Summary

Birth:
10 Oct 1942 1
Fort Worth, Texas, 1
Death:
24 Sep 1988 1
Terlingua, Texas, 1
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Full Name:
Joe Don Looney 1
Birth:
10 Oct 1942 1
Fort Worth, Texas, 1
Death:
24 Sep 1988 1
Terlingua, Texas, 1

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Stories

Looney Is Playing A New Tune

Until Joe Don Looney came home from Vietnam this summer and sold himself to the New Orleans football team, no one ever called him a saint. The No. 1 draft pick of the New York Giants in 1964, Looney left pro ball three years and four teams later. In all of football there was no bigger problem child. Yet last week Looney was back in theNFL, a respected member of the Saints' seaside training camp at California Western University in San Diego. Instead of sulking by himself, he was happy to talk, even about the past, and instead of adhering to his own private training schedule, he was all business on the field. He reported in superb condition, at 6'1" and 225 pounds, and in a swimsuit he looked like Mr. America. Even the beach boys were envious. Although he strained his right knee slightly in a scrimmage against the Chargers, he was the most impressive runner in camp. The injury is minor, and Looney's newest coach, Tom Fears, has the attitude of a man who has just found money in the street. "Looney is a helluva back," Fears says. "He has strength, quickness and ability, and his attitude is excellent. He's very coachable, very cooperative."

That is not the kind of comment coaches used to make about Looney, but for the moment, at least, the admiration is mutual. " Tom Fears is a man I can respect," Looney says, "because I can tell he believes what he says. He knows what he's doing. I really like this team. I feel close to these guys. Maybe it's because we have something in common—most of us have been dropped by other clubs. There are no cliques on the Saints. It's not one of those teams where the attitude is, 'Be a good boy for a couple of seasons and maybe we'll let you in.' "

No coach has ever doubted Looney's physical capabilities, but his mental makeup has been something else again. Looney legends abound. While with the Giants he refused to tape his ankles for practice and got a $500 fine. When the team doctor tried to persuade him to prudence, Looney said, "What do you know about football, Doc? You never played the game." Then there was the time Looney said, "I never met a man I didn't like, except Will Rogers."

Looney's father, Don, an end at TCU in the days of Davey O'Brien and later with the Eagles, started out to make his boy "the greatest gridder ever." Small for his age, Joe Don began working out on weights. He blossomed his senior year in high school, but he had troubles at Texas and TCU, the first two colleges he attended. At his next stop, Cameron Junior College in Oklahoma, he was the star of the team that won the Junior Rose Bowl championship. "Coaches aren't all bad," says Looney. "I had a coach at Cameron who was a wonderful man. I'd do anything for Leroy Montgomery. He treated us fair, and we never lost a game."

For his junior year Looney moved on to Oklahoma and Bud Wilkinson. There Looney was the third-string fullback until the fourth quarter of the first game of the season. With Oklahoma losing to Syracuse and only two minutes remaining, Looney made what was called an "impossible" 60-yard run for a touchdown to win 7-3. The Oklahomaquarterback, Monte Deere, couldn't believe what had happened. "I knew what play I was going to call as I walked to the huddle," Deere said later in the locker room, "but Looney said, 'Just give me the ball and I'll score a touchdown.' So I just gave him the ball." Looney finished the season fifth in the country in rushing and first in punting.

Pro scouts were enchanted. Here was a big, bruising back with speed. But Looney's senior year at Oklahoma was a disaster. He cut practice, he caused trouble and he earned the label of " Oklahoma's Bad Boy." After he socked a student assistant coach, he was thrown off the team. Now he recalls the incident without apparent rancor. "I don't think Wilkinson ever liked me very much," he says cheerfully. Then he adds, "I could have gained more than 1,000 yards, I could have done anything, but they wouldn't give me the ball. I guess Wilkinson had his reasons, but I was mystified by his attitude."

Allie Sherman and the Giants were hungry for Looney, but their appetite soon palled. He refused to go to meetings, he cut practice and he wouldn't talk to the press. He even refused to have breakfast with Y. A. Tittle. Out on the field, he preferred to play catch with a youngster rather than watch Tittle work with the other backs. One night when he was 10 minutes late for bed check, he deemed the $50 fine unfair because he had gone to bed an hour early the night before. "They still owe me 50 minutes," he explained. After only 28 days in camp, the Giants traded him to the Baltimore Colts. Looney now says he was happy to leave New York. "I don't like big cities, and I didn't care for Allie Sherman's attitude," he says. "The Giants really weren't very friendly. It was as though it was undignified to wear shorts in the dorm. You were expected to wear slacks."

