, a receiver’s answer to O.J. Simpson. But now, suddenly, he’s here, on the big stage, with a different team, a team he had to try out for, a last chance, a gamble. And at age 34 he’s a starting wide receiver again; who knows, he could even make the big play and win the game Sunday. To top it off, he’s a terrific guy when you meet him, a Stanford graduate, extremely articulate, funny, polite.

So it’s great, right? You want to dive, unblinking, into his football fairy tale. Except this sexual assault thing keeps coming up. Two charges. Both with women he met in bars. Both while he was married.

Yes, he was cleared, nothing was ever proved in court. But he admits the sex, he admits the cheating in a darkened stairwell — this, despite his golden boy image and seemingly wonderful marriage. So you have this big contradiction. You have a guy who can lie. And you have to wonder.

This is a story about James Lofton at his first Super Bowl and it is either the story of a man who has grown up and is finally getting what he deserves — or the story of a man who has everybody fooled.

The one advantage of being as old as I am,” James Lofton is saying, all smiles, “is that you can lie to the rookies. You can say to them, ‘Yeah, I was in a Super Bowl. With the Raiders. I caught two touchdown passes, don’t you remember?’ And they’ll say, ‘Uh. . . . Oh, yeah!’ “

He laughs. You laugh. This is Lofton at his best, witty, wise, terrifically engaging. He has a whole monologue of age jokes now; you might, too, if you were the first NFL player to score a touchdown in the ’70s ’80s and ’90s.

James, how does a veteran like you handle Buffalo’s no- huddle offense?

“It’s tough. Once in a while you see me bending over, trying to catch my breath. I’m actually yelling to my teammates, ‘Hey, guys. How about if we huddle up for once?’ “

James, what do you think of playing alongside guys who are 10 years younger than you?

“Well, I see where some college sophomores might come into the draft this year. If we take any, I’ll be playing alongside guys young enough to be my son!”

Hey, James, what do you do better now than you did when you were younger?

“Change diapers.”

More laughs. This part was always easy for Lofton. The talking. The personality. Back in Green Bay, when he was the biggest star in a football crazy state, the interviews were non-stop, people were delighted with his ability to charm, to schmooze, to boast. OK. At times he seemed cocky, maybe too cocky. But after all, he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, he graduated Stanford with an engineering degree, he nearly made the 1976 Olympic track team and two years later, he had the world’s best long jump. So there were a few things to brag about, right?

The fact is, for the first six years in Green Bay, James Lofton, stud athlete, was a king. He had a big house, a beautiful wife, his own TV show, he chaired more charity events than Ted Turner and Jane Fonda put together. March of Dimes, Boys Club, Special Olympics, Urban League. Kids adored him.

Women adored him, too. Maybe more than was healthy. And here is where you take the leap of faith with James Lofton.

In 1984, he and teammate Eddie Lee Ivery were accused of sexually assaulting an exotic dancer in her dressing room. And while the case never came to trial, the district attorney made a point of telling the press: “We believe the conduct of the two men to be reprehensible, shameful and depraved.”

That was the first swipe at Lofton’s halo. His TV show was canceled. Fans were stunned. It didn’t help that the Packers continued to lose and lose, with forgettable players shipping in and shipping out. Still, Lofton might have survived that first incident. He had two more outstanding seasons, he made two more trips to the Pro Bowl. He was dusting himself off.

But then came 1986. It was three days before the season ended. Lofton and two teammates went to a place called the Top Shelf Lounge, where they encountered three women from northern Michigan in town for some Christmas shopping. They talked. They flirted. Eventually, Lofton and one of the women, a 30-year-old housewife, took an elevator downstairs and entered a stairwell, where the woman performed oral sex on him. This much, Lofton admits. But later, after she had left the bar and was back at her hotel, the woman claimed she was forced, that Lofton had grabbed her by her hair. She told a security man. Lofton was booked on a sexual assault charge.

This, he denies.

“I am innocent, I was innocent, I was always innocent,” he says today.

It didn’t take the jury long to agree with him. About two hours, in fact. One of the jurors would later say, “It’s a case that should never have been brought to court.”

By that point, however, it didn’t matter. Lofton was finished in Green Bay. For all his numbers, for all his Pro Bowls, two strikes were still one too many in a conservative place like Wisconsin. Lofton was traded to the LA Raiders before the second case even came to trial.

And suddenly, the king was just another fish in the pond. “Kids would come running up to me in LA and say, ‘Where’s Marcus Allen? Where’s Bo Jackson?’ It taught me a lot about being normal again. It taught me that, no matter what I was thinking in Green Bay, the game will go on without me when I leave, it will go on quite healthily without me.” Y ou want to believe that. You want to believe that Lofton just took a spin off the road, that he’s got it back together. You want to believe that all these wonderful statistics he has thrown together this season for Buffalo, leading the AFC in average yards per catch (20.3), grabbing seven passes in the playoff win over Miami, moving up to third place on the NFL’s all-time receiving yardage list — you want to believe that all that is the result of a new focus, a better focus, out of the bars and back to a good life. His wife, Beverly, has stuck with him through all the bad stuff, the trial, the local jokes, the humiliation. She recently gave birth to their third child. And it helps that Lofton, now in his 13th season, is willing to address his past.

“People forget that I was found innocent,” he says. “They overlook that for some reason. As an athlete in this country, once you’re charged it seems you’re guilty until proven innocent. It should be the other way around. . .

“My life has changed. I don’t want those incidents to follow me around. Bad things happen to good people. You can either quit or you go on.

“The funny thing is, in Buffalo, they write about how my character is helping to pull this team together.”

He is asked if he were writing a term paper about his career, how he would handle the sexual assault charges.

He pauses for a moment. “I’d put them in the footnotes — and then I’d lose them.”

Should it be that easy? Are we being too cynical? Perhaps. Everyone, after all, is entitled to a second chance (in the case of athletes, it seems more often a third or fourth). Sexual assault is not to be taken lightly. But there have been no reported problems since Green Bay. Lofton has found a calmer stardom in Buffalo. And on Sunday, he will give the world a chance to see him, finally, in a game that really matters. He is not the speedster who was once a one-man track team at Stanford. “If I used to go 150 m.p.h., now I go 130,” he says, “but I get better gas mileage.”

And everyone laughs. And James Lofton is in good graces again, smiling, being charming, shaking hands with reporters when he leaves. You try not to think that he did the same thing back in Green Bay. You try not to think how someone with brains can easily fool the press and the public, hosting charity events and fathering children and then taking a strange woman downstairs in a bar.

You try not to think about that. You watch the cleanup crew take the napkins and tablecloths from yet another Super Bowl press conference and you try to think of football and football only. Because sometimes, it’s just easier that way.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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