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The NFL has scheduled an arbitration hearing for Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens for Friday, Nov. 18. When it’s held, Owens, with amicus briefs from Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader, will ask for his reinstatement or release. The Eagles and the league—which, unlike the NBA and NHL, markets teams and not stars—will try to use the debacle to show the alleged miscreant and the world that even the most gifted and talented player is but a pawn in their game.
Yet that message will be muddled as soon as Owens is let go and teams begin scheming to get him to wear their colors.
The Redskins, like all teams, have gambled on players whose extracurricular antics get more attention than their on-field contributions. In 1981, for example, Joe Gibbs talked John Riggins out of retirement despite his reputation for carousing and rugged individualism—the guy had a mohawk several years before Joe Strummer did. Soon enough, the Skins had a Super Bowl win and Riggins was the most beloved running back in team history. Eventually, however, his antics overwhelmed his production: Riggins was cut loose after the 1985 season, a year in which he followed up his famous “Loosen up, Sandy baby!” episode with an arrest for public intoxication (inspiring the following Washington Post headline: “Riggins Passes Out at Dinner”). All in all, though, the team’s bet on Riggins paid off.
But most rehab projects don’t work out. For every Riggins, there’ve been several Jeff Georges and Duane Thomases. And one Joe Don Looney.
“Joe Don Looney had all the God-given talent in the world to play football,” says Sam Huff, the ex-Redskins linebacker and Hall-of-Famer. “But it was wasted talent on him. And we knew all that about him before he ever got here.”
Yes, Looney was a legend in football circles even before he arrived in Washington in 1966. Very little of this rep, however, had to do with actually playing football. The running back was blessed with a lineman’s strength and a flanker’s speed in an era when nobody save for Jim Brown possessed such a combo. Looney’s head, however, wasn’t suited for football. He came to the Redskins after the Detroit Lions gave up on him midseason. The Skins became his fourth NFL team in less than three seasons. Looney had also played for four different college teams and had off-field problems with coaches and administrators at every stop—he earned a 0.2 grade-point average at his first college, the University of Texas. And though voted to preseason all-America teams before his final year with his final school, Oklahoma, Looney was canned by head coach Bud Wilkinson just three weeks into the 1963 season after beating up an assistant.
Still, Looney’s physical gifts were such that despite all the demerits, the New York Giants used a first-round draft choice to take him in 1964. The Giants quickly realized their mistake.
“We played the Giants in a scrimmage game up in Ithaca before [the 1964] season,” says Dick Shiner, a Redskins quarterback from 1964 to 1966. “Joe Don was their top pick, and he had just gotten into camp the day before. The way I remember it, the very first night he’s there, he doesn’t make the bed check. This is the night before we’re playing them in the scrimmage. So Allie Sherman, the Giants coach, leaves a note under Joe Don’s door saying, ‘When you get in, please come see me.’ Joe Don takes the note, and wrote on it, ‘Coach, I’ll see you in the morning. I’m tired,’ and slipped it under Allie Sherman’s door. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
The Giants shipped their top pick to the Baltimore Colts before the first game of his rookie season. Then Don Shula sent him to the Lions after just one year with the Colts, and the Colts coach confessed that he had feared for the safety of his quarterback, Johnny Unitas, whenever Looney was on the field. The Lions then gave up on Looney at the beginning of his second season there, when he refused to shuttle plays to the quarterback.
Then the Redskins attempted to tame the wild beast.
“Everybody thinks they’re Father Flanagan when it comes to guys with that kind of talent,” says Ken Denlinger, the recently retired sportswriter and columnist for the Post who covered the Skins during the team’s 1966 acquisition of Looney. “They think it’s going to be different.”
D.C. wasn’t different for Looney. Coach Otto Graham assigned Huff watchdog duty over Looney as soon as he was brought in. Huff admits not wanting the gig.
“I told Otto not to get Joe Don Looney. I knew it was a bad idea,” says Huff. “But the morning after I said that, here’s Joe Don Looney in the locker room wearing a Redskins uniform. So then they asked if I’d be his roommate and keep him in line, and I said, ‘It’ll cost you.’”
Huff says management gave him an extra $5,000 just to “baby-sit” Looney for a year, this at a time when even some starters played a whole season for just $12,000. (Looney, despite no NFL accomplishments and a bad rep from his college days, was warming the Redskins bench for $30,000 a year.) Huff regrets taking the money.