At Baltimore Looney had respect for Coach Don ShulaShula knew what he was doing, Looney says, and he never had any problems with the coach. When Looney got to play, he looked superb. Once he popped out of his cleats slamming into the Bear line, and the crowd cheered as he ran to the sidelines carrying the shoes. Unfortunately for Looney, he had problems off the field, particularly when he became emotionally involved in the 1964 presidential election. The exact details of the incident are blurred, but Looney got into a political argument with a stranger, andBaltimore police charged him with malicious destruction of property and assault when he ripped a door from its hinges. For that fracas a judge fined Looney $150 and gave him a one-year probation. "I was awfully strong forBarry Goldwater," Looney says, "and I was furious because Lyndon Johnson had duped the country. Look what happened. Guys are dying like flies in Vietnam, a war we couldn't win if we sent 10 million men over there. It's tragic because it's such a waste. We're going to pull out of Vietnam as soon as we can, and what have we accomplished?"

Looney went to Detroit in exchange for Dennis Gaubatz. The Lion coach was Harry Gilmer, who was so enthused that he described Looney as the player who would "save the franchise for the Detroit Lions." Not long afterwardGilmer began using more picturesque language, and he finally lost patience during the 1966 season when Looney curtly refused to carry a message into the game against the Atlanta Falcons. "If you want a messenger," Looney said, "call Western Union." Gilmer took the unusual step of suspending Looney at halftime. There were other incidents, some more amusing than others. Once Looney showed up in the locker room with a mastiff pup that was loaded down with barbells and weights. Looney explained to curious teammates that he was trying to build up the dog's leg muscles. Both he and the dog ate wheat germ and sunflower seeds.

But there was real trouble one evening when Looney got into an early hours scrape with the boy friend of a carhop at a drive-in restaurant. As the police arrived on the scene, the boy friend had a knife, and Looney was attempting to break a beer bottle on a window sill to use in defense. This prompted one cynical Lion to quip, "The guy who's supposed to save the franchise can't even break a beer bottle." Another time Looney became miffed at Gilmer and refused to report for practice. Instead he sat in his room and listened to his stereo set. Gilmer asked Joe Schmidt, then the Lions' captain and now the coach, to reason with Looney. Schmidt did his best. "You've got to work hard in this league," he counseled Looney. "I've been with the club for 12 years, and I've never missed a practice."

Looney was astonished. "Joe," he said, "you should take a day off once in a while."

Looney went to Washington for a draft choice. The Redskin coach was Otto Graham, who soon decided that Looney's self-esteem exceeded his performances on the field. For his part, Looney deemed Graham both confused and incompetent. " Graham wasted our time." Looney says. "I could organize a practice better than he could. We would lose a game, and he would come in and tell us he was going to be like Lombardi. He was going to raise hell. Otto was trying to find himself, he didn't know what he wanted to do." Graham certainly knew one thing he wanted; he ordered Looney to keep his mouth closed, especially in the presence of reporters. Looney paid no attention. One day when the Redskins won a ball game, a rare event, Graham came out of his office and found Looney surrounded by reporters. Looney had had a good day, and he was pleased to talk about it at length. "Why don't you take a shower?" asked Graham.

"I've already had my shower," said Looney.

"Then take another," Graham snapped at him.

Looney's Redskin career ended in 1967 when Graham discovered Joe Don was going to play out his option. Looney was not unemployed long. His Army Reserve unit was activated, and off he went to Vietnam. Looney becomes visibly upset when Vietnam is mentioned. He spent nine months guarding an oil-tank farm in the combat zone, and he bears both physical and psychological scars from that experience. The physical scar is insignificant—he bruised a heel while diving into a bunker during a Viet Cong rocket attack—but he is irked that he was assigned sedentary duty.

