NFL Hall of Famer James Lofton is honored at alma mater Washington Prep in South Los Angeles as part of Pro Football Hall of Fame program designed to honor hometown roots of sports greats. Lofton has his high school jersey retired and delivers strong message about work ethic and taking advantage of those who dedicate their lives to helping students. By Ronnie Flores, Managing Editor
Los Angeles — As the ceremony to honor James Lofton as part of the Allstate Insurance Company and NFL Hall of Fame’s “Hometown Hall of Famer” program was about to begin, the man of the hour happened to catch a glimpse of his old coaches and teammates just outside the Washington Preparatory High School gymnasium as a group of family and well-wishers began to matriculate inside.
“Man, do you guys ever get any older?” Lofton asked with a smile as he approached his former teammates and coaches, some not much older than the former Washington Prep quarterback who went on to Stanford and a Hall of Fame career with five different NFL teams between 1978 and 1993.
Lofton, 56, has come a long way in the 40 years since he helped the 1973 Generals varsity finish 4-4 in the rugged Southern League. At Stanford he was the NCAA long jump champ in 1978 before the Green Bay Packers made him the sixth pick of that year’s NFL Draft. After retiring from the NFL with a then record 14,004 career receiving yards, he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2003. After his playing career, Lofton went into coaching with the San Diego Chargers.
Lofton has been married 31 years to his wife Beverly and has two sons (Daniel and David) and a daughter (Rachael), but recalling his beginnings at “The Prep,” it was definitely a humbling experience and not a case of the new hot-shot athlete rolling through campus. Lofton has a keen memory when it comes to those who inspired him as a 5-foot-10, 123-pound tenth-grader just looking for a shot to make the team.
“Washington wasn’t a football power back then and one time I was walking through the quad and a group of real tough guys saw me coming,” Lofton said. “One guy told me ‘give me your money.’ Now, these were big guys who should have been helping the football team. As I turned around, he hit me in the chest. It wasn’t real hard, but it’s one of those things where everyone is watching and your eyes well up and you’re embarrassed.
“I was on the fence, but that was the moment I decided to try out for the football team.”
Lofton also singled out Washington English teacher Mrs. De La Rosa and his Mathematics teacher Mr. Blackburn for their guidance as he became the first member of his peer group to attend college.
“James would hang with the tough crowd in the back of the classroom,” recalls Gary Cordray, Washington’s BEE football coach at the time. “When everybody was walking out, he would slip his homework in the teacher’s box. He knew what he was doing. He was funny and kept people going (trying to figure him out).”
Lofton is the first to admit he wasn’t the best player on Washington Prep’s ’73 team coach by Ron Fowlkes. The 6-1, 175-pound quarterback played with talented teammates such as center Dwight Scott, OT George Benton and DBs Freddie Warren, Jeffery Fields and Vince Bailey. According to Glenn Bievens, a teammate who graduated with Lofton in 1974 and serves as the team’s unofficial historian, Lofton gave Washington a spark by leading a come-from-behind win over Taft of Woodland Hills in its second game. Trailing 19-0, the Generals made a frantic comeback behind two tackle-eligible touchdown passes to Benton and Lofton’s two-point conversion dive to the pylon that sealed the 21-20 victory.
“I remember he ran to the pylon and the nose of the ball going over and after that we went on a winning streak, but really what James did was inspire the program when he went to Stanford,” Bievens said. “We didn’t do much in the 1960s and James was one of our first athletes to go big-time. He put us on the map and we were loaded by the late 1970s.”
Cordray feels two factors helped Lofton to excel above others who had more impressive prep careers — work ethic and speed. His work ethic turned him into a 123-pound kid who ran on the CEE track team into the 1974 CIF state champ in the long jump (24-3 1/2). His speed helped him become the oldest player ever to record a 1,000-yard receiving season in the NFL.
“When I was in high school, it was funny because I had the only 50-year old dad who was in better shape than my friends,” said Daniel Lofton, who played football at Poway and Westview of San Diego and introduced his father at the ceremony.
Lofton couldn’t thank his former teachers and coaches enough for creating his work ethic and for his development as a student-athlete, calling them “angels who looked over me.”
As a token of its appreciation for the inspiration Lofton provides Washington alumni and the generous donations he makes towards coaching stipends, the current Washington administration decided to do something special for him in return. Current coach Harry Causey presented Lofton with a replica No. 12 Washington jersey, the number he wore during his playing days.
It’s a number no other Washington Prep football player will ever wear again.
“I didn’t expect my jersey would get retired today,” Lofton said. “This is a surprise.”
Also a surprise is another “Hometown Hall of Famer” ceremony at The Prep could conceivably happen in the future.
Washington Prep is the only California high school to have more than one alumnus in the NFL Hall of Fame. RB Hugh McElhenny was the state player of the year for the 1947 season when the Generals finished 8-0. Three-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Walsh also attended the school before finishing up at Hayward.
Pro Football Hall of Famers from California high schools
(Listed in order of year inducted)
1963 – Ernie Nevers, RB (Santa Rosa)
1965 – Bob Waterfield, QB (Van Nuys)
1969 – Joe Perry, RB (Jordan, Los Angeles)
1970 – Tom Fears, WR (Manual Arts, Los Angeles)
1970 – Hugh McElhenny, RB (Washington, Los Angeles)
1971 – Norm Van Brocklin, QB (Acalanes, Lafayette)
1972 – Gino Marchetti, DE (Antioch)
1972 – Ollie Matson, RB (Washington, San Francisco)
1977 – Frank Gifford, RB (Bakersfield)
1979 – Ron Mix, OT (Hawthorne)
1985 – O.J. Simpson, RB (Galileo, San Francisco)
1985 – Pete Rozelle, Commissioner (Compton)
1987 – John Henry Johnson, RB (Pittsburg)
1990 – Bob St. Clair, OT (Poly, San Francisco)
1991 – Tex Schramm, Administrator (Alhambra)
1993 – Dan Fouts, QB (St. Ignatius, San Francisco)
1993 – Bill Walsh, Coach (L.A. Washington & Hayward)
1994 – Jimmy Johnson, DB (Kingsburg)
1995 – Joe Gibbs, Coach (Santa Fe, Santa Fe Springs)
1997 – Mike Haynes, DB (Marshall, Los Angeles)
1997 – Anthony Munoz, OT (Chaffey, Ontario)
2000 – Ronnie Lott, DB (Eisenhower, Rialto)
2001 – Lynn Swann, WR (Serra, San Mateo)
2001 – Ron Yary, OT (Bellflower)
2003 – Marcus Allen, RB (Lincoln, San Diego)
2003 – James Lofton, WR (Washington, Los Angeles)
2004 – John Elway, QB (Granada Hills)
2006 – John Madden, Coach (Jefferson, Daly City)
2006 – Warren Moon, QB (Hamilton, Los Angeles)
2007 – Bruce Matthews, OL (Arcadia)
2008 – Gary Zimmerman, OT (Walnut)
2011 – Les Richter, LB (Fresno)