SPORTS The Kamikaze Quest of Joe Don Looney

Who do you get when you cross Gandhi and Mean Joe Green?

IT’S PECULIAR HOW SO MANY FAmous ball players say that the significant memory of their career was the bitter setback, the heartbreaking loss.

That being the case, everybody who played on my high school football team surely has a well-supplied storehouse of vivid recollections, because all we did was lose. Actually, our group was better suited as an AA chapter than a football team, but that’s another story.

Opposing coaches all said the ’59 Arlington Heights team had the best talent in Fort Worth and the silly old Fort Worth Press picked us to “vie for district and state honors.”

What a knee slapper.

Week after week, the Fighting Yellow Jackets played well beneath their potential. At the end of the season, though, in a big game against hated rival Paschal, Heights was leading 12-6 late in the fourth quarter.

Heights, just this once, was playing its guts out. Then a Paschal halfback with the standard-issue Fort Worth name of Joe Don Looney ran thirty-five yards for a touchdown and the Purple geeks beat Heights, 14-12. You can look it up.

No player on either team will forget the game and Joe Don’s run. I was thinking about it twenty-nine years later after noticing in the Saturday sports section that Heights had beaten Paschal. Buoyed by a red wine hangover, I actually called the coach, Merlin Priddy, an old pal, to congratulate him. Strangely, at that precise moment, the Saturday morning of September 24, 1988, Joe Don Looney was down in the Big Bend country, lying dead in a ditch.



THE FIRST ARTICLE I WROTE FOR D Magazine appeared nine years ago last month. Entitled “The Looney Legend,” it was accompanied by this cover line: “Whatever Happened To Joe Don Looney? Just About Everything.”

The story hit the very high and very low spots of Joe Don’s remarkable life up to that point. I was fairly familiar with the facts, having become friends with the guy in his one-semester tenure at UT. The gist of the piece was “football hero by day, Fort Worth sociopath by night.”

Looney, who was sort of a white Herschel Walker, had incomparable athletic ability. He wanted to become a heavyweight boxer, but Fate had other plans. In 1962, he found himself on the bench of the OU football team.

Five minutes to play. OU losing to Syracuse, 3-0. Looney approaches the legendary coach, Bud Wilkinson, and says, “If you want to win the game, you’d better get me in there.”

Wilkinson, unaccustomed to cheeky upstarts, did not know how to respond. So Looney puts himself in the game. He tells the quarterback to “gimme the ball” and bolts for a sixty-three-yard touchdown. Oklahoma wins, 7-3. You can look that up, too. The Looney legend was born.

With Joe Don ripping off TD runs like that all season long and leading the NCAA in punting, OU went to the Orange Bowl to play Alabama. President John Kennedy was in Miami and visited the locker rooms of both teams before the game to wish them well. The OU players had difficulty hearing President Kennedy’s remarks because Joe Don, who had been poisoned by Cold Duck the night before, was back in the john, bellowing with the dry heaves.

Coach Wilkinson made a mental note at that point that Joe Don was not a young man to be trusted. He kicked Looney off the team the following year after a loss to Texas ruined OU’s season. Interestingly, prior to the Texas debacle, Joe Don had whipped an Oklahoma assistant coach in practice. Apparently Wilkinson saw a connection. “Politics,” Looney said.

The fact that Looney had the temerity to bash a coach simply served to arouse the juices of the pro scouts. In 1964 Looney was a first-round draft choice of the New York Giants, but his unconventional approach to team sports left a series of coaches appalled. Looney was traded four times in three seasons.

After Joe Don had been bounced to the Detroit Lions, Harry Gilmer, the Lions* coach, instructed Looney to go into the game and tell the quarterback to try a screen pass.

“Hell, Harry,” said Looney, “if you want a messenger boy, call Western Union.” Joe Don went back and located a comfortable spot on the bench. The following Monday, he was traded to the Washington Redskins.

The Looney Legend took on made-fur-TV-movie potential in 1967 when, by a strange set of circumstances, Looney found himself in Vietnam. A person that he contended was a “madman” had activated the reserve unit Looney had joined to avoid the draft. Before leaving for Nam, Looney, on behalf of every soldier overseas, filed a class action suit against President Lyndon Johnson.

