Despite Negotiations, James Thinks He Will Report to Camp

Times Staff Writer

Lionel (Little Train) James of the Chargers spent three-fourths of last season with an injured knee that restricted his cutting ability.

“After the fourth game (in which he was hurt), I couldn’t move or slide to avoid a lick the way I’d like,” James said. “I was cautious about making certain cuts, and I took more shots than I’m used to.”

Playing on a swollen knee that required surgery after the season, James was the most productive player in the National Football League.

He set an NFL record with 2,535 combined net yards, breaking Terry Metcalf’s mark of 2,462 set in 1975. His 86 receptions led the American Football Conference and his 1,027 yards receiving set a league record for a back.

James led the Chargers in rushing, receiving, punt returns and kickoff returns.


In return for these accomplishments, he was paid $90,000, which made him possibly the No. 1 bargain in pro football. He is now negotiating for a more lucrative, long-term deal.

The talks are going slowly--too slowly to suit James--but he’s doing his best to avoid a stalemate.

“I hope to get it resolved before training camp opens (in July),” James said Friday as the Chargers convened for a mini-camp at the stadium.

“I think I’d report to camp even if I wasn’t signed, but I wish it was moving along easier.”

James said he’d probably take out an insurance policy to protect against financial loss if he were injured in camp.

“I’m not going to let this affect me mentally,” James said. “I’m not going to mope or cry about it.”

Johnny Sanders, the Chargers’ general manager, commended the player’s attitude.

“Lionel is very levelheaded,” Sanders said. “I’m sure he will do what’s in his best interest. I’m staying in touch with his agent (George Kicklighter). We’re trying to get things worked out.”

James, who said his knee is feeling strong again, is concentrating on learning more inside pass routes this weekend. The Chargers want both James and Gary Anderson to be viewed as true wide receivers even when they line up in the backfield.

“I’ll be more of a threat if I learn some of the inside routes that Charlie (Joiner) runs,” James said.

“I was happy with last year but I still want to improve. Hey, this is America’s offense. It would be a mistake for a defense to key on me or any other one player.”

James, a college roommate of Bo Jackson, the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner, said he believes that Jackson is leaning toward a career in football rather than baseball.

“I saw Bo a few weeks ago,” James said. “I think his heart’s in football. He might have a longer career in baseball, but I think football makes him happier as an individual.”

Jackson, of course, was the No. 1 player in last month’s NFL draft. He was taken by Tampa Bay but has indicated he will await the baseball draft in June before deciding which sport to play.

Coach Don Coryell said Friday that he expects some heated competition in the offensive line, with as many as three jobs possibly at stake.

Only center Don Macek and tackle Jim Lachey appear certain of retaining their starting jobs, according to Coryell.

Veterans Ed White, Dennis McKnight and Sam Claphan, all of whom are recuperating from surgery, will have to fight to keep their starting status. Macek and Lachey also had off-season operations but there seems to be no question about their ability to fend off challengers for their jobs.

The Chargers view rookies James FitzPatrick and Jeff Walker as contenders for starting jobs. Neither is as advanced as Lachey was at the same stage last year and may not achieve starting duty by the season opener. Eventually, however, they are projected as capable of displacing veteran starters.

There are a couple of promising young holdovers from last season, including Gary Kowalski and Chris Faulkner, plus a big rookie, Steve Collier (6-feet 7-inches, 327 pounds).

Macek, White and Lachey are being withheld from heavy work this weekend. “What they would get from it wouldn’t be worth the risk,” Coryell said.

The possibility of having three new starters doesn’t mean the line will be lacking in cohesiveness.

“We want to find the best athletes first,” Coryell said. “We’re not worried about cohesiveness. We’ll find the best players, then worry about them playing together.”