Upon his return, Looney got in touch with several clubs, but only the Saints were seriously interested. "I know I'm something of a character," Looney says, "but I don't mind. I'm pretty well known—I don't have any trouble getting checks cashed. I hope to make this team. When I work, I work hard. I give 100%. When I play, I play the same way. When I blow, it all blows out."

Tom Fears says, "I hesitated for a while when he asked for a contract. On the one hand, we're getting a first draft choice without giving up anybody. On the other, the boy has a history of creating problems.

"I know the second coach thought he could handle him and so did the third and the fourth coaches. I'm not saying it won't happen here, too, but I've got confidence in the guy. He's trying like hell. I told him we'd start all over, we'd give him a new sheet. When he came to camp he didn't even introduce himself; we just got together, it was a process of osmosis. He's not a pushy kid and I like that."

Fears was influenced by Looney's military experience and, especially, his good record in Vietnam. Contrary to predictions, he wasn't shot for insubordination and he didn't trigger World War III. Presumably, he has matured somewhat and he has the responsibility of a family in his wife, Peggy, and infant daughter, Tara, who live on a 275-acre ranch in Diana, Texas.

Now 26, Looney says nothing about maturity or reform, but there are occasional hints he is changing. "I really wasn't all that bad," he says, "but maybe I was a little strange. My wife doesn't think I'm a character. She just loves me."

His new coach is aware of Looney's sense of independence. "So far about all he's said to me is yessir and nosir," says Fears, "but sometimes he gives you that funny look. He's very knowledgeable and I've got an idea he wouldn't hesitate to speak up if he thought you were wrong."

So Joe Don is a Saint—for now, at least (the prudent will note that he has not taken a vow of silence). The National Football League can hardly wait to see what happens.



Joe Don Looney, a former football star at the University of Oklahoma who was known for his eccentricities on and off the field, died Saturday in a motorcycle accident. He was 45 years old.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said Mr. Looney was thrown off his motorcycle about 8:30 A.M. after he failed to negotiate a curve on a highway about 45 miles south of here.

A muscular 230-pound running back with sprinter's speed, he helped Oklahoma win a Big Eight championship in 1962 and earn an Orange Bowl berth.

Mr. Looney played for five teams in a National Football League career that lasted four years.

He amazed his first pro coach, Allie Sherman of the New York Giants, by refusing to tape his ankles. ''I know more about my ankles than you do,'' he told the coach.

Under Coach Don Shula, Mr. Looney helped the Baltimore Colts win a Western Conference championship. But Mr. Shula said of the player: ''I was afraid to put Looney in the game to punt because I didn't know if he would punt. He might do anything.''

He eventually settled near Alpine, 80 miles from the Mexican border, living alone in a solar-heated home without electricity or telephone.

Mr. Looney is survived by his daughter, Tara Jeane Looney of Gainesville, Fla., his mother, Dorothy Looney of San Angelo, Tex., and his father, Don Looney of Houston.

Joe Don Looney's father had quite the life

Twenty years ago, Brent Clark penned Third Down & Forever, the biography of enigmatic OU football star Joe Don Looney. Looney was the star of the 1962 OU-Syracuse game, became a standout that season, then was booted from the team by the Texas game of 1963. Looney was a different personality. Not a media-inspired character like the Boz. Joe Don Looney was authentic, all the way to his death in 1988.

He also was a product of his father, Don Looney.

 

Clark said, "I always characterized that book as a father-son story."

Don Looney died Sunday at age 98, and he had quite the life himself. Looney grew up in Sulphur Springs. He played on the famed 1938 TCU team that featured legendary quarterback Davey O'Brien. Don Looney was an NFL star with the Eagles -- he posted a then-NFL record of high 58 catches, for a league-high 707 yards, in 1940 -- and was the oldest living NFL veteran. He then was a long-time NFL game official, then entered the oil business in Fort Worth, Midland and Houston. Joe Don was raised in Fort Worth.

Don Looney was a 65-year member of the Julian Field Masonic Lodge, a Shriner, a member of the Royal Order of the Jester and a lifelong Republican from the Free State of Winston County, the only Alabama county that did not secede from the Union.

But Looney had his issues as a father.

"The scene that comes to mind after the '62 game against Syracuse, Joe Don was the center of attention, over at the Wash House where he lived," Clark said. "Don really wasn't too attentive to Joe Don, he was busy telling stories about his playing days.

