In this edition of 100 Days, 100 Detroit Lions, we honor the Lions’ first Hall of Famer to wear number 20.
5. Lem Barney
Cornerback. 1967-77 Detroit
Jackson State, a small Division II school in Mississippi, has produced more than eighty-five football players who’ve went on to play in the NFL, including Pro Football Hall of Fame members Walter Payton and Jackie Slater. However, it is safe to say that no Jackson State footballer made a bigger impact in his first NFL game than Lem Barney. Starting at left cornerback on opening day 1967, against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, Barney intercepted the first pass thrown in his direction. However, Barney’s first pick was anything but ordinary. Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr had sent Packer running back Elijah Pitts into the flat behind receiver Boyd Dowler to test the young defensive back. Barney read the play and broke on the ball, making a diving interception. He then somersaulted onto his feet, and raced 24-yards the other way for a touchdown.
That was the first of Barney’s 10 interceptions in his rookie season, which tied him for the league lead. He returned three of them for touchdowns, earning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and the first of his seven trips to the Pro Bowl. He would end his career in 1977 with 56 interceptions. Barney, nicknamed “The Supernatural,” by longtime Lion beat-writer Jerry Green, proved to be a big playmaker on special teams too. During his career, he averaged 25.5 yards on kick returns, and 9.2 yards on punt returns. He also scored 11 touchdowns on 7 interception returns, 2 punt returns, a 98-yard kickoff return, and a 94-yard missed field goal return. He also recovered 11 opponents’ fumbles, and performed double-duty as the Lions’ punter in 1967 and 1969.
Lem’s defensive backfield coach Jim David, who was himself a stalwart member of the Lion secondary during the 1950’s, once described his former pupil this way: “If there was ever anybody better than Lem, I never saw or heard of him. Nobody before or since measured up to him.”