Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Very Colorful Joe Don Looney

Joe Don Looney was a high school football star and moved on to become a two hundred and thirty pound running back with "breakaway" speed at the University of Oklahoma. He actually sat on the sidelines as a “third string” player during most of his first game at the University of Oklahoma. But he brazenly told Sooner coach Bud Wilkinson to put him in at the end of the game - that is, if Wilkinson was truly interested in winning. Uncharacteristically, the Coach gave in to the challenge and sent the bench warmer onto the field. Looney stuck his head in the huddle and told quarterback Monte Deer to just give him the ball and watch him score. Most of the Oklahoma offense looked at the back of Looney’s jersey in amazement as he sprinted sixty yards for the game-winning touchdown. It was a colorful, storybook beginning that would, unfortunately, wear thin quick.

As a starter, Looney complained because he was being used as a halfback instead of as a fullback. He also complained that Oklahoma players were just "meat" to the coaches and the "best" players were not actually starting. There was too much "politics." At practice, Joe Don defiantly walked around the field without wearing his helmet.He nonetheless played a key role in the Sooners' Big Eight Championship and looked forward to a trip to the Orange Bowl. He had led his team in rushing yards (852) and had averaged over six yards a carry. He had also led the Sooners in scoring (sixty-two points) and the entire nation in punting average (almost forty-four yards a punt). He was selected as an All-American.

Significantly, the man the Saturday Evening Post would later label "the marvelous misfit," also found ways to distinguish himself at the University of Oklahoma when he was off of the field. He frequently roamed the halls of his dorm naked. He consumed the writings of William Goldman and enjoyed repeat performances of a recording of Ravel's Bolero. Looney told those who complained about his musical selection that he was listening to "German march music." He also took an index finger from a cadaver body in his human anatomy class, stuck it in a matchbox and proudly displayed it to coeds. Joe Don introduced football recruits to prostitutes, stole puppies from a dog pound, and participated in the muggings of pizza delivery boys. Coach Wilkinson had Looney see a psychiatrist.

In his second year with the Sooners, Looney purposely smacked a coach in the throat with his elbow during a practice drill. One questionable individual performance and humiliating loss to the University of Texas later, Wilkinson suspended Looney from the team. But Looney was selected by the New York Giants in the first round of the 1964 draft. He left Oklahoma immediately, signed a forty thousand dollar contract and told members of the New York media that the already legendary troubles of his past were “over and done with.” Coach Allie Sherman would later compare his prized rookie to the likes of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson. Looney, on the other hand, made less flattering comparisons of his enthusiastic coach. He sarcastically referred to Sherman as a "Little Napoleon,” and quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with - off of the field.

When Coach Sherman would not let Looney cut his tight pants, Looney said he would no longer punt for the team. When Sherman told Looney to follow his blockers, Looney theorized, "A good football player makes his own holes." When Looney was told to tape his ankles, he informed the team trainer that he knew his own ankles better than anyone and eagerly paid a five hundred dollar fine. Looney was late for team meals, missed team buses and failed to show up for practices. At one practice, he simply walked away from the team and began to toss a football back and forth with a little boy that happened to come walking by. Clark notes the rookie “drew more fines all by himself in four weeks than all the Giants put together had drawn in three years."
Twenty-eight days later, the “Oklahoma bad boy” was traded to the Baltimore Colts.

Colts’ chief executive, Don Kellett, needed Looney to punt for his team and was confident he could “straighten him out.” Head coach, Don Shula, allowed Looney to cut his pants and even had new pants specially designed for him, but immediately expressed doubts about sending Looney in to punt. Shula worried about the fact that, if Looney was given the ball on fourth down, “he might do anything." So, Joe Don did not play the first three games of the season and was not allowed to punt until the seventh game. No one threw a pass to him until the eighth game and the Saturday Evening Post noted Coach Shula usually took Johnny Unitas - the “valuable” quarterback - out of the game whenever he put Looney in. That way, if Looney busted a play and ran over his own quarterback, Shula could be comforted by the fact that it at least it was not Unitas. Looney’s gradual and moderate successes on the field made it a little easier for some to overlook the fact that he did his pleasure reading on the grounds of a local cemetery. But, true to form, Looney found a way to push the limits of toleration.

On November 5, 1964, he took out on his army reserve military boots and prepared to "kick some butt." The major cause of the mobilization was the fact that , Barry Goldwater, had failed on election night. Joe Don explain that he was an “awfully strong” supporter of Goldwater because Lyndon Johnson had “duped the country” and guys were “dying like flies in Vietnam.” Someone was going to have to pay for Goldwater's defeat. In Looney's mind the perfect candidate was a gentleman who had argued with him about politics earlier in the day in a parking lot. Looney found the man's house, kicked in his door and slapped him around a bit. Because he was a Baltimore Colt, Looney avoided arrest, but a judge fined him one hundred and fifty dollars for the dramatic entrance. He also told Looney, "had you broken down my door, I would have shot you." Alex Hawkins, a former Colt teammate, remembered this was all around the time Looney informed him that he was going to purchase an island off the coast of Australia and "breed a super race."

