This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
Joe Don Looney was on his best behavior for the Oklahoma-Kansas State game on October 27, 1962 contributing two touchdowns in the Sooners’ 47-0 rout blowout of the Wildcats and not causing his usual quota of trouble.
Steve Sobol of NFL Films once was asked to name “the most uncoachable player” he had ever seen in professional football. Without the slightest hesitation, he answered, “Joe Don Looney” – the oddball the Saturday Evening Post called “the marvelous misfit.”
Don Looney was a stand-out on the Texas Christian teams of the 1930’s and a better-than-average receiver during his three years in the National Football League. When his playing days were over, grooming his son for gridiron greatness became Looney’s mission in life.
But Joe Don bloomed too late for high-school stardom leaving college recruiters interested only in his blazing speed. He went to the University of Texas on a track scholarship but dropped out after failing four of five courses in his first semester. A subsequent stopover at TCU, his father’s alma mater, proved to be even briefer.
A 230-pound running back with a Mr. America physique should have had plenty of admirers, yet only Cameron Junior College was willing to give Joe Don a chance. He played his heart out for Leroy Montgomery, the one coach he ever liked, and led the small Oklahoma school to the JC championship.
In his 15 seasons as head coach at the University of Oklahoma, Bud Wilkinson’s teams had won three national titles and an unsurpassed 47 straight contests. A strict disciplinarian confident in his ability to whip any “bad boy” into shape, Wilkinson never accepted a junior-college transfer. But in Joe Don’s case, he was willing to make an exception.
Looney spent the first 56 minutes of the OU season-opener sitting on the bench. With time running out and the Sooners trailing Syracuse by three points, he told Wilkinson to put him in if he wanted to win the game. On just his second carry, Joe Don sealed the dramatic last-gasp victory with a long touchdown run.
Nineteen sixty-two was the year Looney made his father’s All-American dream come true. He led OU in rushing and scoring and the nation in punting enabling the Sooners to post an 8-3 record and a Top Ten ranking.
Behind the scenes, however, Joe Don drove the coaching staff and most teammates nuts. He walked around the athletic dormitory in the nude and terrorized coeds with the severed finger of a cadaver. As a last resort, Wilkinson talked him into seeing a psychiatrist, but it had no effect on his bizarre behavior.
Three acts into the 1963 season, Joe Don was history. Convinced the disruptive All-American was more trouble than he was worth, Wilkinson used Looney’s physical confrontation with a graduate assistant as an excuse to kick him off the team.
The college exile was rewarded with a $40,000 contract by the New York Giants, who picked him in the first round of the NFL draft. Their high hopes for the prized prospect were dashed in less than a month, as Looney piled up more fines for violating team rules than the rest of the Giants had in three years.
Baltimore was the next stop simply because the Colts needed a punter. But head coach Don Shula was so worried “he might do anything” that he refused to risk Joe Don kicking until halfway through the schedule.
The next year, the incorrigible outcast was welcomed with open arms to the Detroit Lions by Henry Gilmer, who declared Joe Don was the player to “save the franchise.” The patient coach tolerated the eccentricities of the “savior” until the day he politely asked Looney to carry a play to the huddle. It was the last straw for Gilmer when Joe Don snapped, “If you want a messenger boy, call Western Union.”
The Lions eventually traded Looney to the Redskins, where he publicly criticized the coaching of Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham. Not long after the Redskins cut him loose, Joe Don’s army reserve unit was called up for a yearlong tour in Vietnam.
When Looney came back from Southeast Asia, the New Orleans Saints was the only team that returned his phone call. He toted the ball three times for a net loss of three yards and hung up his helmet for good.
To fill the void left in his life, Looney turned to Hinduism supposedly at the suggestion of his father. He evolved into a devout follower of a so-called “swami” whom he served, according to at least one account, as a bodyguard and enforcer.
In September 1988, Joe Don was 45, divorced and living all alone in a solar-heated hut without electricity near Alpine. On an early-morning ride north of Big Bend, he missed a curve, flew off his motorcycle and sustained lethal injuries.
If Joe Don Looney could have chosen his own epitaph, it might have been this memorable response to an NFL coach who wanted to know why he skipped practice: “If practice makes perfect and perfection is impossible, why practice?”
Visit Bartee’s new web site barteehaile.com every day to find out what happened in Texas history on that date. And while you’re there, do a little shopping at the General Store.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.Email | Print