For years I’ve operated on the assumption that the last helmetless player in the NFL was Bears end Dick Plasman in 1941. Never have I come across anything to disabuse me of that notion. Until now. Sort of.
Last night — typically, while researching something else — I came across some amusing new evidence. It was buried in Roy McHugh’s column for the Pittsburgh Press on Jan. 22, 1967. McHugh’s subject, Carl Brettschneider, was telling tales about his days as a linebacker-enforcer with the Lions in the ’60s. Then he told one about Joe Don Looney, the free-spirited running back, that I’d never heard before.
To set the stage, Looney was the 12th pick of the 1964 draft, a wonderfully athletic — if difficult — running back out of Oklahoma. The Giants, who picked him, traded him to the Colts before the preseason was over. Just didn’t want to deal with him. After a year in Baltimore, Joe Don’s act wore thin and he was dealt to the Lions. That’s where he crossed paths with Brettschneider, who by then was an assistant coach. This is from McHugh’s column:
One day in camp, Looney misplaced his helmet and refused to let the equipment man replace it. He practiced bareheaded and he “had that look in his eyes,” Brettschneider remembers.
“If Joe Don feels he is right, nobody’s going to change him,” Brettschneider said. “This equipment man was scared to death of him and the coaches couldn’t decide what to do. It was turning into a major problem — how to get a helmet on Joe Don Looney.
Brettschneider bet the coaches $100 he could fix everything up. In the dining room that night, he said to Looney, “I’ll meet you in the equipment room at 7:30.” Looney said, “I won’t be there.” But Brettschneider found him in the weight room at 7:30, “lifting 350 pounds like nothing,” and the weight room adjoined the equipment room.
“Let’s go get a helmet,” Brettschneider suggested. Looney walked over and tried one for size. It didn’t fit, but he said, “This is good enough.” Brettschneider said, “I’m telling you to get one that fits.” Looney got one that fit.
Brettschneider never collected his $100.
But at least he kept the kid from doing serious damage to his cranium. Anyway, there you have it, folks: the last NFLer to play without a helmet (even if it was only in practice) — in 1965!
Joe Don Looney: the gift that keeps on giving.