When one thinks of a legendary ball-hawking cornerback, the Detroit Lions’ Lem Barney should come to mind.
Barney was in the same stratosphere as Willie Brown, Mel Renfro, Herb Adderley, and Roger Wehrli as one of the best defensive backs of the 1960s.
Barney promptly burst out of the gates as a rookie. He had a league-leading 10 interceptions and three pick-sixes in the 1967 NFL season.
Barney ended that season on a strong note by picking off the Minnesota Vikings’ Joe Kapp three times within ten minutes.
Lem Barney went on to earn seven Pro Bowl berths and two First-Team All-Pro selections in his iconic eleven-year pro football career.
No wonder then that this Detroit Lions legend is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
Lemuel Joseph “Lem” Barney was born to parents Lem and Berdell in Gulfport, MS on September 8, 1945. He had three sisters.
Barney described his parents as “culinary scientists” to the Detroit Free Press‘ Bill Dow in September 2017.
He also considered Lem and Berdell Barney the most influential people in his life, per the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website.
When the younger Lem was growing up in Mississippi, he played football, baseball, and basketball.
He told the Detroit Free Press‘ Jack Saylor in December 1970 that he grew up a New York Giants fan in the Deep South. He admired Giants quarterback Charlie “Chuckin’ Charlie” Conerly.
Conerly inspired Barney to play quarterback during his high school days in Mississippi.
“I always had hopes of being the first black quarterback,” Barney told Saylor in his fourth NFL season with the Detroit Lions in 1970.
Barney told MLive.com’s Hugh Bernreuter in the summer of 2016 that he also followed the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions as well.
Barney liked the Packers because of Vince Lombardi and Herb Adderley. On the other hand, he liked the Lions because the NFL always featured them on their Thanksgiving Day games.
Lem Barney attended 33rd Avenue High School in his hometown of Gulfport, MS. It was the last remaining all-black high school in the city before it ceased operations during integration.
Barney’s mother was apprehensive about letting her only son play football. She thought it was a violent sport.
However, Lem’s high school football coach assured her he was in good hands. After much persuasion, she finally relented on the condition that Lem play drums in his football uniform with the school band at halftime, per The Grueling Truth Podcast.
During this first week of Black History Month, the Athletic Dept. salutes Gulfport native Lem Barney. Lem was an all-around athlete at 33rd Avenue HS & football star at Jackson St. A 2nd round draft pick by Detroit, Lem was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992. 👏 pic.twitter.com/Mqh5plmVqn
— Gulfport Athletics (@ghs_athletics) February 3, 2021
Barney earned All-State honors as a quarterback during his high school days. He wasn’t the typical signal caller who stayed in the pocket. Barney’s scrambling abilities allowed him to score touchdowns on his team’s run-pass option plays.
Barney remembered one game where they obliterated the opposition, 114-0. He had three touchdowns while most of the other offensive players had one touchdown each.
Lem Barney also looked up to Jackson State Tigers All-American wideout Willie Richardson, who eventually became a two-time Pro Bowler with the NFL’s Baltimore Colts.
Jackson State College’s (now known as Jackson State University) proximity to Gulfport, MS enticed Barney to commit to the Tigers as his high school days wound down. Before long, the Tigers offered him a football scholarship.
It was at Jackson State when a key position switch forever changed the trajectory of Lem Barney’s football career.
College Days with the Jackson State Tigers
Lem Barney, a health and science major, attended Jackson State University from 1964 to 1966. He suited up for Jackson State Tigers head football coach Rod Paige.
Barney, an All-State quarterback in high school, was relegated to third-string status as a true freshman in 1964. Barney wanted playing time, so he approached Paige and asked him if he could play cornerback instead.
An incredulous Paige thought Barney didn’t have the physical tools to excel at defensive back. Fortunately for Barney, he gave in to his wishes.
It was the turning point of Lem Barney’s football career. A future Hall of Fame cornerback was officially born.
Barney didn’t have any trouble adjusting to his new position. In fact, he fit right in from the get-go. He had an incredible 26 interceptions in three seasons with the Tigers. He had 11 picks alone as a senior in 1966.
To nobody’s surprise, Lem Barney, who also took the field for the Tigers as a punter and punt return specialist, earned All-Southwestern Athletic Conference (All-SEC) honors from 1964 to 1966.
