In a remarkable coincidence, July fifth marks the birthdays of two of the greatest Packer receivers – one in the Hall of Fame and the other of nearly that quality — Billy Howton and James Lofton
Seven years after Don Hutson retired for good, Green Bay drafted another skinny, speedy curly-haired receiver from the south who would dominate the league for several years. Billy Howton, drafted in the second round from Rice University in 1952, set rookie records for receiving yards (1,231) and touchdowns (13) in the 12-game 1952 season. Bill Groman of the Houston Oilers broke the yardage mark in a 14-game 1960 season, but the touchdown record wasn’t tied until 1978 (by John Jefferson) and wasn’t broken until 1998 (by Randy Moss) – both 16-game seasons. Howton would go on to eclipse Don Hutson’s all-time marks in receptions and receiving yards by the time he retired in 1964.
Yet, not only is Howton largely forgotten today, but he was never even nominated for the Hall of Fame. He was the King of Siberia. In his seven years in Green Bay, the franchise’s record was 26-56-2. Vince Lombardi came in 1959 and quickly traded Howton to Cleveland for defensive end Bill Quinlan and versatile back Lew Carpenter. Howton spent the lone winning season of his career in Cleveland in 1959 and then went to Dallas in the expansion draft for four more losing campaigns. Throughout it all, though, Howton maintained his spirit. Lisle Blackbourn said of him in 1956, “If all my boys had the desire Howton has, we would be hard to beat.”
Howton played in four Pro Bowls as a Packer and was a three-time All-Pro. The 6’2” 190-pound receiver also was a consistent deep threat throughout his Packer tenure. In 1955, Bud Lea wrote in the Milwaukee Sentinel, “Howton possesses exceptional speed and an uncanny ability to shake defensive halfbacks. For example in the Ram game, he grabbed a button hook Rote pass, jockeyed three Los Angeles defenders out of their britches and bingo! – 57 yards and a Packer touchdown.”
The Packer teams on which James Lofton played were not as awful as Howton’s, but they only made the playoffs once in nine years. Lofton was the sixth overall pick in the 1978 draft, although he attended Stanford on a track scholarship, competing in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes as well as the long jump. He had the best long jump in the world in 1978. The previous fall under new head football coach Bill Walsh, Lofton became a starting wide receiver and accumulated over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air.
As a receiver, the 6’3” 190-pound long and lanky Lofton was a forerunner of Randy Moss – tall, graceful and lean with lengthy gazelle-like strides and great leaping ability. As a deep threat that no one could cover, he could take over a football game. His hands weren’t as good as those of Moss, but he was more consistent than Randy. Lofton stayed engaged on the field; he didn’t quit if the game went badly or the ball wasn’t coming his way.
Legal entanglements ended his time in Green Bay and he was traded to Oakland in 1987. Lofton was a lesser player with the Raiders and was released two years later. At age 33, James then signed with Buffalo in 1989 as they began their ascendancy and played with the Bills in their first three Super Bowls. In his only trip to the playoffs with the Packers in 1982, Lofton had played very well catching two touchdown passes and running for a third, and he continued that excellence in Buffalo catching six more postseason touchdown passes in three years. After a 16th season split between the Rams and the Eagles, Lofton retired in 1994 with the most receiving yards in NFL history at the time. He later coached in the NFL and then went into broadcasting.
Lofton had 4.4 40 speed and was the best deep threat of his time. As such, he exceeded 1,000 yards receiving five times in Green Bay and once in Buffalo. A member of the 1980s All-Decade team, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2003.
(adapted from Green Bay Gold)
1954 Bowman custom card of Howton is colorized.