Ever since her son died in August, Sarah Looney begins her day with a textual content message.
“I’ll say, ‘Good morning, I hope you’ve got a wonderful day. I like you,'” Sarah mentioned. “After which I began doing this when D.J. handed away, do #beDJstrong. I ship that to him each time.”
When Rob Sale, Louisiana‘s offensive coordinator, receives these messages, he instantly writes again, a approach for each of them to deal with the grief.
Sarah Looney bonded with Sale after her son, D.J. Looney, the Ragin’ Cajuns’ co-offensive line coach, died suddenly of a heart attack throughout a group exercise on Aug. 1 at age 31.
Sarah and D.J. would ship one another messages through Snapchat day by day. When she first instructed Sale she wasn’t going to have that anymore, he mentioned, “Properly, you are able to do that for me.”
And they also have, via telephone calls and texts.
“Speaking to me day by day, letting me ship him these little messages to maintain some form of — one thing for me to stay up for,” she mentioned. “A way for me to have the ability to share this love that I’ve with anyone, as a result of it could simply have been increase in me. It is simply invaluable for me, for my peace of thoughts and every thing.”
The particular friendship between the coaches was indicative of Looney’s larger-than-life character and skill to get together with anybody. When he first joined the Louisiana workers to assist with the offensive line, Sale was skeptical. “O-line guys, we’re form of territorial,” he mentioned. “After we first received right here, Coach [Billy Napier] mentioned, ‘I need to break up the offensive workers and have two full-time O-line guys,’ and I am considering, each place I have been I’ve finished it myself. I used to be form of hesitant, you realize?”
“The one factor that is related with these guys is that they performed O-line within the SEC,” defensive backs coach LaMar Morgan mentioned.
However Looney instantly gained Sale over. Each males put their egos apart and fashioned “a bit of yin and yang,” as assistant head coach Jabbar Juluke mentioned.
The duo would stroll collectively within the mornings and discuss soccer, household and life. They had been so linked that after spending a complete day collectively, Sale would instantly name Looney after leaving the ability so they might proceed the dialog on the trip residence.
On official recruiting visits, Looney and Sale would do karaoke collectively. It did not matter if it was gospel, rap, or nation; they might do all of it. Sale will admit, “He might sing a complete lot higher than I might, that is for dang certain.”
And as was typical with individuals who met Looney even simply as soon as, the connection went far past the workplace. Sale’s youngsters referred to him as Uncle Looney, and Looney handled Sale’s youngsters like the remainder of his nieces and nephews — always asking how they had been doing and showering them with presents. Sale now has a listing of all of Looney’s nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays, and plans to ship them playing cards when the time comes.
There is a photograph of Looney kissing his child nephew, who died within the spring of 2018, that Sale retains on his desk. “I’ve that image of Coach Looney on my desk and I see it day by day, as a result of I simply know what sort of uncle he was, not solely to my youngsters, however to his nieces and nephews.”
“I cherished that man,” Sale mentioned. “I nonetheless to at the present time catch myself wanting to select up the telephone and name him.”
Sarah feels the identical approach.
“I inform folks I am devastated past devastation,” Sarah mentioned. “Typically — it has been over two months — and generally I simply cry. I simply can not consider that I will not ever have the ability to speak to him, hug him, love him once more on this earth.”
So their every day textual content messages function the following smartest thing.
“[His family] can be part of my life for the remainder of my life,” Sale mentioned.
The qualities Looney confirmed at Louisiana had been evident from an early age.
In elementary faculty, he was a preferred choose for video games as a result of he was the largest. His finest pal on the time was often among the many final picked, if he was picked in any respect. And Sarah remembers him being protecting and saying, “If you happen to do not choose him, do not choose me.”
Sarah additionally remembers a instructor telling her that Looney walked as much as her, complimented her on her new haircut, and walked away. The instructor instructed Sarah, “My husband did not even discover.”
By the point he hit highschool, Sarah mentioned he was so common he was often known as “The Mayor” as a result of he knew all people, and all people knew him. His mayoral qualities can be obvious when he arrived at his wrestling matches.
“As he progressed via the gymnasium, I noticed he was kissing infants and shaking palms,” Sarah mentioned. “I imply actually, he would take a step, anyone would say one thing to him and he would smile and pat them on the again or one thing. Two or three steps later anyone else is saying one thing.”
Looney did not begin taking part in soccer till he was within the seventh grade. “He was not an excellent soccer participant in any respect,” she mentioned with amusing. “He was simply large, and he performed protection on the time — he was a nostril sort out. He actually did not know what was occurring.”
However Looney was a proficient athlete. He was beginning the following 12 months, taking part in in probably the greatest districts in Alabama. By the point he was 15 years outdated, he realized he wished to play Division I soccer. His coach would move out letters gamers acquired from schools in entrance of the group to encourage them to work more durable. It labored on Looney, and he finally landed a scholarship from Mississippi State to play for Dan Mullen.
