(with NFL training camps in full swing, and the Lions celebrating their 75th anniversary, OOB will profile various Lions coaches and players throughout history every Friday between now and the regular season opener)
If there was ever a football player — or a person, period — whose surname fit its owner, it was Joe Don Looney.
Looney was a remarkable talent — a big, tough running back from the University of Oklahoma. He was thought of so highly that he was drafted in the first round by the New York Giants in 1964, who were just months removed from appearing in the NFL Championship game against Chicago.
There was no questioning Looney’s skill. There was, however, plenty of room to do so when it came to his sanity. At Oklahoma, in fact, coach Bud Wilkinson kicked Looney off the team for punching a graduate assistant coach. Still, the Giants snatched Looney off the board with the 12th overall pick in ’64.
Looney as a Sooner
Looney proved himself to be incorrigible with the Giants, who got rid of him less than a month after drafting him. He was traded to the Colts before the ’64 season. He lasted long enough to carry the ball just 23 times for Baltimore. Coach Don Shula, who had ties to the Lions from his days as a Detroit assistant in the early-1960s, somehow convinced the Lions to take Looney off his hands in time for the 1965 season.
Looney lasted longer with the Lions than any pro team he played for. In fact, he had some decent numbers in Detroit in ’65, rushing for 356 yards. But eventually Looney’s lunacy reared its head in the Motor City.
Perhaps the most famous incident was one that would seem to be apocryphal, except that it actually happened. Coach Harry Gilmer asked Looney to send in a play during a game, to which the RB replied, “Coach, if you want a messenger, send for Western Union.”
On another occasion, veteran LB Joe Schmidt was once dispatched to Looney’s room during training camp, to convince him to show up for practice. Looney had decided that he wasn’t in the mood, apparently.
Schmidt entered Looney’s room to find the enigmatic running back relaxing, strumming a guitar. Fighting the urge to throttle Looney, Schmidt calmly sat down and tried to explain why it was important that Looney attend practice. Schmidt had a plan: he decided to regale Looney with Schmidt’s near-perfect attendance record when it came to practice.
“Joe, I haven’t missed a practice in 12 years,” Schmidt told Looney.
Looney looked at Schmidt, put his guitar down, leaned in and said, “Well then, I’d say you’re due for a day off, Joe!”
So much for that.
When Looney cared to be, he was a serviceable running back who could block and catch the ball out of the backfield. He just didn’t always care to be; in fact, he rarely did. He didn’t particularly like football, for starters. He would tell folks that he found it unnecessarily violent and, for lack of a better word, useless.
So it wasnt surprising that, after he “retired” from football after a stint with the Saints in 1969, Looney moved himself to India and began working with elephants — training them and, to others’ curiosity and fear, befriending them. Looney said he liked elephants more than people. Eventually, Looney converted to Hinduism and joined the Siddha Yoga movement led by Swami Muktananda. A fellow convert once alleged that Looney was one of Muktananda’s “enforcers” who intimidated people into obeying him.
Looney, though, was maybe destined to die a violent death — ironic because of his dislike for the violence of pro football. In September 1988, at the age of 45, Joe Don Looney died when his motorcycle veered off a road and crashed into a fence, in Texas.
There have been quite a few characters who’ve worn the Honolulu Blue and Silver, but it’s doubtful that any were “loonier” than Joe Don Looney.
(some facts were taken from Looney’s bio at Wikipedia, which you can read HERE)