In the late 1960s, the city of Detroit was not only a hub for Motown music but also a passionate sports town. Among the many tales of legendary artists and athletes, one story stands out as a unique intersection of both worlds – the time Marvin Gaye, the soulful crooner, tried out for the Detroit Lions football team. A story largely known to Detroiters of a certain age, it’s a chapter that adds a touch of sports nostalgia to Gaye’s remarkable legacy.
Marvin Gaye’s connection to the Detroit Lions ran deep through his close friendships with two of the team’s standout players, running back Mel Farr and defensive back Lem Barney. Both Farr and Barney, who would later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, shared a camaraderie with Gaye, who was an avid sports fan and an accomplished athlete.
Gaye, fascinated by football and driven by his passion for the sport, persistently pestered Farr and Barney to secure him a tryout with the Lions. Coach Joe Schmidt, a Hall of Famer himself, eventually gave in to the requests, recognizing the need for a bit of levity and enjoyment during the demanding training camp.
View this post on Instagram
Ahead of his tryout in July 1970, Gaye took the opportunity seriously. He transformed his garage into a makeshift gym, diligently working to bulk up for the physical demands of professional football. Notably, he incorporated a daily five-mile run into his routine, showcasing his commitment to the endeavor. The announcement of the upcoming tryout became a local sensation, even making its way onto television, a far cry from the social media frenzy we’d expect today.
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press at the time, Gaye expressed his genuine love for football. He said, “Had I not become an entertainer, I’m sure I’d have been a pro athlete. I love baseball and basketball, and I golf in the mid-’80s, but football is the only thing I’ve had a real feeling for. I’ve watched the pros over the years, and it became a part of me. I learned to love it and am confident I could play.”
Despite Gaye’s athleticism and dedication, making it as a professional football player is no small feat. The Motown legend did not secure a spot on the Detroit Lions roster. However, the tryout fulfilled a lifelong dream for Gaye and created a lasting story that would become a cherished memory for Barney, Farr, Schmidt, and the entire city of Detroit.
A year later, Marvin Gaye reciprocated the camaraderie by inviting Lem Barney and Mel Farr to contribute to his iconic album, “What’s Going On.” Their voices and back-and-forth conversations can be heard in the background of the seminal title track. As a token of appreciation, both Barney and Farr received gold albums for their invaluable contributions.
Marvin Gaye’s brief foray into professional football might not have landed him a spot on the Detroit Lions, but the story remains etched in the memories of those who witnessed it. It serves as a testament to Gaye’s multifaceted persona and the unique connections that can form between art and sports. In the rich tapestry of Detroit’s cultural and sports history, Marvin Gaye’s tryout shines as a distinctive and fondly remembered chapter.