But Looney, once overseas, finally discovered happiness. Vietnam, to him, was a welcome vacation from pro football. The experience put him in close company with his genuine passion-automatic weapons.

Looney went through some peculiar changes after that. He would spend five years living on a boat in Hong Kong and Singapore, practicing yoga and embarking on a quest for some divine ultimate force suspended in the cosmos. He would fast for forty-three days and lose more than a hundred pounds. Even his closest friends regarded this as rather odd behavior.

He returned to the U.S. just long enough to be arrested by government cops at an East Texas farmhouse that his father owned. They were there to capture Joe Don’s house guest, an evil cocaine importer who was charged with complicity in a plot to murder a federal judge. Looney was charged with illegal possession of an unregistered machine gun, but was not implicated in the plot to assassinate the judge.

Eventually, Looney was assessed a probated sentence. When the D article about Joe Don came out in 1980, he had last been seen living in an ashram in India, tending elephants for his swami. He had finally found peace.



It was surprising to pick up the phone one afternoon in 1983 and hear Looney’s voice. I hadn’t seen him or spoken to him in more than eight years.

He told me that the swami had died. So after chanting beside a burial pyre in New Delhi for thirty days, Looney was back in East Texas, living on the same farm where the feds had staged their raid.

“I’m coming into town for the game this weekend. You wanna go?” he said.

1 assumed Looney was talking about the Cowboys-Redskins game. I told him it was a sellout and I couldn’t get tickets.

“Ah, hell. We can get tickets. The game’s at Clark Field. There’ll be plenty of seats.”

Clark Field? That’s a high school stadium in Fort Worth. I feared that Looney had lost his mind for sure, until 1 figured out that he was talking about a playoff game involving his latest compulsion, Daingerfield High.

We went over to the game and sure enough, Daingerfield beat the continental bejeezus out of the Post Antelopes from West Texas. Looney jumped up and down and carried on like some Little League parent.

Daingerfield beat Post 46-0 that night. You can look it up.

Looney stayed at my house about two months later, preferring to sleep on a hard- wood floor rather than a bed. He advocated a whole grain diet and weekly enemas.

He was in town for a big gun show at the Convention Center. He was street legal in the gun trade now, having purchased his Federal Firearms License, and it was his intention to become a wholesaler.

According to the swami’s prophesies, the i worldwide economic structure would collapse in the mid-1990s, followed by the appearance of the Antichrist. Joe Don could foresee the day arriving soon when the guns would be used as currency. He wanted to establish a savings account before the bottom dropped out of the cash economy.

It was Joe Don’s ambition to move to Big Bend, buy some land, and build a dome with solar panels and grow fruit and vegetables. The idea was total self-sufficiency.

The next time I saw Joe Don, it was last September and he was lying in an open casket in a funeral home way out in Alpine. He had died when his motorcycle left the road on a hairpin curve near Study Butte, Texas, on the outskirts of nowhere.

He had been en route to meet a friend for a rafting excursion on the Rio Grande. When Joe Don failed to show up, the friend located a constable and they backtracked until his body was located by the roadside. His friends out there, and he had quite a few, said that it wasn’t like Joe Don to lose control on a curve tike that. For all his excesses, Looney was extra careful when it came to riding his bike.

The little funeral home was packed with some of the unusual assortment of friends that Looney had picked up along the way. After the service, which consisted mostly of some fellow playing “Stardust” on a piano, several of us drove out to Looney’s house about fourteen mites from Alpine. It was all there. The splendid dome, overlooking a spectacular outcropping known as Cathedral Mountain. The solar panels and windmills were in perfect working order, along with an elaborate irrigation system for a thriving vegetable and fruit orchard.

Everyone stood out on the porch and consumed huge quantities of beer. We told outrageous Looney stories while, back in Alpine, Joe Don’s remains were cremated.

Joe Don now lives in an urn at his mother’shouse in San Angelo. I understand that sheprays to his ashes every day.

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