It may be unimaginable to today’s younger football fan, but there really was a day when players did their talking with their performance on the field, not by flapping their gums off it.
On September 17, 1967, Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr lined up against the Detroit Lions. It was Week 1. Starr, who’d built a career by decimating opposing defenses with pinpoint, tactical passing, looked to his right and his eyes danced.
Starr saw a rookie cornerback, who was on the field for his first NFL play. No doubt the butterflies in the young player’s stomach were the size of eagles. This was the NFL. This was Bart Starr, two-time league champion.
Starr, like any veteran quarterback worth his salt, was eager to give the rookie corner his “welcome to the NFL” moment.
Starr called for a pass in the rookie corner’s direction, right off the bat, on first and ten.
Moments later, that rookie was racing into the end zone with what they call today, a “pick six.”
Lem Barney jumped the route and, falling to the ground, he intercepted Starr’s pass. Barney then rolled back onto his feet and rambled 24 yards to paydirt.
Starr gave Barney his “welcome to the NFL” moment, alright—just not in the way the veteran QB envisioned.
Barney wore no. 20, and it wasn’t until another no. 20, Barry Sanders, some 22 years later, that we saw, in his first-ever play, what a Hall of Fame career would look like.
Barney had his pick six; Barry had a dazzling 18-yard run in his first carry against the Phoenix Cardinals, which electrified the Silverdome in 1989.
Lem Barney, with that first pass thrown in his direction, arrived.
Barney led the NFL with 10 interceptions in his rookie year. Those 10 picks covered 232 yards in returns, and three times he scored touchdowns.
Whenever I hear about the greatness of Deion Sanders, I can only smirk and shake my head.
Barney was Deion before Deion was out of diapers. Sanders was 39 days old when Lem Barney intercepted Bart Starr and took it to the house at Lambeau Field.
For all the talk of Deion Sanders’ electricity as a quote-unquote shutdown corner and kick returner, don’t people know that Barney was doing that during the Johnson administration?
Barney was one of the best punt returners in NFL history. He was one of the best cornerbacks. Throwing his way was done at the quarterback’s own risk.
Combining the yards Barney amassed in interception and kick returns, the total is over 3,600. He scored 10 touchdowns doing all that.
It was sportswriter Joe Falls who wrote that “Lem Barney is like the National Anthem. He makes people stand up.”
Deion Sanders was a marvelous football player. But he wasn’t the first one to do what he was aggrandized for doing.
The first one was Lem Barney.
I invoke Barney because, unlike Deion Sanders and the players in today’s NFL, including a certain Lion that we will get to, Lem didn’t flap his gums.
Barney didn’t remind us of how good he was, how much better he was going to be, and that opposing quarterbacks ought to shake in their cleats whenever they even glance in his direction.
Barney did his talking on Sundays, on the gridiron. Not before, not after.
The Lions still haven’t found their next Lem Barney in the secondary, and Lem has been retired for almost 40 years.
Some decent cornerbacks have come and gone with the Lions, but none have been as feared as Lem Barney was between 1967-77.
And then we have Darius Slay.
Slay is a fine player. He is, in his third year with the Lions and in the NFL, on the verge of having a so-called breakout year.
But he had a lousy rookie year and a better sophomore year. That’s it, so far.
Slay likes to talk. He fits right in with today’s NFL player in that respect.
Slay has developed a finger wag, a la basketball star Dikembe Mutombo after a blocked shot. It’s a cocky gesture, used whenever Slay successfully defends a pass.
I don’t believe Slay has a gesture for when he gets burned.
Slay is good but he’s not great. Not yet. Maybe not ever. We’ll see.
Lem Barney intercepted 56 passes in his career. Slay has three picks.
Yet Slay talks. And talks. And talks.
This week he’s been baiting Peyton Manning.
The Lions face the Hall of Fame-bound Manning on Sunday night at what is sure to be a raucous Ford Field, at least at the opening kickoff. We’ll see how loud the crowd is as the game goes on.
A lot of that will depend on how Manning is able to perform against the Lions secondary.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2004, a much younger Manning, playing for the Indianapolis Colts, shredded the Lions to the tune of six touchdown passes, connecting on 23 of 28 aerials. Had he not been pulled in the fourth quarter of the 41-9 victory, Manning might have thrown for eight or nine touchdowns.
Manning doesn’t have that kind of game in him anymore, at his advanced age. His Broncos are 2-0 but Manning isn’t really the reason; it’s been the Denver defense. In fact, Manning has looked downright pedestrian so far.
So Slay is flapping his gums about Manning.
“It’s going to be my first time ever playing him, so I’m letting you know now, if I get a pick from him, he gotta sign that,” a smiling Slay told the media the other day. “He gotta sign that. I gotta have that. Signature, right then, on the spot. I’m going to have the pen in my pocket. I’m going to his sideline if I do it, like, hey, holler at me.”
Slay was trying, in his own way, to pay homage to Manning. But as usual, the talk was about Slay, really.
Before Week 1, Slay had some words for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
“As long as he don’t talk sideways to me, we’ll be OK,” Slay said. “He’s going to go about his business, I’m going to go about my business. If he’s going to try me with some of that humbug stuff, I’ve got something for him. Don’t play with me. I’m a grown man.”
Slay did intercept Rivers that Sunday—in the end zone, no less. It closed the first half on a high note for the Lions but Slay’s team couldn’t do a thing in the second half, wilting in the San Diego heat and humidity.
In August, Slay came up with a nickname—for himself.
“I can cover anybody on this planet,” Slay said. “I am The Earth. Call me The Earth.”
That moniker hasn’t caught on yet.
But this isn’t a Darius Slay thing—it’s just the way of today’s NFL.
Trash talk makes headlines. And what the NFL likes more than anything, is to be talked about, year round. Even if the talk isn’t always positive. The league loves to be above the fold.
The NFL has legislated a lot out of its game, but they’ll never legislate diarrhea of the mouth.
For full disclosure, when Lem Barney played, media coverage of the NFL was reduced to regional telecasts on Sundays and a couple of beat writers from the local papers, plus the radio people.
That was it.
No sports talk radio. No Internet.
So even if the players of those days wanted to trash talk, there weren’t a lot of people willing to listen.
Still, Lem Barney and players of his ilk weren’t all that interested in providing bulletin board material to the enemy.
Barney didn’t bait Bart Starr prior to Week 1 of the 1967 season. Going up against Starr, Vince Lombardi and the great Packers was going to be tough enough without adding to it.
We’ll see if Darius Slay lives up to his billing—much of which is his own.
Slay has actually put more pressure on himself with his verbosity. The more you open your mouth, the more opponents want to stuff a football in it.
Slay seems to be perfectly OK with putting a bull’s eye on his own back.
But he hasn’t really done anything in the NFL yet.
Not that that matters anymore.