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Football: A year later, Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns on the day football assistant D.J. Looney died

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, July 31, 2021

Zi’Yon Hill recalls the morning like it was yesterday.

The UL football team was working out shortly before the start of preseason practice a year ago on Aug. 1 when offensive line assistant coach D.J. Looney collapsed.

Players were ushered from the team’s indoor practice field to its weight room as team medical personnel tended to Looney.

“We thought everything was cool, that it wouldn’t be that devastating, you know?” said Hill, one of UL’s starting defensive linemen.

Looney was later pronounced dead at University Hospital & Clinics, across the street from Cajun Field.

Looney, who was 31, died of a heart attack.

“I feel like God does everything for a reason, you know?” Hill said.

“He gave an angel to watch over us going into (that) season, and I feel like that angel helped us accomplish a lot.”

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UL rallied after losing Looney

Six weeks after Looney died, the Cajuns opened the season with an upset win at Iowa State that they dedicated to the jovial assistant.

In October, UL traveled to Birmingham, where Looney played at Oak Mountain High, and beat UAB. Every UL player had the name “Looney” on the back of their jersey. Afterward members of Looney’s family, including his parents, spilled from the stands at Legion Field and celebrated with the team.

Two days after Christmas, on what would have been his 32nd birthday, UL used a 265-yard rushing effort to that would have made Looney proud to beat UTSA at the First Responder Bowl in Dallas.

The Cajuns, who finished the season at 10-1 and ranked 16th in the USA TODAY coaches poll, considered it one more tribute to the man who seemed to wear a perpetual smile.

“The fact our football program was able to, and chose,” athletic director Bryan Maggard said, “to rally around that man so strongly and have the success we did … helped us get through a lot.”

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‘A young, beautiful soul’

Max Mitchell, the starting right tackle, finds it difficult to remember the first Saturday last August.

Yet he may never forget it.

“I know it sounds cliché,” Mitchell said, “but it started out just like any other day.”

The offensive linemen gathered that morning to watch film before heading to the indoor practice field.

“Looney sat in the back. Coach Sale (Rob Sale, offensive line coach and offensive coordinator at the time) sat in the front,” Mitchell said in a halting voice. “We were watching film, and just (chilling and chatting).

“It was a normal day – until that. After that, everything was changed.”

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Nico Yantko, who is UL’s deputy athletic director for external operations and sport administrator for football, had been at the practice facility only three or four minutes when Looney collapsed.

“You see D.J. laying on the ground, and, oh my God, from our at-the-time football athletic trainer, Pat Richards, to others, like (director of football operations) Troy Wingerter, who stepped into action and contacted the parents, it was a whirlwind of an event,” Yantko said. “And it was so unfortunate for such a young, beautiful soul like D.J.

“When they rushed him over to UH across the street here, it was just a somber moment.”

Maggard left his cell phone inside when he stepped into his backyard with his wife, Kerry, on what he thought was going to be a relaxing day.

“I remember just checking it,” he said, “and I had an unbelievable large number of missed calls and text messages that said, ‘Call me, call me.’

“By that time he was being worked on and taken across the street to the hospital.”

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‘We were crying together’

Unable to reach coach Billy Napier, Maggard got word from sports medicine assistant athletic director Travis Soileau.

In the weight room, players sought comfort in each other.

“Everyone was saying, ‘He’s alright,’ hugging your brother,” Hill said. “We were crying together, because we all had been through a lot together.”

Napier broke the news about Looney.

“Nothing was more important,” Yantko said, “than just being there to console our team and the young people D.J. had had such a strong and powerful impact on.”

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As the day wore on, Hill remembers 40 or 50 or so of the team’s players gathering at Mitchell’s home to be together.

“When we got word, it was devastating,” he said. “People, we cried a lot.”

They also cooked together, he said, “just so we could feel that tight-knit family.”

“Because things,” Hill said, “could be taken away so easily.”

Stapleton arrives ‘to do a job’

As winter turned to spring, the seasons weren’t all that changed.

Sale, who was as tight with Looney as anyone on UL’s staff, left to become the New York Giants offensive line coach.

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Napier hired former Florida Atlantic offensive line coach Jeff Norrid to succeed Sale and Sam Houston State offensive line coach Darnell Stapleton to step into Looney’s previously unfilled spot of offensive-line assistant coach.   

“He’s been handling the role just like Looney handled it with Sale,” Mitchell said of Stapleton. “They (Norrid and Stapleton) are a good duo. I think their chemistry’s pretty good.”

Stapleton was a starting offensive lineman when Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XLIII.

“My job is not to come in and be Coach Looney,” he said, “but obviously to come in and be Coach Stapleton, and do the best I can for these young men, and be a mentor for them like he was.

“I’m not here to replace him or his legacy or his image. I’m here to do a job, and hopefully I can mean the same to those guys that he meant to them.”

‘He was one of a kind’

Whether they were offensive linemen, defensive linemen, safeties or punters, Looney was the assistant coach who bridged players with Napier’s older staffers.

“Coach Looney’s a guy that you’ll never be able to replace,” starting offensive guard Ken Marks said. “He was one of a kind.

“But it’s life. … Coach Looney passed away, and we had to move on, move forward. We still feel that pain, but it is what it is.”

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For one season, though, almost everything the Cajuns did really was for Looney.

“It was a devastating loss, so, I mean, we were sad for a while,” Hill said. “A long time.

“But eventually we realized … he was going to be our guardian angel going into the season. And that’s what we used to motivate us.”

Based on the results, it was a job well done.

Before, and after.

“The impact he had on the team was clearly visible to that point,” said Yantko, who fondly the recalls the warm hugs his wife Marnie used to get from the loveable Looney.

“But then, when a person like that goes in such a tragic way, and so young, it created a significant ripple in the soul of that team.

“We miss D.J., and that day – seriously, there’s no other way to say it – was just devastating. And it’s so sad,” Yantko added. “We’re just grateful for D.J. blessing us in our lives, because he was the biggest spirit and the most cheerful person.”