By Ross Forman
His autograph is legible, always. Every letter. Even inscriptions, such as “Pro Football Hall of Fame” – and that’s intentional.
“I have always been mindful of my signature, so people can understand and read it,” said Lemuel Jackson Barney, known to the sporting world as Lem Barney. “It’s actually a characteristic trait that my mom and dad trained me about. They would say, ‘Once a job has begun, never leave it until it’s done; be it large or small, do it well or not at all.’
“Sure, there often are times when people can irritate you with autograph requests, but I’ve always taken the time and the initiative to do it right. I have pride in my signature.”
On the football field and off.
Barney, who was a three-time All-Southwestern Conference star at Jackson State University, went on to an 11-year career (1967-77) with the Detroit Lions. He was the Lions’ second-round draft pick in 1967 and the 1967 Defensive Rookie of the Year.
He was a seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback who had 56 career interceptions, and he gained more than 1,000 yards each returning kickoffs and punts. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
He was the fifth cornerback to enter the Hall of Fame, and his resume includes 11 career touchdowns. His best season was, arguably, his first. He grabbed a career-high 10 interceptions and scored three TDs in 1967.
“I know people often will sell an autograph and, well, fans can do whatever they want with the autograph after I sign it. It doesn’t bother me if people sell the autograph,” said Barney, who is neither a memorabilia collector nor an autograph collector.
Barney said he only collects Bible verses. In addition, the only autograph he has ever asked for was Lou Rawls, who he snagged while in college.
And, yes, Barney still has that Rawls’ signature, stored in his collegiate scrapbook.
“I’ve signed literally everything over the years – from bubble gum wrappers to bras to panties,” said Barney, now 61. “I know collectibles is a multi-million dollar operation annually. When I go to the shows, you see the real collectors; those who stand in line for that one autograph. You also have others who get as many as possible, just to sell the autographs. But once I made a commitment to sign, it doesn’t matter to me what they do with the signatures.”
Barney, who will sign autographs at Tristar’s Houston Collectors Show, June 1-3 at the George R. Brown Convention Center, attends about five shows annually. He appeared at the Gibraltar Trade Center in Mt. Clemens in mid-December, signing copies of his new book, The Supernatural, (Immortal Investments Publishing) which he co-wrote with Gus Mollasis.
The book is an inspirational, motivational, insightful journey through Barney’s life.
“I feel it’s a very delightful book,” he said. “I never had an inclination to write a book until after my second year in the ministry when it was first suggested to me. The book came out great. My favorite part is the sound-bites in print from my kids.”
The book’s foreword was written by Bill Cosby.
“I don’t have any athletic heroes; I never have,” said Barney, who, in 1999, ranked No. 97 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. “My first national interview was with the late, great Howard Cosell for a game in my fourth season against the Chicago Bears on ‘Monday Night Football,’ ” he said. “He gave his grand introduction for me, and then asked about my role models and I told him who they were: my parents. That doesn’t mean I haven’t appreciated some great athletes over the years; they just were not role models for me.”
Thus, it’s no surprise that Barney said the only autograph he’d ever like to add to his collection is Jesus Christ. After all, Barney has spent 30 years as a full-time minister. He speaks regularly at prisons across the country.
“Being a minister is great for me, gives me a chance to do what I’m called to do,” Barney said. “I would have liked to have been a 49er, a Raider, a Charger or a Ram. But I’m sure The Good Lord sent me here to Detroit because of the prison ministry.
“I love the Lord; I love His word. And I love to disseminate His word,” he continued. “Those guys in prison need to hear the word. The only thing that is turning athletes around and reducing the rate of recidivism is through religion. The reason the Lord gave me all of the skills that He did is, so I could do this, not so I could gloat about my football. Rather, so I can be a humble servant of His word.”
Or, as he claims, he’s “an Ambassador for the Lord.” Barney has spoken at some of the nation’s most dangerous prisons.
“Just the opportunity that I had to do what I did, and to have had success for 11 years was very gratifying, even though I never was able to raise that index finger as No. 1, be it in high school, college or in the pros,” Barney said. “But I enjoyed the love of the game nonetheless – the players who I played with and against, the coaches, etc.”
Is it frustrating not having won a Super Bowl? Not at all, he said.
“We had a good team and we prepared well. But it just wasn’t in the cards,” he continued. “We were in the same division against some great teams, including Green Bay and Minnesota. Sure, everyone would like to get to the big dance, but it just didn’t happen. I was a happy player. I cried a lot, but I was a happy player. Plus, I was an astute player who studied the game, took the game serious. The game not only was a job for me, but a livelihood. And I think I did pretty well. In 11 years, I only missed 11 games, including seven in one season due to a ripped groin muscle.
“The career highlight was the game itself,” he continued. “I can tell you everything from the first play until the last play of every game, including my first interception, against Green Bay, and my last interception, at the Silverdome. And everything in between.
“I still remember the good, the bad, the upside down, the inside out.”