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."
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."