“This guy was like Burt Reynolds, with the good looks and the big reputation,” Huff says. “And all I did the whole year was keep women away from him. The whole team would stay the night before every game at the Mayflower, so players wouldn’t get in trouble, and I remember girl after girl knocking on the door of our room, and none of them were there for me. They’d all be saying, ‘I’m here to see Joe Don! Let me see Joe Don!’ And I’d turn ’em all away, because that was my job. Every time, Joe Don would say, ‘Aww, just gimme five minutes!’ He could do it all if he wanted to, but football is a game you’ve gotta care about. The guy didn’t care about football.”
He never worked his way into the starting lineup. Shiner remembers quarterbacking a preseason scrimmage in 1967 in which Looney had three touchdowns and scads of yards in a contest that, like all preseason scrimmages, didn’t mean a thing.
“I’m standing there with him on the sideline after watching him do all this, and I say, ‘Hey, Joe, why don’t you do that all the time?’” says Shiner. “And Joe Don says, ‘’Cuz I don’t feel like it.’ And he meant it. And we all believed it was true. You can’t believe how fast he was for a guy his size. He could run a 9.5, 9.6 100[-yard dash] and punt a ball 80 yards whenever he wanted to. A guy who could do it all. That’s why everybody took a chance on him. But, mentally, he just was not there.”
Shiner says the peak of Looney’s absenteeism came in the last two minutes of a November 1966 game in Cleveland, when the Redskins’ starting fullback, Tom Barrington, went down with an injury. Graham called for his highly touted backup to go in.
“[Graham] and all the coaches were yelling for Looney, but he was sitting at the end of the bench with a big winter-type outfit on, a big parka with a hood,” says Shiner. “They’re yelling, ‘Joe, get in there! Barrington’s hurt! We need you!’ He yelled back, ‘Otto, I think it’s going to take me three minutes to warm up! Send somebody else in!’ And he didn’t go in.”
Such game-day insubordination wouldn’t be tolerated in the ESPN era, but the beginning of the end of Looney’s D.C. run didn’t come until the beginning of the next season, when Looney and Huff brawled at a practice two days before the opener with Philadelphia. The way Huff recalls the scrap, Looney was running with other second-team players, simulating the Eagles’ offense against the Redskins’ starting defense. Huff says he and the other veteran starters were going three-quarter speed to save energy for the upcoming game when Looney lowered a shoulder and ran over his baby-sitter just for kicks. Huff says he regained his breath and his senses in time to pancake Looney with malice on the next play, and the two went at it like alley cats. Looney didn’t show up for the team’s welcome-home luncheon later that afternoon, and Skins management began planning an exit strategy.
Four weeks into the 1967 season, Looney was given his unconditional release from the Redskins.
For all his tools, the stats Looney racked up while wearing a Redskins uniform—66 carries for 204 yards and four touchdowns, and nine receptions for 37 yards over parts of two seasons—scream “bust.” Nobody who played with Looney ever figured out where things went wrong or what was going on in his head. Dave Crossan, a Redskins center whom teammates describe as Looney’s best friend on the team during his brief stay here, says that—as failed as Looney’s Washington tenure surely was—nobody felt sorry for him.
“For me and everybody else on the team, football was their life,” says Crossan. “Not for Joe Don Looney. He just seemed like he was focused on everything but football. He was getting his pilot’s license; he was involved in a relationship; he was involved with his dog; he was buying all these surplus guns from the government; he was very concerned about things going on in the world. Because of football, I barely knew the Vietnam War was going on. He was very concerned about it.”
Looney had every reason to get concerned about the war after the Skins cut him. He was drafted into the service and, when a lawsuit against the U.S. government protesting his forced induction failed, he served a year in Vietnam. He left football for good after a short postservice stint with the New Orleans Saints in 1969, and Looney’s offbeatness really took hold. He was jailed on federal weapons charges. He followed a swami to India and washed elephants for a time. He came back to his native Texas to live alone in a round house in the middle of nowhere in the southwest part of the state.
Looney died in a one-vehicle motorcycle crash on the Texas side of the Mexican border in September 1988. A movie of his life is now in pre-production.
“I always thought he’d be somebody people remembered for his play, rather than for the stories that had nothing to do with football,” says Shiner. “But all there is about Joe Don Looney is stories.”
Huff says he’s gotten over the brawl but isn’t yet ready to forgive Looney for wasting all that football potential.
“Football was all ha-ha-ha with him,” says Huff. “Everything was like that. You hate to knock a guy who’s dead, but Joe Don Looney didn’t care about anything. If he’s in Hell—hell, he wouldn’t give a damn.”—Dave McKenna