Barney told MLive.com in 2016 that renowned songwriter and record producer Gordy Berry held one of his Motown shows on the Jackson State campus in the mid-1960s.
That show featured legendary singer Marvin Gaye, who Barney regularly hung out with as a member of the Detroit Lions from 1967 to 1977.
Hall of Fame cornerback Dick “Night Train” Lane worked as a scout for the Detroit Lions in the mid-1960s.
Barney’s exceptional play on defense and special teams caught his eye. It also gave birth to a professional relationship that lasted four decades until Lane’s death in 2002.
“He became a mentor as well as a father figure to me,” Barney told The Grueling Truth podcast in the fall of 2016.
Another Lions scout, Will Robinson, also sized up Barney during his college days at Jackson State.
Lane would eventually help bring his new protege to the Motor City where he would evolve into one of the best ball-hawking cornerbacks of the 1960s.
Pro Football Career
The Detroit Lions made Lem Barney the 34th overall selection of the 1967 NFL Draft.
According to the Detroit Free Press, the Lions gave Barney a three-year, $48,000 deal plus a $15,000 signing bonus in the spring of 1967.
Lem Barney chose to wear No. 20 when he first donned Lions Honolulu blue and white.
Barney told the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website in 2011 that he wanted to wear No. 26 with the Lions – the same number he wore as a member of the Jackson State Tigers during his college days.
Barney told Lions equipment manager Roy Macklem he wanted to wear No. 26, but the latter told him Mike Bass, another rookie cornerback, beat him to it. Macklem threw a No. 20 jersey Barney’s way, and the rest was history.
It turned out that No. 20 had a profound effect on the Detroit Lions franchise history. Three Pro Bowl players – Barney, Billy Sims, and Barry Sanders – all wore that jersey. The three men combined for almost 25,000 yards – Barney on punt and interceptions returns and Sims and Sanders on running yardage – during their respective pro football careers.
In terms of pre-game superstition, Barney always put on his Lions uniform left to right. For instance, he taped his left ankle before his right ankle. He did the same thing to his left wrist and right wrist, respectively.
Barney, who played football, basketball, and baseball in Mississippi as a child, added another sport to his repertoire – golf. He began hitting the greens when he first moved to the Motor City in 1967.
the return of football reminds me of a music trivia gem
Marvin Gaye tried out for the Detroit Lions in 1970. While he didn't make the team, he made friends with Mel Farr and Lem Barney, who would provide backing vocals on "What's Going On" pic.twitter.com/NzEAQc0U2J
— Nick Benevenia (@nickbenevenia) September 12, 2022
It was around this time when Barney wanted to meet Motown singer Marvin Gaye. When Barney reported for his first training camp, he asked his Lions teammates how he could meet him.
They told him Gaye played golf regularly at Palmer Park. When Barney went there the following morning, Gaye wasn’t around.
The staff members then told Barney he could visit Gaye at his house in Outer Drive. Sure enough, Gaye answered the doorbell when Barney showed up. The two men hit it off immediately and talked for hours on end.
Barney told The Grueling Truth Podcast in 2016 that Gaye and another legendary singer, Smokey Robinson, became regulars at Detroit Lions games at Tiger Stadium.
The three men typically ate at a restaurant after the game. At some point, Gaye wanted to work out with Barney, running back Mel Farr, and some of the other Lions players. They eventually gave him access to their training room during the offseason.
While Gaye worked with Barney and Farr in Ann Arbor, MI in 1970, he inquired about a possible tryout with the Detroit Lions. Gaye even made his desire known on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.”
By Barney’s estimate, Gaye stood 6’3″ and weighed roughly 220 pounds. Lions head coach Joe Schmidt summoned both of them into his office and asked Gaye about his football background.
Despite Gaye not having played football at the high school and college levels, Schmidt gave him a chance. Although Gaye played well during the tryout, Schmidt pulled him aside and told him his lack of football experience could become detrimental to his health down the road.
Gaye, Barney, and Farr collaborated on Gaye’s 1971 hit single, “What’s Going On?”. The two Lions players sang backup and earned gold records for their efforts.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) September 7, 2022
Barney flew under many scouts’ radars before the draft. Despite being a relative unknown, he quickly proved he belonged in the National Football League.
