Joe Don Looney's place in history
The presence of Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer together at a Washington Nationals game last week caused quite a commotion — Washington sports royalty side by side, in, appropriately, the President’s Club seats. Two presidents at a Nationals game wouldn’t have gotten as much attention — especially two shown with cigars in their mouths.
The one-time quarterback rivals here in Washington may be the most valued and treasured relationship in Washington sports history. Even though they vied for the same position under Redskins coach George Allen from 1971 to 1974, the two men grew to be close, lifelong friends.
They had a mutual respect for each other, and never let the competition get in the way of that.
When the city was divided with bumper sticks on the cars of Redskins fans proclaiming either their love for Sonny or their love for Billy, the two quarterbacks used to drive around town and count them up for laughs to see who had the most.
Sonny and Billy — it warms even the coldest Washington sports fans’ heart.
I had the pleasure of sitting with them for an inning of the series finale last week against the New York Mets. They wanted to know about the players — like the rest of the world, they are impressed with Bryce Harper — and particularly were interested in manager Dusty Baker.
“What’s Dusty like?” Sonny asked.
Earlier, in his pre-game press conference, Dusty gave me the perfect answer to that question.
“This is how Dusty is, Sonny,” I said. “Before today’s game, he made a reference to Joe Don Looney.”
Both Sonny and Billy roared with laughter at that one. They were both very familiar with former NFL running back Joe Don Looney, both having played with him — Sonny in Washington and Billy in New Orleans.
A baseball manager in 2016 making a Joe Don Looney reference is an All-Star response. Dusty can drop the mike after that one.
Dusty referred to Looney recalling a conversation he once had with Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Walsh, who became a close friend to Dusty. They were talking about players who were “coach killers” and no one may fit that description more than Looney, who NFL films president Steve Sabol once called the most uncoachable player in NFL history.
Looney, born in Texas, the son of Don Looney, who played on the 1938 TCU national championship team and went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles, played with five teams over six seasons, drafted by the New York Giants in 1964 out of Oklahoma, where he was kicked off the team by Bud Wilkinson after Looney punched a graduate assistant coach.
He was a very talented and powerful 6-foot-1, 230-pound running back, and his talent tantalized coaches who believed they could fix him.
In Washington in 1966, Otto Graham was one of those coaches.
Looney lasted two seasons in Washington and it was Sam Huff’s job to try to keep him in line. He talked to me about that in an interview for my book, “Hail Victory: An Oral History of the Washington Redskins”:
“Joe Don Looney was potential talent nobody could tap. Otto called Sonny and myself down to his office and said to us, ‘We need a running back and we have a chance to get Joe Don Looney.’ Sonny and I agreed that this was a bad idea and told him, ‘No, Otto, we have enough problems holding the player together here without him. Not one of those teams could control him. And he’s going to come here?’ The next day Joe Don was in a Redskins uniform.
“Looney and I had the craziest fight you would ever see on a football field. It happened during practice in his second season here. The first year the Redskins offered me a bonus if I would room with Joe Don. Sonny and I had been roommates, but they offered me more money if I would room with Looney and keep him out of trouble. I did, but it was one of the toughest things I ever did. I didn’t trust him. I didn’t know if he was going to try to beat me up or what. I never slept much that year before a game.
“I kept him out of trouble that first year. In the second year, it was a little different. We were getting ready in practice for the opening against Philadelphia. It was a hot, miserable day, and Otto made us wear pads all the time in practice. We were practicing at the old practice field, not at RFK, but where parking lot five is now there used to be a practice field. Looney is running the Philadelphia plays for our defense. They run a toss to the fullback and he runs around the end. I go in pursuit and kind of take it easy. Joe Don lowers his shoulder and hits me in the chest, running over me. Then he taunts me with the ball. Hey, this is just practice. I’m trying to save myself for the Philadelphia Eagles. I’m on the ground, and he sticks the ball in my face and says, ‘How do you like that, big guy? I knocked the hell out of you.’ I looked at him and said, ‘You crazy so-and-so. You picked on the wrong guy. You’re going to get yours.’
“So on the next play he comes out of the huddle. I know what the play is, and Looney says to me, ‘All right, big guy, here I come again.’ I’m gritting my teeth. I’m going to nail that guy. So (center) Len Hauss blocked one way, and I stepped up to the middle. When Looney got the ball, I came off the ground with my fist and hit him dead on the chin as hard as I could. I knocked his helmet off, and the ball went flying. His knees buckled, but he didn’t go down. I gave him my best shot. Then we got into a hell of a fight. They couldn’t get us apart. So Otto makes one of his brilliant statement, saying, ‘I don’t think you guys should room together this week.’
“Looney was nuts, and he was a disruption for the team. One time in Cleveland our fullback got knocked out, and Otto told Joe Don to get in there. He said, ‘No, I’m not warmed up yet.’ He wouldn’t go in the game.”
Looney ended his career with the Saints in 1969, playing with Kilmer there. After he retired, he converted to Hinduism and joined the Siddha Yoga movement. In 1974, Looney plead guilty to illegal possession of a firearm and was sentenced to three years probation. In February 1988, he received a presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan. Eight months later he died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 45 in Texas.
He has a place in history, and Dusty Baker, bless him, remembered that place in 2016 before a Washington Nationals baseball game.