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 the NFL, 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."
August 3, 1969
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 Oklahoma quarterback, 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 Shula. Shula 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, and Baltimore 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 for Barry 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 afterward Gilmer 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.