Barney earned the respect of his teammates after he batted away the ball intended for Lions wide receiver Gail Cogdill during team practice.
Barney then intercepted the ball thrown Cogdill’s way on the very next play.
“He was the total package,” Lions head coach Joe Schmidt told the Detroit Free Press. “You could see right away that he could play.”
When Barney suited up for his first game in the National Football League in 1967, he proved his play during training camp wasn’t a fluke.
Lions defensive coach Jim David, who presented Barney in his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 1992, recalled the rookie cornerback intercepting Green Bay Packers Pro Bowl quarterback Bart Starr’s pass and running it the other way for a pick-six.
Barney quickly gained the respect of opposing wide receivers, quarterbacks, and offensive coaches. Many signal-callers didn’t want to throw his way. He led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 1967.
Barney also allowed just one touchdown that year. His 232 interception return yards and three defensive touchdowns were also the most in the NFL in 1967. He also had two forced fumbles for good measure.
Lem also saw time on special teams as a kickoff and punt return specialist. He took over punting duties for the Lions after Pat Studstill sustained an injury in 1967. Barney’s 47 punts traveled an average distance of 37.4 yards.
Barney ended his memorable rookie season in spectacular fashion. He intercepted Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp three times within 10 minutes in Detroit’s 14-3 victory on December 18, 1967. Barney returned his first interception 71 yards for his third defensive touchdown of the season.
It wasn’t surprising when Lem Barney earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He also earned the first of his seven career Pro Bowl berths. Barney also became a two-time First-Team All-Pro selection in his 11-year pro football career.
Barney’s sensational performance against the Vikings occurred six days before his wedding day on Christmas Eve. He told the Detroit Free Press’ Joe Dowdall in December 1967 that he would serve on active duty in the Navy for six months after his honeymoon.
Lem Barney typically carried every ball he scored on a defensive touchdown or kick return off the field during his illustrious eleven-year NFL career. He told Saylor in 1970 he gave the balls to underprivileged children.
As Barney’s legendary pro football took off, David thought he was the total package. He had the intelligence, courage, speed, and quickness necessary to excel in one of the sport’s most demanding positions.
Lem Barney told the Detroit Free Press in 2017 that his stellar footwork was a product of backpedaling 3.5 miles along the Mississippi Gulf Coast shores.
Barney also relied on voracious film study to gain an advantage over the receivers he covered. He watched film of the upcoming opponents’ previous five games and studied his assigned receivers’ route running and various tendencies.
Barney set himself apart from other defensive backs because he was a team player. According to David, Barney went out of his way to offer advice, raise team morale, and do the little things it took to help the Lions win.
“All of this is so important today, because Hall of Famers as positive role models must exhibit championship qualities on and off the field,” David said as he presented Barney in Canton, OH in the summer of 1992.
Lem Barney didn’t just make a difference inside the locker room. He also made a difference in the community. He collaborated with the United Way, Special Olympics, Easter Seals, the United Negro College Fund, and the Boy Scouts of America for various charitable endeavors over the years, per ProFootballHOF.com.
When Lem Barney played in the National Football League from 1967 to 1977, he considered the San Francisco 49ers’ Kezar Stadium his favorite road stadium because of its grassy field.
Barney also loved playing at the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field because the heated coils underneath its grass surface made for desirable playing conditions.
Barney thought football during his era wasn’t as violent as it is today. He told ProFootballHOF.com in 2011 that today’s emphasis on weight training makes the players bigger and stronger. Contemporary advanced training techniques also ultimately resulted in a faster pace of play.
Although Barney and the other players of his era worked out in the offseason, they didn’t earn anything for their efforts. In contrast, today’s NFL players earn money for training hard in the months leading up to training camp in the summer.
Lem Barney singled out Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Gale Sayers, Sonny Jurgensen, Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor, and Bobby Mitchell as the toughest players he faced during his NFL career, per Pro FootballHOF.com.
Barney also mentioned that Starr, whose pass he intercepted and returned for a touchdown in his first NFL game in 1967, was one of his best friends.
Lem Barney became an ordained minister in 1975 – his ninth year in professional football.
The Detroit Lions averaged seven wins per season from 1967 to 1977. They experienced some success at the turn of the 1970s decade when they averaged ten wins per season from 1969 to 1970.
