Lem Barney, an All-Pro with a golden voice
Funny, the neat things we learn, sometimes years and years after the fact.
For instance, I knew Mississippi and Pro Football Hall of Famer Lem Barney played in seven Pro Bowls. I knew he had his number retired by the Detroit Lions. I knew he intercepted the first pass thrown his direction in the NFL and returned it for a touchdown. I even knew Hall of Famer Bart Starr threw it. I knew Lem was one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history. I knew he was from Gulfport and had become a preacher.
I knew all that.
What I did not know is this: Besides all his football awards, Barney also won a Gold Record for his musical talents. That’s right. He sang backup vocals on Marvin Gaye’s Motown megahit album “What’s Going On.”
“Marvin wanted to play football, and I wanted to sing,” Barney said Wednesday during a visit to his alma mater, Jackson State.
Turns out, Barney could sing better than Marvin Gaye could play football.
When Barney joined the Detroit Lions, he made it a point to seek out Gaye, who was one of his favorite entertainers. When he introduced himself to Gaye, Gaye said, “You can’t be the Lem Barney, not the Lions Lem Barney. You’re too little.”
Barney showed him his driver’s license. They became good friends, and Marvin Gaye actually did try out for the Detroit Lions.
“He had some skills,” Barney said, and then he chuckled, “just not NFL skills.”
Barney had other-worldly skills as a cornerback. He intercepted 56 passes in his 11 seasons. The interception in his first game as a rookie rates high on Barney’s list.
“You have to understand, I was a quarterback at 33rd Street School in Gulfport,” Barney said. “I did not convert to defense until my sophomore year at Jackson State. Bart Starr was my hero when I was a high school quarterback. I wanted to be Bart Starr.”
So then he faced Starr in his first game as a pro and the first play was a pass to Boyd Dowler in the flat. Barney broke on the ball, dove in front of Dowler, catching the ball in the process.
“I did a forward shoulder roll, came up on my feet, and ran it on into the end zone for a touchdown,” Barney said.
No sense wasting time.
“I talked to Bart Starr after the game and we had a great relationship from then on,” Barney said.
Wednesday, Barney had a reunion with former Lions teammate, Eddie Payton, the JSU golf coach. Payton, a kick return specialist, was traded from Cleveland to Detroit.
“Lem Barney took me under his wing,” Eddie Payton said. “He wanted me to succeed as a punt and kick returner because, as he told me then, ‘Eddie, I don’t want to return another kick as long as I live.’
“Lem Barney was the consummate professional,” Payton said. “He was the guy you wanted to be like — on and off the field.”
Barney turned 68 in September but still appears as trim as any cornerback in the league.
He will speak to the Jackson State Chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Thursday night.