'That energy is still here': How D.J. Looney continues to inspire Louisiana football

D.J. Looney's infectious personality and imprint on his team lives on after he died suddenly of a heart attack earlier this year. Scott Clause/The Advertiser via USA Today Network

Ever since her son died in August, Sarah Looney starts her day with a text message.

"I will say, 'Good morning, I hope you have a fabulous day. I love you,'" Sarah said. "And then I started doing this when D.J. passed away, do #beDJstrong. I send that to him every time."

When Rob Sale, Louisiana's offensive coordinator, receives these messages, he immediately writes back, a way for both of them to cope 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 during a team workout on Aug. 1 at age 31.

Sarah and D.J. would send each other messages via Snapchat every day. When she first told Sale she wasn't going to have that anymore, he said, "Well, you can do that for me."

And so they have, through phone calls and texts.

"Talking to me every day, letting me send him those little messages to keep some kind of -- something for me to look forward to," she said. "Some way for me to be able to share this love that I have with somebody, because it would just have been building up in me. It's just invaluable for me, for my peace of mind and everything."

The special friendship between the coaches was indicative of Looney's larger-than-life personality and ability to get along with anyone. When he first joined the Louisiana staff to help with the offensive line, Sale was skeptical. "O-line guys, we're kind of territorial," he said. "When we first got here, Coach [Billy Napier] said, 'I want to break up the offensive staff and have two full-time O-line guys,' and I'm thinking, every place I've been I've done it myself. I was kind of hesitant, you know?"

"The only thing that's similar with those guys is that they played O-line in the SEC," defensive backs coach LaMar Morgan said.

But Looney immediately won Sale over. Both men put their egos aside and formed "a little yin and yang," as assistant head coach Jabbar Juluke said.

The duo would walk together in the mornings and talk about football, family and life. They were so connected that after spending an entire day together, Sale would immediately call Looney after leaving the facility so they could continue the conversation on the ride home.

On official recruiting visits, Looney and Sale would do karaoke together. It didn't matter if it was gospel, rap, or country; they could do it all. Sale will admit, "He could sing a whole lot better than I could, that's for dang sure."

And as was typical with people who met Looney even just once, the connection went far beyond the office. Sale's kids referred to him as Uncle Looney, and Looney treated Sale's kids like the rest of his nieces and nephews -- constantly asking how they were doing and showering them with gifts. Sale now has a list of all of Looney's nieces' and nephews' birthdays, and plans to send them cards when the time comes.

There's a photo of Looney kissing his baby nephew, who died in the spring of 2018, that Sale keeps on his desk. "I have that picture of Coach Looney on my desk and I see it every day, because I just know what kind of uncle he was, not only to my kids, but to his nieces and nephews."

"I loved that man," Sale said. "I still to this day catch myself wanting to pick up the phone and call him."

Sarah feels the same way.

"I tell people I'm devastated beyond devastation," Sarah said. "Sometimes -- it's been over two months -- and sometimes I just cry. I just cannot believe that I won't ever be able to talk to him, hug him, love him again on this earth."

So their daily text messages serve as the next best thing.

"[His family] will be a part of my life for the rest of my life," Sale said.

The qualities Looney showed at Louisiana were evident from an early age.

In elementary school, he was a popular pick for games because he was the biggest. His best friend at the time was usually among the last picked, if he was picked at all. And Sarah recalls him being protective and saying, "If you don't pick him, don't pick me."

Sarah also recalls a teacher telling her that Looney walked up to her, complimented her on her new haircut, and walked away. The teacher told Sarah, "My husband didn't even notice."

By the time he hit high school, Sarah said he was so popular he was known as "The Mayor" because he knew everybody, and everybody knew him. His mayoral qualities would be apparent when he arrived at his wrestling matches.

"As he progressed through the gym, I saw he was kissing babies and shaking hands," Sarah said. "I mean literally, he would take a step, somebody would say something to him and he would smile and pat them on the back or something. Two or three steps later somebody else is saying something."

Looney didn't start playing football until he was in the seventh grade. "He was not a very good football player at all," she said with a laugh. "He was just big, and he played defense at the time -- he was a nose tackle. He really didn't know what was going on."

But Looney was a talented athlete. He was starting the next year, playing in one of the best districts in Alabama. By the time he was 15 years old, he realized he wanted to play Division I football. His coach would pass out letters players received from colleges in front of the team to motivate them to work harder. It worked on Looney, and he eventually landed a scholarship from Mississippi State to play for Dan Mullen.

Looney was a favorite there too, and by the time he was done with his playing days in Starkville, "The Mayor" was now known as "The Governor."

When his playing days were over, Looney got a job as a manager at Target. After six months, he came home and told Sarah, "Mom, I'm going back into football -- that's where my heart is."

That's when Looney landed a job at East Mississippi Community College. Coaching on a low salary, Looney lived in a rented trailer in a town with only two gas stations and the nearest Walmart about an hour away. But he was coaching football, so he was happy.

"That's how important it was, he loved the sport that much," she said. "He knew what he wanted to do was coach, and he needed to get back into coaching."

EMCC won a national title during Looney's second season there, before he went to Central Arkansas to coach tackles and tight ends from 2014 to 2015. He was a graduate assistant at Georgia in 2016, and spent the 2017 season coaching tight ends at Mississippi State before joining Louisiana in 2018.

"He didn't put off things that he wanted," she said. "He went ahead and got what he wanted, when he wanted it."

Anybody who spent time at Louisiana's facilities felt D.J. Looney's energy.

"He was the life of the party," center Shane Vallot said. "It was fun to look forward to going to practice every day, the meetings every day, and see Coach Looney."

Former Louisiana offensive lineman Kevin Dotson said, "As soon as he comes around the corner, he's going to say something that's either hilarious, or just trying to perk everybody's energy up. It don't matter football player, soccer player, anybody who is in the complex is going to have that experience with him."

Everyone has different memories of Looney, but one thing that stands out is his literal and metaphorical open-door policy. No matter who you were or what he had going on, you could talk to him.

For Sale, it was hearing him on FaceTime with his nieces and nephews, and how happy they were to be hearing from their uncle. For Vallot, it simply was hearing him sing. For former offensive lineman Robert Hunt, it was walking in, sitting down and talking about anything.

Looney's presence wasn't limited to the office. For Morgan, the defensive backs coach, it was the way Looney gravitated to him immediately after Morgan's twin daughters were born prematurely at five months, both weighing under 2 pounds.

"Looney was always checking on me," Morgan said. "He would call my phone so much that even my little 2-year-old, every time my phone FaceTimed, she's 'Coach! Coach! Coach!' she starts screaming it, because he's always talking to her." Morgan says that to this day, any time somebody tries to FaceTime him, she screams for Looney.

Sarah has now taken over that role for Looney. "She has all the appointments that my kids have, and she's messaging me asking how the appointments went," Morgan said. "It's unbelievable."

Napier added, "What I appreciated about D.J. was -- he really cared. It was real with him. He had sincere interest in helping people. He had a lot to do with the culture we've been able to build here."

Looney's FCS coaching roots helped him handle more things than most FBS coaches might be able or even willing to do. More simply, it was who he was.

Doing it all meant being the guy players were willing to talk to. No matter what position a player was playing, Looney was willing to give them the time to help fix whatever might be affecting them.

Morgan said multiple coaches on staff would ask Looney to talk to a player to make sure everything was all right.

"A kid that won't say nothing to nobody, will go in there and spill everything," Morgan said. "Looney would come back in there and change the kid, the kid would be brand new after Looney talks to him."

"He could always tell what your needs were -- if you needed a hug, or a laugh, or somebody to set you straight," Sarah said.

Looney was able to help players flip the switch in a similar way on the field, too.

"He'd find a way like, 'Hey man, come on! I'm looking for something big from you freak!' And the kid would just smile like, 'All right I got you coach,' Juluke said. "And that kid's whole persona of his body language would change because of those few words that D.J. may have spoken to him.

"And to me, that's what you miss, the dynamic staff member that's like that."

That same energy made Looney great at recruiting, which was one reason Napier wanted to bring him in. Louisiana signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the Sun Belt for both 2019 and 2020, and Looney was a big reason why.

"There would be a five-star kid, four-star kid that shouldn't be able to get on the phone, and the dude's blowing him up all the time, they're just having casual conversation," Morgan said. "There's a lot of guys that we didn't get late that we shouldn't have even been in the mix on."

Sale said, "He's an O-line guy, but recruited a linebacker from Mississippi that might be in the linebacker room now. But he continued to work on those relationships and investing in those kids. It wasn't just like, 'OK linebacker coach, he's yours now.' He wasn't like that."

Looney didn't forget about players once they left campus, either.

He helped Hunt pick an agent when he needed the guidance. Hunt said that Looney was asking the important questions that he himself hadn't considered, and was able to make sure he was taken care of as he took the next step in his playing career. "He was like a big brother to me," Hunt said

Dotson didn't get an invite to the NFL combine, and as the coronavirus pandemic started, there was plenty of concern as to what Dotson would do in order to give himself the chance to be drafted in the best position possible.

"He went out of his way to find a place, find coaches -- reliable coaches," Dotson said. "Coaches that -- if they gave the time -- everybody would believe." Dotson ended up being drafted in the fourth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was starting by Week 2.

The extra care Looney showed everybody made him a good coach on the field, too. His chemistry with Sale extended to the field, and made for the strongest units on Louisiana's roster since the Napier era started.

The players will tell you Looney was a tough coach who loved all his players.

"He would make the coaching fun," Vallot said. That was the big thing about him. He'll coach us hard, he'll tell us straight, but we could all respect him and have fun with him because it was: Coach us hard, but there's a joke with it."

Vallot never played center before coming to Louisiana, but because Looney did in college, he was able to get him up to speed. "He was right by my side the whole way -- I was having trouble snapping the ball, so he was showing me," he said.

Dotson said that Looney's ability to adjust his attitude was key to their success. Looney became much more serious on game day, and the players fed off of it. "You could feel the intensity on game day," he said. "His happy-go-lucky mood -- it's not gone -- but his intense mood at the forefront."

"It gets you in the right mindset. It tells you this is not practice. When Looney is like this, you can tell that this is not practice. There's no playing around anymore, it's 'You gotta match my energy.'"

Looney had many sayings the players keep in mind today, but the one that sticks out the most is "5 = 1." Five offensive linemen working together equals one unit. It's now on the wall of Louisiana's offensive line meeting room. It's an attitude they carry with them every practice, and every game.

"This guy was going to be a rock star," Morgan said. "He was a rock star, but he was really gonna be a rock star, period. Nobody can argue that with me."

When Sarah and her husband, David Looney, went to Lafayette after D.J.'s death, she was asked if she wanted to speak to the team. At first, she wasn't sure what to say and joked about how much she didn't like it when the team went for it on fourth down because of how nervous it made her.

Then, Sarah told the players they had to carry on, because she knew that's what D.J. would have wanted.

"D.J. told me one time after a game -- I was upset, and I was talking about it. He said, 'Mom, we have a 24-hour rule, that no matter what happens after 24 hours, we move on. We start preparing for the next game, for the next day, for the next opportunity.' I just encouraged them to remember that. Not that you could ever forget when it came to your knowledge of him and knowing who he was -- but that you couldn't let that stop you in your tracks, you had to keep on."

There could never be anything that would immediately make things better for a team that lost the person they loved the most, and were around every day. But Sarah did better than anybody else could.

"Seeing her be so strong for her own son -- I mean that's her son -- and seeing her be so strong, going up there and telling us that she would want us to move on, that helped me a lot," Vallot said. "Because if I can see his mom being strong, that makes us want to be strong for her."

"I hated to see those kids so broken up by it," she said. "I understand their anguish, I really did. But I wanted to give them something positive to think about -- kind of like giving them permission to go ahead and restart life."

The Ragin' Cajuns have worked to get back to normal during a time that is anything but. They opened the 2020 season against No. 23 Iowa State, and upset the Cyclones on the road. Sale and Morgan walked off the field together, arms around each other, crying until they got to the locker room.

"It was just crazy to me," Morgan said. "Just amazing that we went through all this stuff to get where we at now, knowing how he would have responded, he would have had a ball. He would have loved it -- he would have been dancing, having fun."

Since then, Louisiana has remained unbeaten and takes its 3-0 record and No. 21 AP ranking into Wednesday's game with Coastal Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App).

Despite working to move forward, somebody with an impact like Looney's doesn't just go away. That's a good thing for Louisiana's program moving forward.

"He had a bright future in this business," Juluke said. "There are not many Black O-line coaches in America, and D.J. had the ability to become one of the best in doing it. I think that the impact that he had is going to continue on to tell people work hard for what you want, do it with a smile on your face, and make sure you're giving it 110 percent on a regular basis, and you're gonna have good things happen to you.

"That energy is still here, those beliefs are still here, those fundamental things we do are still here, and we are excited that our young men are going to continue to honor him in that way."