He was as alive as any man I have ever met. He played at a time when no one got less attention than an NFL defensive lineman. There he sat, with broken fingers, a huge smile, and the eyes of a death row inmate. It was the first and last time I saw him in person. He was scary to be around; you just never felt comfortable in his presence. He was loud, proud, and funny, and had hurt more people than smallpox with his bone-jarring tackles. He was as big as a country outhouse and you never knew when he was kidding or being serious. He was a disagreeable fellow and could have starred as an extra in a Sam Peckinpah movie. He would come screaming off the corner and could turn a crowded backfield into the OK Corral. His teammates claimed that for a snack, he had three scoops of crazy in a large bowl, and always played like he had infiltrated the enemy lines. He didn’t come from money. He came from the opposite, no money. He claimed he was poor as a child growing up, that he ate his cereal with a fork so he could pass the milk to his younger brother. He punished everyone in front of him, on your team or his. It was surgery, Rams style.
There were stars and superstars in the NFL, but only one “Deacon” Jones. He was so good you would draft him out of prison. Deacon was not just a guy who played the game, he was a legend. He wouldn’t just settle for winning, he wanted immortality. “David Deacon Jones,” a certain magic still lingers in the name. They should have called him “Naptime” because his head slap would put an offensive tackle to sleep.
David “Deacon” Jones was born in Eatonville, Florida, on December 9, 1938. Ishmael and Mattie Jones and their family of ten survived on hard work, lots of love, and a heavy dose of the Bible. Jones spent a lot of Sundays singing in the church choir with many of his brothers and sisters. Jones attended Hungerford High School where he became a Bobcat for the football, baseball, and basketball teams. In 1950, at the age of 12, David Jones met Jackie Robinson. The Brooklyn Dodgers had arrived from Vero Beach, Florida, to play the Washington Senators in Orlando. “We drove eight miles to Tinker Field in Orlando and sat in the bleachers, in the colored section. After the game Jackie came out to sign autographs. I could see the spike marks on the back of his hand. He gave us a pep talk about staying in school, get your education, and me being a brash mouth kid said, and ‘I’m going to be just as famous as you.’ I met him again in 1967 at a golf tournament and he remembered me, and I felt like a million dollars. Here was Jackie Robinson telling me how proud he was of me,” said Deacon.
In 1957, Deacon followed his older brother, Judson, to South Carolina State University located in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Deacon played both ways and played well. Deacon became involved in a protest while in college. He and several other kids got involved in a lunch-counter demonstration. This event also cost him his football scholarship; he was expelled. Luckily one of his coaches was transferring to Mississippi Vocational School and Deacon and several other players would follow him. This school is now called Mississippi Valley State University. Deacon mentioned on several occasions that he and his teammates at Mississippi Vocational had to sleep on cots in the opposing team’s gym because motels would not take them.
Deacon’s was drafted by the Rams in 1961 and his first contract paid him $7,500. That was all the money in the world for a black kid from Florida, until he found out that his playing partner Merlin Olsen signed a year later for $25,000 a year for two years. Deacon made $12,500 his second year, but he had to sell vacuum cleaners during the off-season to make ends meet.
Deacon could change directions like a shark. He was the first defensive player in the game to become a star. No one had ever seen a lineman run down a halfback from behind. He may have been faster than Google; he ran wind sprints with the running backs. Jones was the fastest player on the Rams’ teams his first seven years. Speed differentiates players from one another. The secret to the guys like Mickey Mantle, “Cool Papa” Bell, Deion Sanders, Willie Wilson, Ichiro Suzuki, Bob Hayes, and Deacon Jones was pure unfiltered speed. These guys ran so fast you could not hear them run. It was as if they were running on foam.
Deacon practiced every down as hard as he played. By 1963, Rams’ Head Coach Harland Svare had three of his 4-3 defensive linemen. He needed Rosey Grier. Rosey had what the Rams needed; experience and a proven winner. Grier had some weight problem, and the Giants weren’t happy. Svare called Allie Sherman, Coach of the New York Giants. Sherman had said in public about Grier, “He’s a giant bowling ball. If he got any bigger, they were just going to call the plays and roll him down the field.” Svare traded defensive tackle John Lovetere for Grier. It was the start of the “Fearsome Foursome.”
