He was rookie of the year on the field and a superstar off it, and on Monday former Detroit Lions running back Mel Farr died suddenly at his home at the age of 70.
Farr played seven seasons for the Lions from 1967-73. He shared rookie of the year honors in 1967 with his teammate and good friend, Lem Barney, and was twice selected to the Pro Bowl before leaving football to become a well-known local auto dealer.
Farr, who was dubbed “Mel Farr Superstar,” bought his first dealership with money he saved from his playing career in 1975. He appeared in his own commercials, often wearing a cape, and explained why he left football to pursue the car business in an interview with the Free Press two years ago.
“I worked for Ford Motor Co. for seven years in the off-season,” Farr said. “I worked in an area called dealer development. You see, in 1967 when I came here, Detroit was literally on fire because of the riots and so Henry Ford II said, ‘You know, we’re going to make Ford dealerships available to African-Americans,’ because before 1967 there were no African-American Ford dealers.
“So he said that and I said, ‘Wow.’ My dad back in Beaumont, Texas, was in the used car business. We had a little used car lot and I said, ‘Man, I’m going to go out here and get me a job at Ford Motor Co. They’re going to allow African-Americans to be auto dealers.’ So I went there, got a job in dealer development and was very instrumental in Ford Motor Co. having a minority dealer development program.”
Detroit Lions’ tackle Rockne Freitas, left, quarterback Greg Landry and backs Nick Eddy and Mel Farr in 1969.
Farr’s automotive group had 11 dealerships at the height of its business, though a series of lawsuits eventually eroded his empire.
On the football field, Farr, a first-round pick out of UCLA, was an electric runner before shoulder and knee injuries nudged him into retirement.
He led the Lions in rushing and receiving as a rookie, when he gained a career-high 860 yards, and he scored a team-high nine touchdowns in the Lions’ playoff season of 1970.
“He was a fun guy, sincere guy, a loving guy,” Barney said. “He was a guy that everybody would want on his team. You would want Mel on your team. Good instincts, great heart. Very generous and a serious guy. He’s going to sorely be missed.”
Barney said he and Farr became close their rookie year, when they were the Lions’ top two draft picks.
They roomed together for a time, and they earned a gold record for their backup vocals and contributions to Motown legend Marvin Gaye’s hit, “What’s Going On.”
“I think Mel and I gave them something that they never had before in the league, both offensive and defensive rookie of the year, same year, same team,” Barney said. “L-E-M forward is M-E-L backwards and I guess we can say we got the dubious distinction of the only two NFL players to have a gold record for singing background for Marvin Gaye. A lifetime of enjoyment from the time we met in 1967, and the love is ongoing. May his soul rest in peace.”
Farr, whose cause of death is unknown pending an autopsy, is survived by his wife, Jasmine, daughters Monet and Milan, and sons Mel Jr., and Mike. Jasmine is expecting another daughter, Melia, due in November.
He is the second Lions legend from the 1960s-70s to die in the last month. Hall-of-Fame tight end Charlie Sanders passed away July 2 after a battle with cancer, and Farr was one of several former teammates at Sanders’ funeral.
“They’re probably strolling around in heaven all day now,” Barney said.
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.Download our free Lions Xtra app on your Apple and Android devices.