"The good news is that they did get close at the end. One of the last scenes in the book, Don is building a home out at Alpine, where Joe Don lived. Had a screened-in porch. He told Joe Don, 'Not just anybody can come out here except you and me.'"

       

SPORTS The Kamikaze Quest of Joe Don Looney Who do you get when you cross Gandhi and Mean Joe Green?

IT’S PECULIAR HOW SO MANY FAmous ball players say that the significant memory of their career was the bitter setback, the heartbreaking loss.

That being the case, everybody who played on my high school football team surely has a well-supplied storehouse of vivid recollections, because all we did was lose. Actually, our group was better suited as an AA chapter than a football team, but that’s another story.

Opposing coaches all said the ’59 Arlington Heights team had the best talent in Fort Worth and the silly old Fort Worth Press picked us to “vie for district and state honors.”

What a knee slapper.

Week after week, the Fighting Yellow Jackets played well beneath their potential. At the end of the season, though, in a big game against hated rival Paschal, Heights was leading 12-6 late in the fourth quarter.

Heights, just this once, was playing its guts out. Then a Paschal halfback with the standard-issue Fort Worth name of Joe Don Looney ran thirty-five yards for a touchdown and the Purple geeks beat Heights, 14-12. You can look it up.

No player on either team will forget the game and Joe Don’s run. I was thinking about it twenty-nine years later after noticing in the Saturday sports section that Heights had beaten Paschal. Buoyed by a red wine hangover, I actually called the coach, Merlin Priddy, an old pal, to congratulate him. Strangely, at that precise moment, the Saturday morning of September 24, 1988, Joe Don Looney was down in the Big Bend country, lying dead in a ditch.



THE FIRST ARTICLE I WROTE FOR D Magazine appeared nine years ago last month. Entitled “The Looney Legend,” it was accompanied by this cover line: “Whatever Happened To Joe Don Looney? Just About Everything.”

The story hit the very high and very low spots of Joe Don’s remarkable life up to that point. I was fairly familiar with the facts, having become friends with the guy in his one-semester tenure at UT. The gist of the piece was “football hero by day, Fort Worth sociopath by night.”

Looney, who was sort of a white Herschel Walker, had incomparable athletic ability. He wanted to become a heavyweight boxer, but Fate had other plans. In 1962, he found himself on the bench of the OU football team.

Five minutes to play. OU losing to Syracuse, 3-0. Looney approaches the legendary coach, Bud Wilkinson, and says, “If you want to win the game, you’d better get me in there.”

Wilkinson, unaccustomed to cheeky upstarts, did not know how to respond. So Looney puts himself in the game. He tells the quarterback to “gimme the ball” and bolts for a sixty-three-yard touchdown. Oklahoma wins, 7-3. You can look that up, too. The Looney legend was born.

With Joe Don ripping off TD runs like that all season long and leading the NCAA in punting, OU went to the Orange Bowl to play Alabama. President John Kennedy was in Miami and visited the locker rooms of both teams before the game to wish them well. The OU players had difficulty hearing President Kennedy’s remarks because Joe Don, who had been poisoned by Cold Duck the night before, was back in the john, bellowing with the dry heaves.

Coach Wilkinson made a mental note at that point that Joe Don was not a young man to be trusted. He kicked Looney off the team the following year after a loss to Texas ruined OU’s season. Interestingly, prior to the Texas debacle, Joe Don had whipped an Oklahoma assistant coach in practice. Apparently Wilkinson saw a connection. “Politics,” Looney said.

The fact that Looney had the temerity to bash a coach simply served to arouse the juices of the pro scouts. In 1964 Looney was a first-round draft choice of the New York Giants, but his unconventional approach to team sports left a series of coaches appalled. Looney was traded four times in three seasons.

After Joe Don had been bounced to the Detroit Lions, Harry Gilmer, the Lions* coach, instructed Looney to go into the game and tell the quarterback to try a screen pass.

“Hell, Harry,” said Looney, “if you want a messenger boy, call Western Union.” Joe Don went back and located a comfortable spot on the bench. The following Monday, he was traded to the Washington Redskins.

