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Green: Training camp stirs memories of Lions history

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News
Joe Don Looney

Allen Park – Joe Schmidt sidled up to me and in one of his conspiratorial whispers dropped a load of words that had been known for years.

"You know, you used to (tick) me off," he said with a bit of a grin.

"That was my job, Joe," I responded.

And we broke into a bout of laughter that was needed desperately this grisly summer for the old Detroit Lions and those who hung around.

This was some seven weeks ago in the parking lot at the funeral for Charlie Sanders. And this was vintage Joe -- an aside told as a secret; sarcastic -- really a joke. I think.

This was in the parking lot outside the church in Rochester for the funeral for Sanders.

And Joe's sinister comment -- and a half century-plus pro football history -- came back to me in a wave of precious nostalgia the other day at the Lions' training camp.

There was a photograph of Joe, ye old Hall of Fame middle linebacker during the Lions' most recent championship seasons, hanging in the corridor near the locker room. There were photos of other guys of that era -- Joe's playing years and his seasons as head coach -- along the passageway.

And the memories of training camps of yesteryear.

The Lions' training camp was out at the picturesque Cranbrook School back in the 1960s. The athletes bunked in the boarding school dormitory back then. They devoured their meals in the Tudor-style dining hall. The rookies were required to stand on chairs at lunch time and belt out their college songs for the entertainment of the veterans.

Even the late, creative author George Plimpton, the Paper Lion, stood on a chair and sang "Hit The Line For Harvard."

And the jokes and anecdotes rolled out.

One of the young players, seeking a position back then, was Joe Don Looney. Joe Don was something of a non-conformist. He had played for four colleges and then in the NFL, before the Lions, he belonged to two other clubs -- and well, he was different from most of his teammates.

To wit, a story from the heat of training camp, courtesy of Schmidt:

Looney: "You're working too hard, Joe. How long have you been doing this?"

Schmidt: "About a dozen years or so."

Looney: "You know, Joe, you ought to take a day off once in a while."

That would have been 50 years ago on the button.

Schmidt was playing his final season as a player for the Lions in 1965. He had been the pillar of the Lions' defense on the 1952, 1953 and 1957 NFL championship seasons. He would join Harry Gilmer's coaching staff in 1966 and become head coach in 1967.

And the 1965 season was Looney's first with the Lions. He would play for the Lions for two seasons.

One Sunday at Tiger Stadium in 1966, Gilmer summoned Looney off the bench to play halfback against the Falcons. Looney hit the left side, right into a mob of defensive linemen and linebackers. He was a mighty specimen –230 pounds with speed and quickness. And it was his style to run into the tacklers rather than aim for the hole his blockers had provided.

But Looney dashed off a 24-yard touchdown run.

He was back on the bench before the second quarter finished. Then Gilmer gave him some instructions and Looney was ordered back into the game, told to relay a play to the quarterback. Joe Don balked.

"If you want a messenger, call Western Union," Looney told Gilmer.

After halftime, Joe Don Looney had vanished. I scanned the Lions' bench, with visions of his touchdown run in my head. Looney was not there.

Pete Waldmeir and I found him later that Sunday night. He was in the Lindell AC, the famed downtown Detroit sports bar.

Looney greeted us with a smile.

I asked him where he'd been.

Looney responded by telling me his now-famous "call Western Union" story.

Joe Don Looney was a lifetime vagabond. His four colleges were Texas, Texas Christian, Cameron Junior College and then Oklahoma. He either flunked out or was kicked out of Texas and TCU. At Oklahoma, he pumped himself up by listening to Ravel's "Bolero," a monstrous, rollicking -- and beautiful -- piece of loud, sensuous music. He read heavy literature.

And once at Oklahoma, he sliced an index finger off a cadaver in a human anatomy lab, according to a biography. He then placed the finger in a matchbox and displayed it to women students.

Joe Don was good enough in football at Oklahoma that that the Giants picked him in the first round of the 1964 NFL draft. The Giants traded him to the Baltimore Colts. The Colts traded him to the Lions. Two seasons in Detroit were enough for the Lions. He was dealt to Washington.

And gradually, after Army service and a turn back in the NFL with the Saints, Looney faded away.

It was soon after that Joe Don emerged in a saffron robe, a convert to Hinduism, in India. He was part of a Siddha Yoga movement, used as an enforcer among the Hindu followers.

There was another fade-away and Looney emerged again, home in Texas. He died there in 1988 when his motorcycle ran off a highway and crashed into a fence.

Joe Don was just 45 at his death.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter.