UL assistant Looney remembered: 'He always cared about you,' former Mississippi State teammate says
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Aug. 2, 2020
On Friday, Sam Williams was on the phone with his longtime friend and former Mississippi State teammate, D.J. Looney.
The next day, Williams – a Mississippi high school football head coach and athletic director, for the last three seasons at Pelahatchie Attendance Center and now at Ridgeland High near Jackson – learned that the 31-year-old Ragin’ Cajuns assistant coach had passed away after having a heart attack as UL held a team workout Saturday morning at Cajun Field.
Looney, who was heading into his third season at UL as a full-time assistant working with an offensive line that produced 2020 NFL Draft picks Robert Hunt of the Miami Dolphins and Kevin Dotson of the Pittsburgh Steelers, recruited Mississippi for the Cajuns.
“He was always good to my (players) … and gave them time, whether it was at Pelahatchie or now at Ridgeland,” said Williams, a married father of three young children. “He was always there for you.
“When he would come in town to come see my (players), he’d always stop by and see my wife and kids first.
“I don’t know, man. It’s just kind of a tough one,” added Williams, who played receiver at Mississippi State when Looney was an offensive lineman there. “He’s just one of those guys that he didn’t just care about his job; he always cared about you as a person too.”
Ahmad Johnson, coached by Williams at Pelahatchie, is now a freshman linebacker at UL.
He contacted Williams shortly after Looney was taken by ambulance to University Hospital and Clinics, where according to a Cajuns spokesman he was pronounced dead.
“(Johnson) called me (Saturday) morning and said, ‘Send prayers for Coach Looney,’” Williams said in a telephone interview with The Daily Advertiser. “He said it didn’t look good, and it wasn’t five minutes later I got a call from one of my other buddies.”
Looney was gone, his promising career cut far too short and his friends left to mourn a man who touched many from one coaching stop to another.
“Life happens too fast,” Williams said.
Current Cajuns commit Zy McDonald knows that.
McDonald will be the starting quarterback for Williams’ first season at Ridgeland.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic travel restrictions have prevented him from taking a recruiting trip to UL, however, and they also did not allow Looney, his primary recruiter, to visit McDonald at Ridgeland.
Yet the high school QB said he still considered Looney a “mentor” of sorts.
“He was always checking up on me,” McDonald said in a phone interview Saturday. “He was a big brother, to be honest.
“It’s kind of crazy, because I never got to meet him in person. I was supposed to, but because of corona and stuff I never got to go down there. I was kind of looking forward to that. But he was calling all the time over the phone.”
The two were even texting sometime around 1 a.m. Saturday, shortly after the NCAA’s official offer period opened and UL sent its to McDonald.
Hours later, Williams told McDonald what had happened and the Ridgeland senior-to-be was remembering all the advice the late Cajuns assistant gave him.
“Really,” McDonald said, “he was always telling me to work hard, telling me to keep my head up – you know, smile through any pain, anything, never just show people you’re hurt or anything, always just stay happy, because life is very short and you never know when you’re going to leave this earth.
“So,” added McDonald, the nephew of New Orleans Saints Hall-of-Fame running back Deuce McAllister, “he just told me to stay happy at all times.”
Williams recalls a gregarious Looney he knew he could call any time.
“He would give the advice you need even if you didn’t want to hear it,” the Ridgeland coach said.
On the field, Williams said, Looney was “a trip.”
The two overlapped at Mississippi State, with Williams’ first season playing coming in 2010, when Looney already was an established Bulldogs offensive lineman and the pair were teammates on a 9-4 team coached by Dan Mullen that beat Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
Looney, a 2010 Mississippi State graduate, wound up getting hurt late in his career, leading to his becoming an offensive graduate assistant coach on the 2011 Bulldogs team that beat Wake Forest in the Music County Bowl.
The Chattanooga, Tennessee, native who played his high school ball at Oak Mountain High in Birmingham, Alabama, went on to spend two seasons as offensive coach and recruiting coordinator at East Mississippi Community from 2012-13, two seasons coaching tackles and tight ends at Central Arkansas of the Southland Conference and one at Georgia of the SEC as an offensive graduate assistant before returning to coach tight ends as Mississippi State assistant in 2017.
“D.J., he’s a funny guy now,” Williams said. “He was always really fun to play with.
“I can remember being a redshirt freshman and we were playing in Houston. … D.J. was playing center, and you’d have thought we were down by 21. We were up by 21, and he was still just trying to get us to get after it in the huddle.”
Williams said he actually got know Looney, who “loved life” and “lived every day like it was his last,” long before arriving to play college ball in Starkville.
“He was really close with my great aunt and great uncle – just kind of a family friend-type deal,” said Williams, who played at North Rankin High in Flowood, Mississippi.
“So he always took care of me when I first got there, just kind of making sure I had everything I needed and was good on everything.”
Williams’ great uncle and great aunt, Jim and Patsy Rankin, were big Bulldogs fans.
“They had gotten to know D.J. over the years, from when he was in high school and when he started playing at State,” Williams said. “They both just passed away within the past two years, and he (Looney) was really close with both of them, so it was kind of a tough deal there.
“I’m telling you – it just seems so surreal.”
When Williams and Looney spoke Friday, the conversation was much like so many they had in their post-playing days.
“He was just always checking on (players),” said Williams, whose Ridgeland receiver Richard Mays is another recruit Looney and the Cajuns have had their eyes on.
“Shoot, every time we’d talk we’d start talking about little stuff, about my family, about my kids. … He’s held every one of them. That was his favorite thing to do, was go over and give my wife a hug and the grab the kids for about 15 minutes before he came out to practice or watched a game.
“It’s a tough day, man,” Williams added Saturday. “Tough day. We lost a good one.”