Barney experienced postseason football just once in his career. It happened during the 1970 NFL season when the Lions lost to the Dallas Cowboys in a low-scoring affair in the NFC Divisional Round, 5-0.
Barney’s biggest paycheck was worth $80,000 in his final pro football season in 1977, per the Detroit Free Press.
Lem Barney retired from pro football at the end of that season. He finished his eleven-year NFL career with 56 interceptions, 1,077 interception return yards, seven defensive touchdowns, 25 forced fumbles, and 17 fumble recoveries.
Lem Barney, his wife Jacci, and their family currently reside in the Southfield, MI area. He has a daughter, LaTrece, and a son, Lem III, with his first wife Martha.
By Barney’s estimate, he had seven concussions in his eleven-year pro football career. It wasn’t until 1979 that he first felt their devastating effects.
Barney was in his second year as a BET football analyst that year. When he woke up on game day, his head began to throb. He also felt woozy.
When Barney was at the hospital for further evaluation, his doctor revealed a startling discovery.
The physician asked him how many concussions he had during his days on the gridiron. Barney told him he had none.
However, X-rays revealed spots in Barney’s brain that suggested he had at least seven concussions during his football career.
The doctor also asked Barney if he had ever lost consciousness during a game. The latter replied in the affirmative.
It was only then that he found out those were concussions. Barney and his contemporaries referred to them as “dingers,” “bell ringers,” and “stingers” during their era.
Fortunately, Barney has remained in good health despite sustaining several concussions as a player.
Great moment: Bill Belichick with Pro Football Hall of Famer Lem Barney. pic.twitter.com/9im3w2D8Bp
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 7, 2019
Although he has a nerve condition that produces a tingling feeling that limits his sleep to just three or four hours nightly, he can still work a full-time job.
Nevertheless, Barney has expressed regrets about playing football.
“If I do come back in another life, I would not want to play football,” Barney told Yahoo Sports Radio’s Travis Rodgers (via Yahoo! Sports’ Frank Schwab) in the fall of 2013. “It would either be golf, tennis. I would even try hockey before I would try football again. It’s a very dangerous sport.”
Barney worked in public relations for the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company Detroit Medical Center during his retirement years. He has also done ministry work for Prison Fellowship.
Barney has also been serving as the associate pastor of Hope United Methodist Church in Southfield, MI, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Lem Barney entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1992. Former Detroit Lions defensive coach Jim David was his presenter.
Barney told ProFootballHOF.com that he chose David because his teaching helped mold him into a first-rate defensive back during his legendary NFL career.
Part of Barney’s enshrinement speech reads:
“No one ever dreams of getting to this spot once he comes into the NFL, if anyone ever dreams of getting into the Hall of Fame, he is having a nightmare…Football for me for 20 years was a way of life. I enjoyed it, I whistled while I worked and every opportunity I had I tried to promote victories and wins.”
Lem Barney is also a member of the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, the Detroit Lions 75th Anniversary Team, the Detroit Lions All-Time Team, the Pride of the Lions, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, and the Jackson State Sports Hall of Fame.
Detroit authorities arrested Lem Barney in the spring of 1993 after they discovered a minuscule amount of cocaine in his hat after he crashed his vehicle into a freeway ramp.
Fortunately, a local jury cleared Barney of drug charges a month and a half later.
The Detroit Lions retired Lem Barney’s No. 20 jersey in 2004.
Barney told the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website in 2011 that his favorite hobbies are working out and playing tennis and golf.
Barney, a devout Christian, reads the Bible every morning before he trains. He wrote several Biblical scriptures on his exercise machines in his basement gym for inspiration.
“I have two favorites,” Barney told the Detroit Free Press in 2017. “‘Give and you shall be given’ and ‘Let us live together and learn to love one another.”
In terms of Barney’s preferred musical genres, he listens to gospel, jazz, and classical music.
Barney, who honed his singing chops during his days as a youth choir member in Mississippi, received an invitation to sing the national anthem at the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies in 2015.
Lem Barney is not a habitual moviegoer and television enthusiast. He and his wife, who both hail from coastal areas, love eating seafood such as shrimp, lobster, and crab. They also consume chicken and plenty of fresh vegetables as part of a healthy diet.
Barney’s favorite athletes of all time are Dave Bing, Harold Jackson, John Outlaw, and the Richardson brothers: Willie, Gloster, and Thomas.