Starr-gazing Lem Barney broke in with a bang

Cornerback Lem Barney played his entire career with the Detroit Lions and was elected to the Football Hall of Fame in 1992.

Cornerback Lem Barney played his entire career with the Detroit Lions and was elected to the Football Hall of Fame in 1992.

A pick-six against the defending Super Bowl champs on the first pass ever thrown your way, and doing it on the hallowed ground of Lambeau Field in front of legendary coach Vince Lombardi? Sounds like an NFL rookie’s dream – and Lem Barney lived the dream.

Barney was a nervous first-year cornerback out of Jackson State University when he took the field against the Green Bay Packers on September 17, 1967. “I was so nervous,” Barney later said, “I wasn’t sure I would be able to play. My heart was pounding, my legs were like jelly, and my eyes were glassy.”

Making matters worse was the opposition that Sunday. The Packers would go on to win an unprecedented third straight NFL championship in 1967, their fifth in seven years, as well as a second straight Super Bowl. Pulling the trigger on offense was quarterback Bart Starr, one of several future Hall of Famers playing for Lombardi. Barney had grown up worshipping the Packers, especially Starr. “I admired him for his grace on the field and for his graciousness off it,” Barney said.

The Packers took the opening kickoff. On the first series, Starr decided to test the rookie cornerback. Boyd Dowler, a 6-5, 225-pound split end, lined up against Barney. The ball was snapped, Dowler sped a few yards downfield, then planted his foot and cut toward the sideline.

Barney, watching the pattern develop, stopped back-pedaling and broke to where he thought Starr was going to throw. “Starr wanted to throw the ball to Dowler,” Barney said, “but he realized I had read the play.”

Adjusting at the last moment, Starr tried to throw the ball down and away from Barney. But Barney cut inside of the receiver and dove with outstretched arms. “The whole world was moving in slow motion,” Barney recalled. “On my way down , I got my hands on the ball. I had it! I had intercepted my idol, Bart Starr.”

Barney hit the turf headfirst, rolled over, and sprung back to his feet. “There were only 24 yards of empty grass between me and a touchdown,” he said. “I don’t know if I ever ran as fast as when I crossed the goal line. It was a tremendous feeling.” The Lions’ quick score stunned the Packers, who fell behind 17-0 before rallying for a tie.

For Barney, his pick-six was the first of 10 interceptions he would rack up in 1967, including two others run back for touchdowns. He was voted NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He would retire after the 1977 season with 56 interceptions, a total that would help usher him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992. And a few days before his induction, he received a telegram of congratulations from the man he had victimized, Bart Starr.