Joe Don was soon traded to the Detroit Lions. Coach Harry Gilmer described him as the player who would “save the franchise,” but Looney continued to miss practices, and developed "headaches" to go along with the occasional "cramps." The police had to stop him from smashing a beer bottle over a knife-wielding opponent at a drive-in restaurant. Looney also amused teammates by bringing his mastiff pup to the team locker room and allowing everyone to observe the two sharing wheat germ and sunflower seeds. Gilmer, amazingly, kept Looney around for a second season. In a memorable game against the Atlanta Falcons, Gilmer thought he might empower the "misfit" and display a little confidence and trust in his abilities and leadership potential by asking him to send in a play to the huddle during a critical drive. Looney's curt response to the invitation was to say, "If you want a messenger boy, call Western Union." Gilmer benched Looney during the second half of the game and fined him two games' salary.

Looney got married, had a baby daughter and served a nine-month tour of duty in Vietnam, where he guarded an oil-tank farm in the combat zone. Sports Illustrated noted the tour was generally considered a success because Looney “wasn’t shot for insubordination and he didn’t trigger World War III.” When he returned to the States, Looney gave professional football another shot - so to speak. Some wondered why he even bothered trying, but his biographer notes the economic incentives were tremendous. Loony only needed three more regular season games on a roster to qualify for an NFL pension.

It was July of 1969 and Joe Don signed with - somewhat ironically - the New Orleans Saints. Saint Looney claimed he had a "new attitude" and was "determined" to really "try" this time. The “most impressive” runner in camp was reported to have looked like “Mr. America” in a swimsuit. Coach Tom Fears was certain the “coacheable” and “cooperative” Looney would be the team's leading rusher. But Joe Don complained of a bad hamstring almost immediately and - as a sure sign of concern for his own health - added "psychedelic drugs" to his marijuana habit. The new Saint grew his hair long and his extramarital affairs seemed to multiply, or at least become more public. In less than a year, the Saints placed the twenty-seven year old Looney on waivers and his wife filed for a divorce.

Looney's attachment to drugs and his friendships with drug dealers were the hallmark of his reputation by 1970. He began delivering marijuana himself from Hawaii to Fort Worth and the West Coast. The drug use continued unabated during a visit to Hong Kong, where he was influenced by a mystic to fast, meditate and read yoga books. In January of 1972, an old high school friend, Charlie Everett, came to Looney looking for a recruit to traffic cocaine to Lima, Peru and Mexico City. Looney could have recommended Western Union to Everett but he respected Everett more than Coach Gilmer. Joe Don signed up to run in a different kind of game.

Looney later claimed a narrow escape from Peruvian police changed his mind about a career in drug trafficking, but five agents of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs raided his father's ranch and farmhouse in Diana, Texas, on April 5, 1972. The purpose of the raid was to execute an arrest warrant for an international drug smuggler and frequent houseguest, one Ronald D. Frick. Earlier, Frick gave undercover agents five thousand dollars to assassinate a Federal Chief Judge who was about to sentence his girl friend for cocaine possession. He was also generous enough to offer the agents a "substantial discount" on cocaine. Joe Don answered the knock at the front door at 2 A.M. The well-armed agents identified themselves and inquired as to Mr. Frick's whereabouts. Looney, who was "tripping" on LSD at the time, claimed Frick was not on the premises. Frick was soon discovered, however, hiding behind a bookshelf in a small study. The agents also found two loaded rifles nearby.

So, Frick and Looney were handcuffed and a cautious search began for any armed persons in the house that might cause the simple arrest to turn into an unnecessary bloodbath. In their search to secure the premises against the possibility of such persons being present, the agents found an M3, .45-caliber sub-machine gun with an eight inch barrel. They claimed they could see the weapon in "plain view," lying on the floor under Looney's bed while standing in a doorway. The weapon, almost thirty inches in length, was said to be owned by Looney but it was not registered in the National Firearms Registration. A partially burned cigarette was also spotted on a floor. The agents believed it to be marijuana and asked Looney if any other drugs were present in the house. Looney responded that there was some "grass" in the back bedroom and he invited the agents to "help themselves."

Shortly after the conclusion of the three-hour search of the premises, the Sooner legend was off to Harrison County jail in Marshall Texas. Five hours later, he and Frick were standing before a United States Magistrate. Bail was set at ten thousand dollars. Looney's lawyers argued the three-hour warrantless search of his father's farmhouse was unconstitutional. The seizure of the submachine gun was, as a consequence, illegal, and it could not be used as evidence against him. On January 4, 1973, a United States District Judge ruled the search was indeed "violative" of Looney's Constitutional protection against unlawful searches and seizures. The judge recognized the agents' right to search Frick, Looney, and the "limited portion of the premises" that was within their "immediate control." Warrantless searches in such situations ensure the safety of law enforcement officers and protect destructible evidence. The bedroom, on the other hand, was "out of the immediate control of both Frick and Looney." The sub-machine was therefore "seized unlawfully" and would be "suppressed."

