Long before Barry Sanders made defenders miss the silver and blue Lions No. 20 jersey with his deer-like moves, even before Billy Sims made defenders wish they missed the silver and blue Lions No. 20 jersey after he ran over and through them, Lem Barney made the silver and blue Lions No. 20 jersey famous.
A smooth, yet hard-hitting cornerback out of Jackson State, Barney is second all-time in Lions history with 56 career interceptions, which ranks him 11th in NFL history. He returned seven of them for touchdowns and 1,077 return yards, both most in team history.
He was the NFL interception co-leader and defensive Rookie of the Year in 1967. He also returned kicks and was the Lions’ emergency punter. He totaled 1,312 career yards on punt returns and 1,274 career yards on kickoff returns. He was named to seven Pro Bowls and was All-NFL/NFC three times.
In 1994, he was selected as one of the 75 greatest players in NFL history, commemorating the leauge’s 75th anniversary.
Lem Barney was flat-out good.
Barney likens the walk of a Christian to the act of catching a punt or a kickoff and the attitude that is necessary to be an outstanding defensive back.
“On a kick, the ball is high in the air, forcing you to look up,” Barney said. “You are tempted to keep your eyes straight ahead because the opposing team is approaching you, quickly and ferociously. But you know if you take your eyes off the football, you can fumble it and cause your team to suffer the consequences.
“Some people are better at this than others. Some seem to be able to look at both things at one time. But if you ask even the great ones, they will tell you that they focus first on ‘things above’ (the football) and not on the ‘earthly things’ (the approaching players). The Bible has instruction that fits. Colossians 3:1-2 says ‘…set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.’
“Kick returners do best when they follow the coach’s instructions. Teammates block according to the play called. Life is all about taking orders and being obedient to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We must play by His rules and use His playbook—the Bible.”
The best attribute of a good cornerback is a short memory, because he’s going to get beat, and he has to be able to forget it and move on. If he’s thinking about the last play, the current play likely will be worse. Barney says it’s no different in life.
“We have to have short memories. If you ask God for forgiveness, He is faithful to forgive. The slate is wiped clean. Those mistakes no longer are on your record.”
The football record speaks highly of Barney. After an 11-year career with the Detroit Lions, in 1992 he became the fifth cornerback selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the Hall of Fame that Barney is most pleased with is God’s. His relationship with the Lord started at an early age, when he says church was a way of life. Many years later, as a member of FCA staff, he carries a message of hope to the students and coaches of southeastern Michigan.
He always focuses on “things above” with a short memory about any failures.
The above article originally appeared in FCA’s 50th Anniversary commemorative book, Sharing the Victory, published in 2004.