James Looney sits on the bench, sipping on a bottle of Gatorade, while the offense takes the field. The defensive tackle lets the team staff know that he is enjoying his “Looney brew,” as he cracks a big smile next to his teammates.
The term first arose before James ever played football, when his dad, also named James Looney, coached his older brother, Joe Looney, in little league football. Looney’s father has always been animated when it comes to football, so he named his concoction of powdered Gatorade and water — and sometimes Tang fruit punch powder — to excite his players over their mystery-flavored source of hydration.
“He’s a big guy, scary guy, and when it’s time to be serious, he’s serious and works hard. He knows how to be a leader,” says Aisea Tongilava.
The elixir’s name has stuck from when James was coached by his father growing up in Riviera Beach, Florida, and he has since brought along that piece of home to Cal.
“It’s my Skittles,” James says, in reference to former Bear Marshawn Lynch’s habit of eating candy during football games. And despite what a nutritionist may say about eating large amounts of sugar during athletics, it certainly helps Looney play well, or at least maintain his positive attitude with the memory of home.
But the Looney brew isn’t the only piece of home that remains with James to date. His competitive edge, his work ethic and his contagious sense of humor — what he is best known for — all appear to take root from his family. These qualities have guided him to becoming a captain and a mainstay on the Bears’ defensive line.
James’ father first noticed his son’s love for the game when he was only 5 years old. James would tag along to Joe’s practices and always want to get in on the action despite not (yet) being one of the bigger boys. With some of Joe’s teammates being more than twice James’ age, one could certainly imagine the potential dangers of letting the little Looney play.
“He was 5 years old playing with 9-year-old kids, and I had to get special insurance on him actually,” says James’ father. “I was real nervous about putting him in, and he used to get so mad at me.”
But James did not disappoint. One day at practice, he intercepted an errant pass and returned it to the end zone, emphatically spiking the ball in celebration. Most outsiders might consider it beginners luck or think that the older kids let James into the end zone, but something about a 6-year-old boy spiking a football was potent enough to convince James’ father to involve him more seriously. From then on, he was involved alternatingly with tackle and flag football growing up.
Even before that fateful spike, athletics had always been a constant in James’ life. His father was a linebacker in the late 1970s at the University of Louisville. Loren, James’ oldest sister, was very successful in leading her school’s girls’ flag football team in Florida, and Evelyn, his other sister, was a track star in high school.
“From the time (Joe and James) were born, when I was in the hospital, my husband said, ‘They’re going to be football players,’ ” says Marilyn Looney, James’ mother.
But by far the biggest football-related influence on James’ life has been his older brother, who is five years his senior. Joe is currently in his fifth season as an offensive lineman in the NFL, his first with the Dallas Cowboys. He was taken in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers after playing at Wake Forest. James not only considers Joe his best friend — somewhat expected from a younger brother — but also credits him for his mentorship role, especially for helping grow James’ desire to win.
“Me and my brother, we were always competitive as hell, so when we were young we’d go out, play in the street, barefoot, just get after it with other kids around the street,” James says.
Throughout his childhood, James looked to achieve what Joe had. Anything that Joe did, James was quick to tag along, not to be outdone by his companion. And while Joe knew the importance of friendship, he also acted in classic big brother fashion, passing on lessons — namely about the importance of keeping up with his education — from his parents down to James.
“(Joe) always talked about school with him. … Everywhere Joe went, James wanted to be. They were inseparable, like Linus with his blanket,” says Marilyn, who worked as a teacher.
Coming from a family with two hardworking parents — their father is an electrician — the Looney brothers have learned directly that perseverance will take them a long way. James first realized the opportunity that comes with being a great athlete when Joe was in high school and being recruited by big-time college programs.
“That’s when it really hit me that football could take me far in life. Football has taken me so many places. I’ve been to Australia, I’ve been all around the country,” James says. “I’m just blessed.”
This realization only perpetuated over the next few years, as Joe wasn’t able to come home very frequently with his busy college schedule. As a result, James could more easily notice the progress that Joe had made in the gym. When Joe was home from Wake Forest, they would lift weights together.