Looney was a favourite there too, and by the point he was finished together with his taking part in days in Starkville, “The Mayor” was now often known as “The Governor.”
When his taking part in days had been over, Looney received a job as a supervisor at Goal. After six months, he got here residence and instructed Sarah, “Mother, I am going again into soccer — that is the place my coronary heart is.”
That is when Looney landed a job at East Mississippi Group Faculty. Teaching on a low wage, Looney lived in a rented trailer in a city with solely two fuel stations and the closest Walmart about an hour away. However he was teaching soccer, so he was pleased.
“That is how essential it was, he cherished the game that a lot,” she mentioned. “He knew what he wished to do was coach, and he wanted to get again into teaching.”
EMCC gained a nationwide title throughout Looney’s second season there, earlier than he went to Central Arkansas to educate tackles and tight ends from 2014 to 2015. He was a graduate assistant at Georgia in 2016, and spent the 2017 season teaching tight ends at Mississippi State earlier than becoming a member of Louisiana in 2018.
“He did not postpone issues that he wished,” she mentioned. “He went forward and received what he wished, when he wished it.”
Anyone who hung out at Louisiana’s services felt D.J. Looney’s vitality.
“He was the lifetime of the occasion,” middle Shane Vallot mentioned. “It was enjoyable to stay up for going to follow day by day, the conferences day by day, and see Coach Looney.”
Former Louisiana offensive lineman Kevin Dotson mentioned, “As quickly as he comes across the nook, he will say one thing that is both hilarious, or simply attempting to perk all people’s vitality up. It do not matter soccer participant, soccer participant, anyone who’s within the complicated goes to have that have with him.”
Everybody has completely different recollections of Looney, however one factor that stands out is his literal and metaphorical open-door coverage. Irrespective of who you had been or what he had occurring, you can speak to him.
For Sale, it was listening to him on FaceTime together with his nieces and nephews, and the way pleased they had been to be listening to from their uncle. For Vallot, it merely was listening to him sing. For former offensive lineman Robert Hunt, it was strolling in, sitting down and speaking about something.
Looney’s presence wasn’t restricted to the workplace. For Morgan, the defensive backs coach, it was the way in which Looney gravitated to him instantly after Morgan’s twin daughters had been born prematurely at 5 months, each weighing below 2 kilos.
“Looney was all the time checking on me,” Morgan mentioned. “He would name my telephone a lot that even my little 2-year-old, each time my telephone FaceTimed, she’s ‘Coach! Coach! Coach!’ she begins screaming it, as a result of he is all the time speaking to her.” Morgan says that to at the present time, any time anyone tries to FaceTime him, she screams for Looney.
Sarah has now taken over that position for Looney. “She has all of the appointments that my youngsters have, and she or he’s messaging me asking how the appointments went,” Morgan mentioned. “It is unbelievable.”
Napier added, “What I appreciated about D.J. was — he actually cared. It was actual with him. He had honest curiosity in serving to folks. He had loads to do with the tradition we have been in a position to construct right here.”
Looney’s FCS teaching roots helped him deal with extra issues than most FBS coaches may give you the option and even prepared to do. Extra merely, it was who he was.
Doing all of it meant being the man gamers had been prepared to speak to. It doesn’t matter what place a participant was taking part in, Looney was prepared to provide them the time to assist repair no matter is likely to be affecting them.
Morgan mentioned a number of coaches on workers would ask Looney to speak to a participant to ensure every thing was all proper.
“A child that will not say nothing to no one, will go in there and spill every thing,” Morgan mentioned. “Looney would come again in there and alter the child, the child can be model new after Looney talks to him.”
“He might all the time inform what your wants had been — if you happen to wanted a hug, or amusing, or anyone to set you straight,” Sarah mentioned.
Looney was in a position to assist gamers flip the swap in the same approach on the sector, too.
“He’d discover a approach like, ‘Hey man, come on! I am in search of one thing large from you freak!’ And the child would simply smile like, ‘All proper I received you coach,’ Juluke mentioned. “And that child’s complete persona of his physique language would change due to these few phrases that D.J. could have spoken to him.
“And to me, that is what you miss, the dynamic workers member that is like that.”
That very same vitality made Looney nice at recruiting, which was one cause Napier wished to deliver him in. Louisiana signed the No. 1 recruiting class within the Solar Belt for each 2019 and 2020, and Looney was an enormous cause why.
“There can be a five-star child, four-star child that should not have the ability to get on the telephone, and the dude’s blowing him up on a regular basis, they’re simply having informal dialog,” Morgan mentioned. “There’s lots of guys that we did not get late that we should not have even been within the combine on.”
Sale mentioned, “He is an O-line man, however recruited a linebacker from Mississippi that is likely to be within the linebacker room now. However he continued to work on these relationships and investing in these youngsters. It wasn’t similar to, ‘OK linebacker coach, he is yours now.’ He wasn’t like that.”
Looney did not overlook about gamers as soon as they left campus, both.
