He was born in Austin, Texas and raised by Ella Lane, a woman who found him abandoned as an infant. After graduation from high school, he spent one year at Scottsbluff Junior College, Nebraska, before dropping out and serving four years in the United States Army.
In 1952, the 24-year-old Lane showed up at the Los Angeles Ramstraining camp looking for a job because he disliked his occupation at an aircraft factory. He was originally trying out for wide receiver, but the Rams switched him to defensive back. It is commonly circulated that he acquired the nickname "Night Stick" from a hit record by Jimmy Forrest (A #1 R&B hit for 7 weeks in 1952) frequently played by teammate Tom Fears, but this is actually a complete misconception as Lane had gotten the nickname after taking the night trains to away games because of his fear of flying. He initially disliked the nickname, but it grew on him after it gained national attention, first appearing in print describing a tackle in a Rams exhibition game: Dick "Night Train" Lane derails Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice. He wore number 81, unusual for a defensive back, because he was initially projected as a tight end. The receivers playing in front of him on the Rams, Fears and Elroy Hirsch, were stars and future Hall of Famers, so coach Joe Stydahar tried Lane at defensive back.
In his rookie season he set an NFL single season record for interceptions with 14, which stands to this day even though the length of the season at the time was only 12 games. (It was expanded to 14 games in 1961 and 16 in 1978). He was traded to the Chicago Cardinals in 1954 and to the Detroit Lions in 1960. He played six seasons in Detroit (1960–65) and recorded 21 interceptions for 272 yards and one touchdown. He was All-NFL four times (1960–63) and was named to the Pro Bowl three times (1961–63).
All told, from 1954 to 1963, Lane made the All-Pro team six times and was also selected to seven Pro Bowls. He recorded three interceptions in all but four of his 14 NFL seasons.
He was particularly noted as a hard hitter, who liked to tackle opponents about the head and neck, which was then a legal technique. This tackle was sometimes called a Night Train Necktie.
In 1969, Lane was named the best cornerback of the first fifty years of professional football, then enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974. In his 14 NFL seasons, Lane recorded 68 interceptions, 1,207 interception return yards, five touchdowns, 11 fumble recoveries, 57 fumble return yards, one touchdown, eight receptions, 253 receiving yards, one touchdown reception, and four punt returns for 14 yards.
In 1999, he was ranked number 19 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, making him the highest-ranked defensive back, the Cardinals' highest-ranked player and the Lions' second highest-ranked player after Barry Sanders. He also placed number 2 on NFL Network's "Top 10 Greatest Undrafted Players".
He was married three times, one of which was to jazz singer Dinah Washington, and was the last of her seven husbands at the time of her death on December 14, 1963. Lane is survived by two sons, Richard Andrew Walker of Detroit and Richard Ladimir Lane of St. Louis. Lane also allegedly had a third son named Larry Lane.
Lane died of a heart attack on January 29, 2002. He had spent his last two years in an assisted living facility due to reduced mobility from diabetes and bad knees.