Gold Jacket Spotlight: Practice Made Perfect for Lem Barney

Gold Jacket Spotlight Published on : 1/30/2022
Borrowing from the old joke about Carnegie Hall, “Hey, mister, how do you get to the Pro Football Hall of Fame?”

Lem Barney could deliver the punch line: “Practice, practice, practice.”

Stepping this week into the Gold Jacket Spotlight, Lem trained with an intensity few matched, going back to his college days in the mid-1960s. As a result, he entered the NFL in 1967 as a pro football-ready cornerback, earning the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award and an invitation to the Pro Bowl following a season in which he intercepted a league-high 10 passes.

Lem would play 11 seasons for the Detroit Lions. He intercepted 56 passes – still 18th best on the NFL’s all-time list – and returned seven of them for touchdowns, which places him in a tie for 12th all time. He also was a scoring threat on the Lions’ return teams, finishing his career with two punt return TDs, a kickoff return for a touchdown and a score by returning a missed field goal.

He was selected as a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1960s and was enshrined in Canton as a member of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 1992.

Blessed with speed, agility and opponent-freezing moves in the open field from the earliest of his football-playing days, Lem was a standout quarterback in high school. He dreamed of making the pros “as the first Black quarterback.”

From several options, primarily at historically Black schools (HBCUs), Lem accepted a scholarship offer to play at Jackson State, not far from his home in Gulfport, Miss. After his freshman year, he was ready for a position change.

“I started in college as a quarterback, but I wasn’t getting much action,” he said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “I asked to be switched to the corner because that’s where the action is.”

To prepare for the new position, Lem began a rigorous training regimen as a college sophomore that he maintained for many years.

“When I found out I was going to be a defensive back and not a quarterback, I started running backward for training,” he recalled in a podcast a few years ago. “People used to see me down on the coast in Gulfport … I’d run down to the beach and I’d run like a mile and half forward, and I’d run, like, two and a half miles backward.”

About those unorthodox four-mile runs …

“People thought I was crazy. And for a long time, I thought I was crazy as well,” Lem said.

Not when you measure the results, however. Lem in full backpedal could stay stride for stride with the speediest receivers of the era.

“It was tough,” Lem said of running backward in the Gulf Coast sand, but it “was my key to being as successful as I was as a defensive back. … Most of your activity is moving backward.”

Lem tried, without success, to find disciples for his routine. He also was known as a player who gave as much effort during the week as he did on Sundays.

“I never was a guy who would loaf during practice or during (off-season) training,” he said. “Your body just adapts to what you do for it. (Training) was always with intensity. … It was always full-speed ahead for me. I really enjoyed practice.”

Practice, practice, practice.

That’s how Lem got to the Pro Football Hall of Fame – and into the Gold Jacket Spotlight.