“He would see the workouts that I was doing and how hard I was going, and he really told me, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to do everything that you’re doing to get to the level where you’re at,’ ” Joe says. “I think he saw the way I worked out, the way I carried myself, and I think that had a big influence on him.”
Approaching the end of high school, James wasn’t quite ready to stop following in his brother’s footsteps.
After graduating from Lake Worth High School, James committed to Wake Forest to play football under Jim Grobe, who had coached his brother just two years prior. James played in six games off the bench as a true freshman in 2013 and was projected to be a starter for the Demon Deacons in the 2014 season.
This plan, however, never came to fruition, as Grobe — after five consecutive losing seasons — resigned in December 2013. James gave the new coaching staff a chance in spring workouts but didn’t like the new program as much as he had enjoyed his time under Grobe.
“I thought it was a great school, the coaching staff I loved, Coach Grobe was like a family member to me — such a great guy,” James says. “Just when the new coaching staff came in, something just changed. I wasn’t feeling it so much, and I just wanted to take my chances on transferring.”
The problem was that there were very few schools that could provide as strong an education as Wake Forest while also granting the opportunity to play in a top football conference. James was acutely aware of the fact that a strong degree would go a long way if his football career didn’t pan out as planned. In addition, the importance of family in his life stuck in the back of his head.
Once again, Joe was there for his brother, but this time to encourage James to pave his own path — at Cal.
Joe was playing for the 49ers, and he suggested that James attempt to transfer to UC Berkeley, roughly 50 miles away, along with a few other West Coast schools.
Upon meeting with Cal head coach Sonny Dykes and getting to know the team, James felt eager to play for the Bears, especially about the prospect of working toward starting for a Pac-12 team. He would receive a degree rivaled by few universities, be close to his brother and still get to play in a Power Five conference.
“It’s surreal sometimes, what football has done for me, and it can do that for a lot of people. Keep your grades up, work hard and that’s pretty much it,” James says.
“It’s been a good path for me. Coming out here was definitely the best decision I made, though,” James says. “The new coaching staff (at Wake Forest) just didn’t fit my style, and Coach Dykes fit more. Best decision I ever made, and it just kicked it off from there.”
Fast forward two and a half years, and James has worked his way up the ladder to become a starting defensive lineman for the Bears and one of the team’s captains. James’ trademark around the team is his sense of humor, which he certainly didn’t inherit from his father or brother. Both Joe and his father approach football very seriously, but James is always laughing and making jokes with his teammates.
This attitude has made James a leader by example, and his teammates have come to appreciate his jokester mentality and especially value his moments of solemnity before games.
“I think it makes a good leader, having that sense of humor but knowing at times that you got to be serious,” says teammate and linebacker Aisea Tongilava. “He’s a big guy, scary guy, and when it’s time to be serious, he’s serious and works hard. He knows how to be a leader.”
James feels that he plays best when he is having a good time, and his sense of humor allows him to focus on the present and not feel unnecessary pressure.
“Coming out here was definitely the best decision I made,” James says.
“I just want people to have fun. I feel like people forget that. Some people get too stressed out about doing their job, and then it makes you play bad,” James says.
James Looney has come a long way from being the little kid playing with the big boys, but in so many ways — such as his approach to leadership — he carries his past with him.
It’s beyond obvious that he wears his past proudly. His jersey number alone tells that story. Before last season, James dropped the number 95 in favor of the number nine. He prefers the single digit because he used to play quarterback and running back. After practice, James even picks up loose footballs and tries to throw them at the quarterback targets from anywhere on the field, remembering the good old days playing for his father.
And with the NFL currently in his sights, it’s more crucial than ever for James to follow his family’s teachings.
“I talk to my brother a lot about the things that I need to do to get to the elite. I think I’m taking the right steps toward it,” James says. “It’s surreal sometimes, what football has done for me, and it can do that for a lot of people. Keep your grades up, work hard and that’s pretty much it.”
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].