Green: Credit Lions’ Looney for ‘Super’ streak

Jerry Green
The Detroit News
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San Francisco — It is all because of Joe Don Looney.

It is now 50 years of battling media warriors using heavy-metal video cameras as weapons, of getting jabbed with elbows and getting stepped on and hearing inane questions and asking some dumb ones myself.

It is a half century of survival. A half century of the thrills of pulling off a rare competitively exclusive interview and turning the words into prose. A half century of racing toward deadlines and mingling with preening athletes and short sleep and over-glamorized parties.

And I owe this all to Joe Don Looney.

And well — the truth. I thrive in the Super Bowl scene.

I love that I am at Super Bowl 50 between the Broncos and Panthers as a working sports journalist for The News. There are a mere two old-fashioned, crotchety newspaper sports writers who have survived the half-century Super Bowl scrambling to fight again this week — Jerry Izenberg from Newark and Old Killjoy here.

The prelude and the nuttiness has started, and nobody knows what urgent stories will pop up. The bruises and insults won’t matter, but an archive of precious memories with be enlarged with a new — and special — chapter.

It is required that all stories must have a start — and this one started on one of our lovely, peaceful Michigan June nights when darkness arrives late.

Getting the call

The telephone rang at home.

“You got to come in,” said the caller from the office downtown.

“What? I’m on vacation,” I protested.

“You got to come in anyway, the two leagues just merged, they’re going to play each other in a championship game,” the guy said. “You got to write the stories. Now you know what it’s like being the pro football writer!”

I was a rookie in 1966, and I had inherited the Lions and pro football beats a few months earlier. Actually, I had covered the Lions last two road games of 1965 on a backup basis, flying on the team’s charter plane to San Francisco and Philadelphia.

It seems there had been some trouble on the flights.

Joe Don Looney, a halfback with the proclivity of running smash into a mass of tacklers rather than into open spaces, was highly popular with the public. Not so much with the Lions coaches and not at all with the sports writers charged with the newspaper coverage.

Looney — so ideally named — had a habit of threatening the journalists physically on the aircraft charters home from road games. His nocturnal frolics and frequent fights and rather odd other antics had been reported as headline news. And Joe Don did not much care for his publicity.

So he turned the sports writers into targets with menacing threats.

“You ever feel hurt, boy?” Looney said to one of the writers one Sunday night on the Lions’ homeward-bound charter.

That was it. The Detroit papers opted to change beat writers.

And I got the job of being Looney’s potential next target.

Merger sparks history

Thus, there I was on vacation, gearing up for my first Lions’ training camp in July of 1966 when the phone rang.

The warring National Football League, the establishment, and the American Football League, upstart wannabes, had agreed to merge after six years of expensive bidding for athletes. Prime players such as Joe Namath and Nick Eddy.

The agreement was reached in a secret meeting between Tex Schramm of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and Lamar Hunt of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. As the folktale goes, the merger meeting took place in a car in the parking lot at Love Field in Dallas.

The result would be a match between the champions of the two leagues the following January — 1967 — the First Annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game.

History continues to refer the blessed even as Super Bowl I.

And I continue to be a Super Bowl survivor. A survivor of 49 previous Super Bowls, all labeled with Roman numerals.

All because of the late Joe Don Looney.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports writer.

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