But the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overruled the District Judge on July 6. The Court of Appeals considered the "cursory security search" necessary to protect the lives of the agents "under the circumstances." Since it was during this search that the submachine gun was seen in "plain view," it was admissible evidence. Looney plead guilty to illegal possession of a firearm in federal court on January 7, 1974. He was sentenced to three years' probation.

A little over a year after his conviction, Looney's father took him to a retreat with the Swami Muktananda Paramahansa who was touring the United States. Joe Don meditated inside a makeshift pyramid, began burning incense and wept at the sound of sitar music. In his words, a "traveling bunch of gypsies" helped him to conquer a great "emptiness" inside. Faithful viewing of the People's Court and the soap opera All My Children seemed to contribute toward this goal as well. The guru described him as "an inner athlete" and a "champion." The new athlete did not complain about "cramps" and "twitches" or tight pants. When Joe Don got back together with his old Colt teammate Hawkins, he would sit cross-legged on the floor and discuss religion until two and three in the morning.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Department of Justice sent Looney a packet in January of 1985. It contained an official application for a presidential pardon. In his answer to the question "List every residence you have had within the last ten years," Looney emphasized that he did not "remember well." But the full and complete pardon came on February 5, 1988, fourteen years after the offense. President Ronald Reagan granted the pardon on the encouragement of his vice-President, George Herbert Walker Bush.

Just eight months later, Looney was killed when he was thrown from his motorcycle. The forty-five year old had failed to properly negotiate a curve on a lonely highway in a remote section of west Texas. Clark's biography of Looney, 3rd Down and Forever, notes that the marvelous misfit's body was found fifty yards from the road. There were no skid marks.


Hog Whitman said...

I actually knew Ron Frick. Believe it or not, he was a pretty decent guy. I think he got 30 years for trying to have that U.S. Judge killed. It wasn't his idea. He was enticed and set-up by U.S. drug agents who couldn't get him for the cocaine charges, so they befriended him at a bar close to his hotel in El Paso (where he was staying while he tried to sort-out the girlfriend mess), and convinced him that they were pro hitmen and if they killed the judge for the low, low, low price of only $5,000, his girlfriend would go free.

He wasn't a real smart guy, so he went for it. I also doubt that he was connected to any guns there. He was more like a hapless surfer-head kinda dude. I just don't see it.

Anonymous said...

Joe Don Looney was my 3rd cousin,what a fabulous story to read about him!
Sarah (Looney) Roth-Mycofsky

Elder said...

I met Joe Don in Phu Bai, Viet Nam. Everyone knew who he was, and he walked around the base without his hat and never saluted officers, but no one said anything and he was pretty much left alone.

GradyPhilpott said...

I was in and out of Phu Bai when I first arrived in Vietnam in late 1968 while with K/4/13. I knew that there were a lot of reservists there, but never knew Looney was there.

It might be noted that that while the article states that "guys were dying like flies" in Vietnam on November 5, 1964, combat troops did not arrive in Vietnam until the Spring of 1965.

There were American casualties before 1965, but it's probably a stretch that American were dying like flies.

Zeno Potas said...

I was in Phu Bai during that time (1968-1969) and Joe's company was sent there to relieve my group which operated a fuel pipeline. During that time, both groups played touch football in the evenings and Joe would level my ass just about every play.
Joe was noted for cutting a magazine or two from his M16 outside of his houch but I didn't hear of any disciplinary action for it. They just thought it was Joe doing his thing.
I still have contact with the guys from his outfit who all think he was a great guy to be with.

Zeno Potas said...

I was in Phu Bai during this time (1968-1969) and Joe's company was sent to Vietnam to relieve my group which operated a fuel pipeline. Both of our groups would play touch football in the evenings and Joe would almost always level my butt to the ground each play.
Joe was known to cut loose with his M16 outside of his hooch at least once but I never heard of any disciplinary action. They just thought it was Joe doing his thing.
I am still in touch with the guys from his outfit and they have high regards for Joe as a fun person and a goor friend.

Will Yablome said...


International Spa Design Engineer said...

I met Joe Don in Ganeshpuri India at an ashram in 1977. He had the job of tending the elephant. He was always cordial and smiled.

Anonymous said...

I remember watching the Detroit Lion, Joe Don, as he made some amazing runs. I was a kid and my dad said the only problem was that he didn't follow the plan of the play.
He was a great physical tallent, but weak mentally. Still, I enjoyed seeing him run.

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