The Looney Legend took on made-fur-TV-movie potential in 1967 when, by a strange set of circumstances, Looney found himself in Vietnam. A person that he contended was a “madman” had activated the reserve unit Looney had joined to avoid the draft. Before leaving for Nam, Looney, on behalf of every soldier overseas, filed a class action suit against President Lyndon Johnson.

But Looney, once overseas, finally discovered happiness. Vietnam, to him, was a welcome vacation from pro football. The experience put him in close company with his genuine passion-automatic weapons.

Looney went through some peculiar changes after that. He would spend five years living on a boat in Hong Kong and Singapore, practicing yoga and embarking on a quest for some divine ultimate force suspended in the cosmos. He would fast for forty-three days and lose more than a hundred pounds. Even his closest friends regarded this as rather odd behavior.

He returned to the U.S. just long enough to be arrested by government cops at an East Texas farmhouse that his father owned. They were there to capture Joe Don’s house guest, an evil cocaine importer who was charged with complicity in a plot to murder a federal judge. Looney was charged with illegal possession of an unregistered machine gun, but was not implicated in the plot to assassinate the judge.

Eventually, Looney was assessed a probated sentence. When the Darticle about Joe Don came out in 1980, he had last been seen living in an ashram in India, tending elephants for his swami. He had finally found peace.



It was surprising to pick up the phone one afternoon in 1983 and hear Looney’s voice. I hadn’t seen him or spoken to him in more than eight years.

He told me that the swami had died. So after chanting beside a burial pyre in New Delhi for thirty days, Looney was back in East Texas, living on the same farm where the feds had staged their raid.

“I’m coming into town for the game this weekend. You wanna go?” he said.

1 assumed Looney was talking about the Cowboys-Redskins game. I told him it was a sellout and I couldn’t get tickets.

“Ah, hell. We can get tickets. The game’s at Clark Field. There’ll be plenty of seats.”

Clark Field? That’s a high school stadium in Fort Worth. I feared that Looney had lost his mind for sure, until 1 figured out that he was talking about a playoff game involving his latest compulsion, Daingerfield High.

We went over to the game and sure enough, Daingerfield beat the continental bejeezus out of the Post Antelopes from West Texas. Looney jumped up and down and carried on like some Little League parent.

Daingerfield beat Post 46-0 that night. You can look it up.

Looney stayed at my house about two months later, preferring to sleep on a hard- wood floor rather than a bed. He advocated a whole grain diet and weekly enemas.

He was in town for a big gun show at the Convention Center. He was street legal in the gun trade now, having purchased his Federal Firearms License, and it was his intention to become a wholesaler.

According to the swami’s prophesies, the i worldwide economic structure would collapse in the mid-1990s, followed by the appearance of the Antichrist. Joe Don could foresee the day arriving soon when the guns would be used as currency. He wanted to establish a savings account before the bottom dropped out of the cash economy.

It was Joe Don’s ambition to move to Big Bend, buy some land, and build a dome with solar panels and grow fruit and vegetables. The idea was total self-sufficiency.

The next time I saw Joe Don, it was last September and he was lying in an open casket in a funeral home way out in Alpine. He had died when his motorcycle left the road on a hairpin curve near Study Butte, Texas, on the outskirts of nowhere.

He had been en route to meet a friend for a rafting excursion on the Rio Grande. When Joe Don failed to show up, the friend located a constable and they backtracked until his body was located by the roadside. His friends out there, and he had quite a few, said that it wasn’t like Joe Don to lose control on a curve tike that. For all his excesses, Looney was extra careful when it came to riding his bike.

The little funeral home was packed with some of the unusual assortment of friends that Looney had picked up along the way. After the service, which consisted mostly of some fellow playing “Stardust” on a piano, several of us drove out to Looney’s house about fourteen mites from Alpine. It was all there. The splendid dome, overlooking a spectacular outcropping known as Cathedral Mountain. The solar panels and windmills were in perfect working order, along with an elaborate irrigation system for a thriving vegetable and fruit orchard.

Everyone stood out on the porch and consumed huge quantities of beer. We told outrageous Looney stories while, back in Alpine, Joe Don’s remains were cremated.

Joe Don now lives in an urn at his mother’shouse in San Angelo. I understand that sheprays to his ashes every day.

 

The Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas) 26 Sep 1988, Mon • Page 13

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