May 24, 1976 12:00 PM

Joe Don Looney was like a plains twister swivel-hipping out of his native Texas and across the University of Oklahoma gridiron to become the New York Giants’ top draft choice in 1964. Except tornadoes don’t throw punches at college coaches, defend Barry Gold-water’s politics in barroom brawls, smoke dope, chase young women, break training rules, get traded and traded and traded again.

After quitting pro ball in 1969, Looney left his wife and baby daughter on his Texas ranch. They were divorced in 1970. He had been in Vietnam as a soldier, and now he drifted around, was busted for drugs and put on probation for possession of a machine gun. Last Christmas, Looney’s mother tracked her son down in an ashram led by Swami Muktananda. She brought along enough cash to hire a deprogrammer to help rescue her son. But after she visited him, Joe Don says, she was convinced that football’s bad boy finally had found peace.

A man who was once unable to endure pro football’s regimen now rises at dawn each day for the first of three meditation and chanting rites. Celibacy, vegetarianism, temperance—Looney embraces each discipline. For the summer, Muktananda’s ashram is based in an old Borscht Belt hotel in the Catskills, and Looney’s job is to keep the vegetarian larder well stocked. Twice a week he trucks to the wholesale markets around New York City, a junket that makes him evermore appreciative of the Catskills. “It’s a choiceless choice, a choice between nectar and poison,” remarks Looney of the spiritual life.

“You know,” he continues, “it’s like this morning—somebody was asking me about a red chili pepper I was buying—how hot was it and what did it taste like? I was trying to explain and then I stopped and said, ‘Hey! Why don’t you eat one?’ ”

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