He helped Hunt choose an agent when he wanted the steerage. Hunt mentioned that Looney was asking the essential questions that he himself hadn’t thought of, and was ready to ensure he was taken care of as he took the following step in his taking part in profession. “He was like an enormous brother to me,” Hunt mentioned
Dotson did not get an invitation to the NFL mix, and because the coronavirus pandemic began, there was loads of concern as to what Dotson would do to be able to give himself the possibility to be drafted in one of the best place attainable.
“He went out of his solution to discover a place, discover coaches — dependable coaches,” Dotson mentioned. “Coaches that — in the event that they gave the time — all people would consider.” Dotson ended up being drafted within the fourth spherical by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was beginning by Week 2.
The additional care Looney confirmed all people made him coach on the sector, too. His chemistry with Sale prolonged to the sector, and made for the strongest models on Louisiana’s roster because the Napier period began.
The gamers will let you know Looney was a tricky coach who cherished all his gamers.
“He would make the teaching enjoyable,” Vallot mentioned. That was the large factor about him. He’ll coach us exhausting, he’ll inform us straight, however we might all respect him and have enjoyable with him as a result of it was: Coach us exhausting, however there is a joke with it.”
Vallot by no means performed middle earlier than coming to Louisiana, however as a result of Looney did in school, he was in a position to get him up to the mark. “He was proper by my aspect the entire approach — I used to be having bother snapping the ball, so he was displaying me,” he mentioned.
Dotson mentioned that Looney’s capacity to regulate his perspective was key to their success. Looney turned way more critical on sport day, and the gamers fed off of it. “You could possibly really feel the depth on sport day,” he mentioned. “His happy-go-lucky temper — it isn’t gone — however his intense temper on the forefront.”
“It will get you in the fitting mindset. It tells you this isn’t follow. When Looney is like this, you’ll be able to inform that this isn’t follow. There is no taking part in round anymore, it is ‘You gotta match my vitality.'”
Looney had many sayings the gamers remember right now, however the one that stands proud probably the most is “5 = 1.” 5 offensive linemen working collectively equals one unit. It is now on the wall of Louisiana’s offensive line assembly room. It is an perspective they carry with them each follow, and each sport.
“This man was going to be a rock star,” Morgan mentioned. “He was a rock star, however he was actually gonna be a rock star, interval. No one can argue that with me.”
When Sarah and her husband, David Looney, went to Lafayette after D.J.’s demise, she was requested if she wished to talk to the group. At first, she wasn’t certain what to say and joked about how a lot she did not prefer it when the group went for it on fourth down due to how nervous it made her.
Then, Sarah instructed the gamers they needed to keep it up, as a result of she knew that is what D.J. would have wished.
“D.J. instructed me one time after a sport — I used to be upset, and I used to be speaking about it. He mentioned, ‘Mother, we have now a 24-hour rule, that it doesn’t matter what occurs after 24 hours, we transfer on. We begin making ready for the following sport, for the following day, for the following alternative.’ I simply inspired them to keep in mind that. Not that you can ever overlook when it got here to your data of him and realizing who he was — however that you simply could not let that cease you in your tracks, you needed to carry on.”
There might by no means be something that might instantly make issues higher for a group that misplaced the individual they cherished probably the most, and had been round day by day. However Sarah did higher than anyone else might.
“Seeing her be so sturdy for her personal son — I imply that is her son — and seeing her be so sturdy, going up there and telling us that she would need us to maneuver on, that helped me loads,” Vallot mentioned. “As a result of if I can see his mother being sturdy, that makes us need to be sturdy for her.”
“I hated to see these youngsters so damaged up by it,” she mentioned. “I perceive their anguish, I actually did. However I wished to provide them one thing constructive to consider — form of like giving them permission to go forward and restart life.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns have labored to get again to regular throughout a time that’s something however. They opened the 2020 season towards No. 23 Iowa State, and upset the Cyclones on the street. Sale and Morgan walked off the sector collectively, arms round one another, crying till they received to the locker room.
“It was simply loopy to me,” Morgan mentioned. “Simply wonderful that we went via all these items to get the place we at now, realizing how he would have responded, he would have had a ball. He would have cherished it — he would have been dancing, having enjoyable.”
Since then, Louisiana has remained unbeaten and takes its 3-0 file and No. 21 AP rating into Wednesday’s sport with Coastal Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App).
Regardless of working to maneuver ahead, anyone with an affect like Looney’s would not simply go away. That is factor for Louisiana’s program transferring ahead.
“He had a vivid future on this enterprise,” Juluke mentioned. “There are usually not many Black O-line coaches in America, and D.J. had the power to grow to be probably the greatest in doing it. I feel that the affect that he had goes to proceed on to inform folks work exhausting for what you need, do it with a smile in your face, and ensure you’re giving it 110 % regularly, and also you’re gonna have good issues occur to you.
“That vitality continues to be right here, these beliefs are nonetheless right here, these basic issues we do are nonetheless right here, and we’re excited that our younger males are going to proceed to honor him in that approach.”