Former Jets wide receiver/kick returner Lou Piccone – who could sprint 40 yards in about the same time it takes to read this sentence – was the definition of perseverance.
After graduating from West Liberty State in 1971, Piccone thought his football days were behind him. That, however, was until he got a telephone call inviting him to play in a semi-pro league with the Youngstown (Ohio) Hardhats for $50 a game. The coach noted that his team was scouted by NFL teams, and it would be a measuring stick to as to whether he had the ability to play at the next level.
“That got my attention,” Piccone said. “My heart started to pump right away because that’s the way I felt about football. Football was very, very dear to me. That’s the only reason I went to college, really.”
Piccone’s season with the Hardhats led to a few open tryouts. “At the time, they had something where (NFL) teams used to offer opportunities in certain areas to try out,” he said. “You’d end up with 2, 3, 400 guys there on a Saturday afternoon trying to catch somebody’s eye.”
Which is what Piccone did.
“I think my speed put me at a different level. I ran 4.4’s on grass, which was pretty respectable,” he said. “(Dick Connors) would evaluate you. He told the Jets that he had a short white guy with speed, and I was invited to their camp.
“They brought me in for a week and I started to get a little attention, but I wasn't sophisticated enough on pass routes. So, they didn't keep me. It wasn't a real positive experience other than the fact that they took a look.”
Piccone returned to semi-pro football, and spent the season in Bridgeport, CT, where Connors was one of the coaches. The Jets sent their former fullback Matt Snell to scout him, and Piccone was given a favorable review and signed for the 1974 season.
In training camp with 30 other rookies during a players strike, Piccone impressed head coach Charley Winner and remained on the roster when the veterans returned. He then made the final cut and, against incredible odds, was in the NFL.
During the whole ordeal, speed may have been Piccone’s biggest asset, but not allowing himself to ever become discouraged enough to quit was a close second.
A rookie with experience, Piccone led the NFL with 39 kickoff returns for 961 yards. He led the league again in 1976 with 31 kickoff returns.
“I was a wedge-breaker, a special teams specialist, and really, one of the guys that brought attention to special teams. Me and Mike Adamle,” Piccone said. “Mike and I were like demons on special teams. They used to call us the ‘Bonsai Boys’ because we would help turn games around by getting good field position and not allowing the other team to get any field position. That’s what I had to do to contribute.”
Piccone’s contributions were acknowledged by the Jets faithful at Shea Stadium with loud chants of – ‘Lou!’
“The first time that happened, we’re trying to get something going. Mike and I are psyching up, and we decided that we were going to break the wedge. He would hit it low and I would go up and over and try to get the ball carrier,” Piccone said “So, we did that. I went up and over and stoned the ball carrier. The ball came out and I recovered. It was a fantastic type of play when you talk about turning games around on special teams. I get up and all of a sudden, I hear, ‘Boo!’ and I said, ‘What do you have to do here in New York to get a cheer?’ And then you realize, it wasn’t ‘Boo!’ it was ‘Lou!’
“Coming off to the sideline, I remember (Joe) Namath looking at me and Mike, and Namath says, ‘Ain’t that the damnedest thing I ever seen?’ That was a significant reveal for me because the fans appreciate effort, fans appreciate success.”
During the three years, 1974-76, Piccone was with the Jets, successful wouldn’t have been the most accurate way to describe the team. A 7-7 mark was followed by back-to-back 3-11 campaigns. “The 13-29 record was tough to take, but I adopted my own philosophy,” Piccone said. “I had played in the minor leagues on winners and losers as most people do. If you’re playing on a winner all the time, you get pretty spoiled. But if you're playing on the losing team, it doesn't mean you're a loser.”
One of those 29 Jet losses occurred during Piccone’s first trip to Buffalo in 1974. Even though the game was in September, the weather played a factor. Pouring rain and 40 mph wind gusts eliminated any thought of a passing attack. Namath completed two passes in 18 attempts for 33 yards with three interceptions, while Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson was 0 for 2.
“The weather was so bad, so ugly, so cold, we were standing in probably four or five inches of water. It just chilled to the bone,” Piccone said. “I remember saying to myself, ‘God, don’t ever let me be traded up here.’”
Well, about that…
Less than three weeks before what would have been the start of the 1977 season, his fourth with the Jets, Piccone walked out of the team’s training facility unaware of how much his life was about to change.
“I had talked to organization and it seemed to be that I was pretty solid,” Piccone said. “I finally had a little bit of extra cash and bought a used Corvette. And that morning, it was missing. I thought somebody was pulling my chain. I looked around and nobody had seen it, so I reported it stolen.
“While I’m sitting there, (and first-year head coach) Walt Michaels comes out and says, ‘Lou, I’m really sorry to hear about your car being stolen, and you’ve been traded to Buffalo.’ It was all one sentence!”
One of Piccone’s fondest memories involving the Jets actually occurred during his six-year tenure in Buffalo following a Jets-Bills game.
“I was taking a shower and one of the guys said, ‘Hey Lou, some old guy is here and he wants to see you.’ So, I came out and wrapped a towel around me, and in the foyer leading up to the showers is (then-Jets owner) Leon Hess with his glasses all fogged up,” Piccone said. “I looked at him and said, ‘Mr. Hess, what are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I came over to congratulate you on a heck of a game and to say hello.’ I just thought it was a real nice gesture from a man who didn’t have to do anything.”
In the NFL for nine seasons with the Jets and the Bills, what makes Piccone most proud of his career?
“I think the fact that something that you can’t buy is fan appeal, success and the roar of the crowd. That’s got to be earned,” Piccone said. “I think everybody who has played a sport at all levels experiences a crowd. It’s either Lou or boo and I’ve had the good fortune of being Lou’ed instead of booed for my entire career. And I think that’s pretty unique in that essence given that I was a basic utility guy that could play as a starter and back up every (receiver and special teams) position out there.”
Now retired from post-playing careers in sales, marketing and business development, Piccone and his wife, JoAnne, make their home in the Buffalo area. He’s involved with the alumni and is a “tremendous proponent” for FAIR, the non-profit entity, Fairness for Athletes in Retirement. His top priority is to see that he and other NFL players who retired prior to 1993, see their pensions brought up to the same levels of the players who’ve retired since 1994.