Jim Nance was born on December 30, 1942 in Indiana, Pennsylvania. In high school, he was a two time Pennsylvania heavyweight champion in 1960 and 1961. 

He starred at Syracuse University as a football player and an All American wrestler. He tied the school record for career touchdowns (13) and led the Orange (then the Orangemen) in rushing in 1964, scoring in ten straight games. He was also two time NCAA heavyweight wrestling champ and lost only one match in 92 in three varsity wrestling seasons. 

He was drafted in both the AFL Patriots in the 19th round with the 6th pick of the 1965 AFL Draft, and selected by the Chicago Bears of the NFL in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. He chose to play with the Patriots and led the AFL in rushing the next two seasons. He went on to become the only AFL player ever to rush for more than 1,400 yards in a season.

He for the Patriots for seven seasons, appearing in 94 games from 1965-1971. His 45 rushing touchdowns was a franchise record, while his 5,323 rushing yards place second in team history. He was considered to be one of the top power runner in pro football and was the American Football League's Most Valuable Player in 1966, leading the league with 1,458 rushing yards - the highest single-season total in the AFL's 10-year history and a mark that stood as a Patriots record for 20 years. His 104.1 rushing yards per game in 1966 remains a Patriots record.

He was the AFL's leading rusher again in 1967, totaling 1,216 yards.  When his career came to an end in the NFL, he had 1341 carries for 5401 yards and 45 rushing touchdowns. He was also a devastating blocker and added 133 catches for another 870 yards and a touchdown.

On October 30, 1966 against the Oakland Raiders, he had a banner day and set an AFL record with 38 carries and finished the game with 208 yards rushing and two touchdowns as the Patriots beat the Raiders 24-21.

The 1967 season was more of the same for him. He finished the season with a flurry, gaining 164 yards in 24 carries against Miami. He ran for 1216 yards, averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns on his way to his second AFL All-Star Game. In 1969 he won league's Comeback of the Year Award as runner-up for league's rushing crown. This strong performance followed ankle surgery after injury-plagued 1968 campaign.

In 1972, he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles but refused to play for them, temporarily retiring. He joined the New York Jets the following year.

In 1974, he played with the Houston Texans/Shreveport Steamer of the World Football League, rushing for 1,240 yards. In 1975, he ran for 767 yards before the WFL folded. He is the all-time leading rusher in the WFL with 490 carries for 2,007 yards and a 4.1 average. He rushed for 15 touchdowns in his WFL career.

Jim Nance suffered a heart attack and stroke in 1983, and died of another heart attack on June 17, 1992 at age 49, in Quincy, Mass. He was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2009.