Lem Barney may be most remembered as the Hall of Fame defensive back for the Detroit Lions but he has also been involved in a number of ministries and has sung on church choirs and college glee clubs as well as background for Marvin Gaye on the album “What’s Going On.” He played for his high school’s marching band wearing his football uniform during halftime of the football games because he also played for the school’s football team as a quarterback and safety.by
(I interviewed Lem Barney by phone on February 25, 2005)
Lem Barney may be most remembered as the Hall of Fame defensive back for the Detroit Lions but he has also been involved in a number of ministries and has sung on church choirs and college glee clubs as well as background for Marvin Gaye on the album “What’s Going On.” He played for his high school’s marching band wearing his football uniform during halftime of the football games because he also played for the school’s football team as a quarterback and safety.
Born on September 8, 1945 and raised in Gulfport, Mississippi, Barney was the second of four children. He was the only boy along with three sisters. His parents, Lemuel Sr. and Burdell, were chefs for a variety of restaurants along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and later managed their own catering service. “They were culinary scientists who specialized in Cajun seafood,” quipped Barney. “The meals at the Barney house were always good.”
Both of his parents were devoured Christian. “Church at the Barney household was not an option on Sundays, it was mandatory, it was a requirement,” said Barney and he credits the upbringing with keeping him on the straight and narrow. “What helped stabilize my life was my Christian parents.” He added that life in the Barney family taught him team structure and discipline. He looks upon his parents as his heroes, role models, and mentors, he said.
In his early years growing up, his mother wouldn’t let him play football but instead encouraged him into music and drama. That meant singing for the church choir. At times, though, he would sneak off and play street or sandlot football with his friends. He didn’t play organized sports until he was in junior high school. “I went away from home for the first time and stayed with my aunt in San Bernadino, California and I played football, baseball, basketball and ran track for Sturgis Junior High School,” said Barney.
He returned to Gulfport, Mississippi and attended Baptist 33rd Avenus High School where he played football and was a member of the school’s marching and concert bands. “My mom didn’t want me to play football. She said to the coach the only way I was going to play was if I also played in the school’s marching band at halftime. So I was the only member of the band who played with my football uniform on.” He also played quarterback and safety for the football team. Education, however, took precedence over sports. “Mom and dad challenged me. Their motto was: `No GPA, You don’t play.’ It was always books before ball,” said Barney. He was named All-City and All-State for football and received citations for his band performances. His success in football led to a football scholarship at Jackson State University.
He originally joined the Jackson State University football team with the intention of playing quarterback, but it soon became obvious that he would not get the chance. “There were two juniors who were ahead of me on the depth chart and they didn’t play quarterback until their junior year because the starter was Roy Cory, who later played wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. And, to make things even tougher, one of the junior quarterbacks was the son of the school’s athletic director. I knew I wouldn’t play quarterback so I was converted to a cornerback my sophomore year,” Barney remembered.
“It was a great joy to play cornerback,” he continued. “I ended up with 26 interceptions during my college career and that was the conference record until 1976 when a guy named James Hunter, who played for Grambling, tied the record. As it turns out, Hunter was a teammate of mine on the Detroit Lions.” Barney added that the record was broken by another Jackson State University player since and now stands at 28 interceptions.
Barney also ran the 100 yard and 40 yard dashes for the school’s track team. His best time was 9.5 seconds for the 100 and 4.5 seconds for the 40. As fast as that appears, it was not tops in the conference. “They had guys there who could fly,” said Barney. “There was still segregation then and so the best African-American athletes of the country ran track in the conference. Bob Hayes was at Florida A&M, Richard Steffins ran for Grambling, and James Hines was at Texas Southern. These guys were the country’s best in track. For me, it was just a joy to go to the meets and see who would be running.”
Due to his success in football at Jackson State, Barney was named All-American and All-Conference. The Detroit Lions selected him in the second round of the National Football League Draft in 1967. He played for the Lions his entire 11 year career in the NFL.
It wasn’t long before his teammates were calling him “Supernatural” as he quickly made an impression on the first day of training camp. In the very first scrimmage he stepped in front of Gail Cogdill, the team’s starting wide receiver, and deflected the first pass of the workout. On the next play, he leaped over Cogdill to make a one-handed interception. The legend grew when in his first regular season game against the Green Bay Packers, Barney intercepted Bart Starr’s first pass thrown in his direction and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown. In his last game of his rookie season against Minnesota, Barney intercepted three passes in one quarter and ran one back for a touchdown. He allowed just one touchdown all season and intercepted a total of 10 passes that season, returning three for touchdowns just one short of the then all-time-single season record. Obviously, he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Barney played his entire 11 year NFL career with the Lions. He has many fond memories of the time with the team. For example, Thanksgiving Days were a real treat during those 11 years. “The Lions played on Thanksgiving Day every year. It was a big event for us. It seemed like the whole world would be watching,” he said. Another gift was that the Lions made the Playoffs in 1971. It is a bitter sweet memory for Barney. The team lost to the Dallas Cowboys.
He also remembered the characters who played on the Lions team at the time. People like Alex Karras. “Karras didn’t like rookies much,” quipped Barney, “but he embraced me.”
Barney retired in 1977. During his career he intercepted a total of 56 passes and returned seven for touchdowns. He also returned 143 punts for a total of 1,312 yards and 50 kickoffs for 1,274 yards and punted for the Lions in 1967 and 1969. He was selected to the Pro Bowl seven times and the All-NFL/NFC team four times and was voted to the All-60s teams and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
His excitement was evident when he was enshrined into the Hall. During his acceptance speech he burst in to song. “I sang for Once in a Life Time,” he laughed.
After retiring he worked on several ministries. He became involved with Chuck Colsen’s Prison Fellowship Ministry a year before he retired and became a member of the organization’s board of directors. Colsen is well known for his involvement in the Watergate Scandal which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. “We went into prisons and ministered to the needs of inmates. We gave testimony and spoke the word. Prison officials and wardens at the time said the only thing that turned down the rate of recidivism of inmates after their release was being involved in some kind of religious structure. When the inmates got out, they hooked up with something that had that structure and didn’t return to jail.” He worked in the program around the nation. The Prison Fellowship Ministry is now International.
Barney has also been involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and was the director in Michigan for four years. “The ministry was started in Oklahoma by an athletic director named Dan McCallum. He got tired of seeing athletes being used by tobacco companies and others and started the group in the early `50s. Since then it has spread through middle schools, high schools, and colleges. The school’s principal, athletic director or coach invites the program into the school and we form a Fellowship Huddle Group which studies the Bible once a week before or after school,” explained Barney. He has been involved with the group since he was a player. He is also involved with the NFL Chaplaincy Program. This group began when Barney was starting his rookie year with the Lions. Founded by Ira Esselman, a Jew from Boca Raton, Florida, the group makes certain that all teams in the NFL has a pastor to fellowship with players and coaches on Sundays before the games. Finally, Barney is the associate pastor at the Springhill Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. He has been ministering there for 28 years.
Barney now lives in Commerce, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, with his second wife, Jacci who he married in 1999 and he is writing his autobiography titled, “From the Playing Fields to the Praying Fields.” He has a son, Lemuel III; a daughter, LaTrece; and a grandson, Lemuel IV, who just started playing organized ball this year.