Fast lane to the NFL – Carolina Panther’s Fred Lane from Lane College, Tennessee

Conventional wisdom will have you believe that players from small
colleges can’t make it at the professional level because they didn’t
play against a level of competition that adequately prepared them for
the pros — as did the football players at top-rated programs like
Florida State, Michigan, and Nebraska.

Based on that premise, the fact that Fred Lane is playing pro ball
at all might be considered a miracle, much less being considered an
up-and-coming running back for the Carolina Panthers.

The twenty-two-year-old rookie played at Lane College in Tennessee,
which is hardly considered a heavyweight in the college football
universe. Yet with the NFL’s regular season winding down, Lane — the
first player from his school to make an NFL team — has established
himself as a legitimate performer.

“He’s gonna be real good,”‘ says Ed Hardin, a North Carolina-based
sportswriter who covers the NFL. “Yeah, he still has things to learn,
but he’s young and he’ll get bigger.

“He’s a good fit for what the Panthers like to do offensively,”
adds Hardin. “He runs well and gets the job done. I think he’s gonna be
around for awhile.”

Richard Lawson, who was Lane College’s offensive coordinator during
Lane’s senior year, isn’t a bit surprised that the rookie is making
people around the NFL sit up and take notice.

“The biggest concern I had about Fred was whether or not he would
get a legitimate chance to show what he could do,” explains Lawson. “A
lot of times players from small schools don’t get that chance because
coaches and scouts look at the level of competition they played against
in college and say they don’t have the talent to make it at that level.

“But the main thing about Fred is that he has the talent, and most
of all, he has the desire,” he adds. “Coming from a small school, he’s
humble enough and hungry enough to be as good as he wants. He can get
to a Barry Sanders level. It’s all up to him. He’s strong enough and
fast enough. All he ever needed was an opportunity.”

Seizing the Moment

In early November, Lane caught the nation’s eye unexpectedly with a
breathtaking, breakthrough game as Carolina dusted the Oakland Raiders
38-14. He ran for 147 yards and three touchdowns, in the process, he
set a Panthers single-game record for yards gained and touchdowns
scored. As a reward for that performance, Lane was named the NFL’s
Player of the Week.

But what was especially noteworthy about that game is that Lane,
who signed with the Panthers as a free agent, wasn’t in the starting
lineup. Up until that time, he was the team’s third-string running
back. However, starting tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka left the game in
the first quarter after suffering a rib injury. And the week leading up
to the Oakland game, Anthony Johnson, Biakabutuka’s backup, had been
switched to playing primarily on third downs.

Lane seized the moment for all it was worth. He either outran
defenders or ran over them. And when he scored, he put together some
pre-arranged end zone choreography which featured an assortment of
touchdown dances. It wasn’t long before Lane had single-handedly put
everybody in Ericsson Stadium in a dancing mood. By game’s end, the
previously unknown rookie was no longer a secret.

“I wasn’t surprised.” says Lane about his performance against the
Raiders. “It’s not like I’ve never done that before. Things that day
just started going on a roll and I just kept going with it. That game
took me back to my days at Lane.

“As for the dancing,” he continues, “that’s something I did more of
in high school than college. But against Oakland, I just had that
feeling. I felt like a kid in a candy store.

The way Lane sees it, the game is very basic. There are no secrets
to keep or magic formulas to discover. You go out, play hard, and
everything else falls into place.

“If you can play, you can play,” Lane says. “Football is football.
For me, that means doing what comes naturally — hitting the holes,
making the right decisions and breaking tackles.

Getting the Credentials

Lane has always had the goods to excel as a running back. At
Franklin (Tenn.) High School, he was an All-State player. District
Player of the Year, and Class AAA Player of the Year. He ran for 1,000
or more yards for three seasons in a row.

With those credentials, the college scouts were very aware of his
skills. But they stayed away when he didn’t meet the NCAA academic
requirements for incoming freshmen athletes. So he opted to go to Lane
College, a Division II school, which is named after Bishop Isaac Lane
(no relation).

At college, he sat out his first year so he could improve his
grades. He kept pace academically, majoring in Interdisciplinary
Studies and acquiring a 2.5 grade-point average. And even though he
didn’t play as a freshman, Lane kept working to prepare himself for the
day he would be academically eligible to play for the Dragons.

“Fred has always had a tremendous work ethic,” says J.L. Perry,
Lane College’s athletics director. “That year he was redshirted as a
freshman, he was always in the weight room or doing some running. He
has always worked out constantly . . . in-season and out-of-season.
There’s a guy who really worked at it, someone who set a goal and
achieved it.”

Once Lane put on the uniform for the Dragons, it was full speed
ahead — literally. By the end of his senior year. Lane had earned a
sterling reputation as one of the nation’s elite. For his college
career he had 4,433 yards and 41 touchdowns.

Lane’s senior year wasn’t as productive as he would have liked.
After two seasons of rushing for nearly 3,600 yards, he had just 821
yards and eight touchdowns in eight games. The decline in his yardage
and scoring could be partially attributed to the fact that opponents
were stacking their defenses specifically to stop him. But the critical
factor was a season-long injury that turned out to be worse than
originally thought.

During pre-season practice, Lane suffered what was later diagnosed
as a torn lateral meniscus in his knee. He played despite the injury
and had corrective surgery at the end of the season.

Because of the fallout from an injury, Lane was not drafted. But he
eventually got a tryout with the Panthers as a free agent. In preseason
drills, he got the chance to strut his stuff when he had several long
runs during scrimmages. But as a free agent, he was never sure he would
still be on the team until the final cuts were made prior to the start
of the season.

“I never got comfortable about where I stood, because you just
never know what’s going to happen,” Lane says. “So I just kept on
working and doing my best. I really didn’t feel comfortable until after
the last cuts were made.

The game of football has a family link for Lane, whose dad. “Big
Fred.” was a star running back at Tennessee State in the 1970s. The
senior Lane has been a high school and middle school coach in Tennessee
for twenty-five years.

Lane credits his father with helping him keep things in perspective.

“He’s always giving me lots of advice about what I’m doing,” Fred
Jr. says, “And he makes a habit of always keeping things positive. But
the key thing is that he always tells me he loves me and that he’s
proud of me.

Coming from an obscure background hasn’t slowed Lane down at all.
Fact is, he feels that his background gives him plenty of motivation to
make the most of his abilities.

“It’s all a matter of continuing to work hard,” he explains. “And I
give thanks to the Man Above, the one who gave me these skills, he says
“When you combine hard work and giving thanks, you’re ready whenever
your chance comes around,” he adds. “And when it does, you take full
advantage of that opportunity.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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