You only get one chance to make a first impression.
No athlete in the history of sports may have ever made a better first impression than defensive back Lem Barney. His first defensive assignment in the NFL resulted in a “pick six” for the Detroit Lions against the greatest quarterback who had ever played the game up to that time.
And yet, Barney was more than just a one-trick pony. His first play was dazzling, but it wasn’t the pinnacle, it was just the tip of the iceberg on what would be a Hall of Fame career with Detroit.
On September 17, 1967, Barney was an unknown commodity in the National Football League. In spite of starting and starring for three seasons at tiny Jackson State in the Southwestern Conference, Barney was unproven at the top level. There were some who felt the Lions had erred in using a second round pick in the amateur draft on Barney.
The Packers were the best team in football, maybe the best there’s ever been. The previous January they had won the first championship game between the National Football League and the American Football League, the game that would in a few short years be dubbed “The Super Bowl.” Bart Starr was their quarterback, an almost mythical figure, a superstar unparalleled in his time. But on this day, the rookie got the better of Starr.
On the Packers first possession Starr dropped back in the pocket, stared at Carrol Dale, his intended receiver, and let go a pass. Simultaneously, on coverage against Dale, Barney read Starr’s eyes and darted in front of the Packer receiver. He wrapped his hands around the football and walted 24 yards into the end zone for a touchdown as Starr shuffled off to the sideline in disgust. Defending the first pass thrown in his direction in the NFL, Detroit’s rookie cornerback had made a big play against the star quarterback of Green Bay.
“My feet almost never touched the ground,” Barney later told reporters in the locker room.
The play rattled Starr. He threw three more interceptions that day as the underdog Lions fought to a 17-17 tie at Lambeau Field. Detroit showed moxie, fending off the Packers after the Lions had built a 17-0 halftime lead. It wasn’t the way the champion Packers had hoped to start the 1967 season.
Barney had made his first impression and the first pick of his storied career, and the following week against the Browns, the speedy defender picked off two more passes. He would intercept a league leading 10 passes in his rookie season, for an incredible 232 yards and three touchdowns. In his 11-year career, spent entirely with Detroit, Barney intercepted 56 passes, 32 of them in his first four seasons. He ran five interceptions back for touchdowns in his first four years, and suffice to say that after that, few teams threw the ball in his direction.
Barney did far more than just shut down opposing wide receivers. In his rookie season, and again in 1969, Barney was the Lions’ punter, averaging more than 35 yards per kick. The fastest man on the team, he also served as a punt and kick returner at various times. In 1968 he returned a missed field goal 94 yards for a touchdown against the 49ers; the next week against the Rams, Barney returned a kickoff 98 yards for a score. He returned punts for touchdowns in both 1969 and 1970. In all, Barney scored 11 touchdowns in his career and recovered 11 fumbles as well. He had a nose for the ball.
The original #20 (the jersey later made famous by Billy Sims and Barry Sanders), Barney was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1967, also earning the first of seven selections to the Pro Bowl.
When he retired after the 1977 season, Barney had solidified himself as one of the best defensive backs in the history of the NFL, and in 1992 he was chosen for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of the men on the stage with Barney when he was inducted was Bart Starr, the QB who Barney had burned on Day One in the NFL back in ’67.
It had been the perfect first impression, and a lasting one.