He Failed to Negotiate a Curve

by John Delach

Such a poetic phrase, I lifted: “He Failed to Negotiate a Curve,” from The New York Times’ obituary for Joe Don Looney. Joe Don, a former football star died while maneuvering his motorcycle along a winding road in East Texas. Forty-five, when his obituary was published on September 26, 1988, he died the same way he lived; chaotically.


Memories of his comet like life and death were reawakened recently. Twenty-six years after Joe Don’s death, he still retained the power to co-op his father, Don’s obituary despite the elder Mr. Looney having lived a long and successful life first in sports then in the oil patch, passing at 98.


Don Looney, (the father) born September 2, 1916, starred at Texas Christian University and was named MVP of the 1938 National Championship team that finished 11-0 beating Carnegie Tech 15-7 in the Sugar Bowl. Don went on to play three years in the NFL before joining the Army Air Force where he continued to play football with his base’s team known the Randolph Ramblers. After the war, Don embarked on a successful Fort Worth based career that included many civic, industry and charitable honors. When he passed, Don was the oldest living former NFL player and the last living member of TCU’s 1938 team.


When it came to football, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Unfortunately it must have bounced too many times before falling into a hole so deep that most obits found it a must to reference Joe Don in his father’s last earthly recognition. Once again Don was usurped by the life and crimes of his only son.


Joe Don played for Pascal a high school in the Fort Worth area where he gained fame as a senior beating rival Arlington Heights on a thirty-five yard run in the fourth quarter to make the final score, 14-12.


In 1962, he was a bench warmer at Oklahoma University. OU was losing to Syracuse with five minutes left to play. Joe Don took it on himself to walk up to legendary head coach, Bud Wilkinson, to announce, “If you want to win the game, you’d better get me in there.”


Stunned, Wilkinson was speechless so Joe Don inserted himself into the game, told the quarterback to give him the ball and bolted for a sixty-three yard touchdown and an Oklahoma victory, 7-3. A magnificent runner and punter, Joe Don led the Sooners to a berth in the Orange Bowl.


Things went badly the following year. Wilkinson kicked Joe Don off the team following a smack down delivered by Looney to an assistant coach.


Despite this incident, the New York Football Giants picked Joe Don as their first-round draft choice in 1964. He lasted a grand total of 25 days with the team before the Giants traded him to the Baltimore Colts. This is how I described his tenure with the Maramen in my book, 17 Lost Seasons:


It was said of the 6-3, 230 pound back, “He can run, he can punt, he can block, but, most of all, he can run.” It also should be noted that Sooners’ head coach, Bud Wilkinson had cut the 21-year-old handsome Texas native mid-way through his junior year at the request of his teammates. Joe Don had run for 852 yards in 1962, averaged 6.2 yards per carry, scored 62 points and led the nation with a 43.4 yard punting average. When Wilkinson cut him the following year, the coach was quoted as saying, Joe Don was, “…a bad influence upon other members of the team, was indifferent about practice and discipline.”

“We’re not interested in the past,” responded head scout and former head coach, Jim Lee Howell when asked why the Giants drafted this product of four colleges in two states as their number one choice. Question: Didn’t anybody from the Giants think about contacting Bud Wilkinson, the Sooners’ world class head coach to ask just how screwed up Joe Don was and how much he lived up to his last name?

Perhaps it was the fact that his dad had played for the Eagles and served as an NFL official? Joe Don’s career with the Giants lasted twenty-five days during which he refused to participate in workouts and slept, on occasion, 22 hours a day.


The Giants traded him to the Baltimore Colts for cast-offs. Even though he helped the Colts to win a division championship, head coach Don Shula refused to let Joe Don punt: “I was afraid to put Looney in the game to punt because I didn’t know if he would punt. He might do anything.”


At his next stop with the Detroit Lions coach Harry Gilmer told Joe Don to go into the game and tell the quarterback to call a screen pass. Joe Don replied to his head coach, “If you want a messenger boy, call Western Union.”


From there he went to the Washington Redskins where he punched out an opposing player. The army sent him to Viet Nam where he began his love affair with automatic weapons. He then wound up in India under the tutelage of a peculiar swami who prophesized the world as we knew it would implode in the mid 1990s, the anti-Christ would make his appearance and guns would be used for currency. (The story that Joe Don punched out the swami’s elephant may be an urban legend.)


Joe Don believed he was prepared for the end of all things. He lived alone in Alpine, TX off the grid with his automatic assault guns in a solar-heated dome without electricity or a telephone.


The principal feature at his funeral service was some fellow playing Stardust on a piano.

Joe Don could have done worse than to be sent off to the sound of Hoagy Carmichael’s soothing hit melody.