As they say in football, it all starts with the big boys up front. “All I needed was a blink,” said Deacon. When describing the “head slap,” Deacon expounded: “I got the idea from watching Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston with a combination of punches to the head,” said Jones. “It was a vicious move; you could hear it in the last row of the stadium. You wanted to leave a ringing sensation in his ear that lasted all day.” Rosy Grier always claimed he had taught Deacon the head slap when he joined the Rams in 1963. Deacon’s response was, “Yeah, but I perfected it.” Deacon Jones was a ticking bomb. When the Deacon hit them “up side the head,” the air went out of these guys faster than a nail in a bicycle tire. Not only was he an All-Pro, but he was all man. Against the “Fearsome Foursome,” teams gave up like Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Hall-of-Fame offensive tackle Rayfield Wright of the Dallas Cowboys tells how he prepared the first time for Deacon Jones before their game with the Rams. “I was watching film and I saw him head slap an offensive tackle and his helmet came off. He was the first player I ever faced as an offensive tackle. On the first play, the ball was going to be snapped on two. After quarterback Roger Staubach said the first hut, there’s a little pause. Then there was a voice that came to me, ‘Boy, do yo’ mama know you out here?’ Staubach said the second hut, and I was still in my stance, thinking about my mama. He came across the line of scrimmage and hit me with that head slap because I wasn’t prepared for it, and it knocked me on my rear end. He was the greatest defensive end in all of football.”
When you have a great player like Deacon, don’t mess him up; you let him do it his way. He could tell by the weight and color of the tackle’s hand if it was going to be a running or passing play. He could tell when the quarterback was going to throw the ball. He could feel a quick count by watching the quarterback walk up behind the offensive center. Although he could see the ball with his peripheral vision, he moved on movement. He left when anything out of context moved. If the tackle breathed wrong, he was off. It was about intimidation. He would tell reporters before the game what he was going to do to his opponents. He would yell out signals in the same cadence as the quarterback. He upset his opponents’ timing. He would draw offside penalties and, sure enough, his man would eventually begin to miss the quarterback audible. By now, Deacon owned him. It was going to be a fun day for the Deacon.
Deacon joined the San Diego Chargers in 1972 and stayed two years before joining the Washington Redskins for his final season in pro football. He had played in 190 games and recorded two interceptions, but never scored a touchdown.
Deacon Jones left us on a Monday, June 3, 2013. “Deacon Jones has been the most inspirational person in my football career,” said Jack Youngblood. Deacon had undergone some lung surgery back in 2009 and received a pacemaker. Deacon died at his home in Anaheim Hills, California, of natural causes. His wife Elizabeth was with him. Deacon only missed six games during his entire 14-year career and became the first defensive lineman to record 100 solo tackles by 1967. “It left me breathless,” said Rosey Grier. “I didn’t know what to do. I mean it’s like you feel you’re being clobbered in the stomach. There’s no place to go to take care of that pain.” Lamar Lundy was the first of the “Fearsome Foursome” to die in February of 2007, at the age of 71. Merlin Olsen passed in March of 2010, at 69. Only Rosey Grier, now 80, remains.
He is a member of several Halls of Fame, including the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1980. His #75 was retired on September 27, 2009, by the St. Louis Rams. He is also listed on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team. He was a Pro Bowl selection eight times and a five-time first-team All-Pro selection. The Pro Bowl was played in Los Angeles at that time. The winners received $500.00 each and the losers half of that. The Pro Bowl later moved to Dallas, Texas, and then on the Hawaii where it still resides.
He was also part of the 1960’s All-Decade Team. He has been credited for the use of the word “sack” as a defensive statistic and became known as “The Secretary of Defense.” Although sacks were not officially recorded until 1982, Deacon is unofficially listed with 180.5. Sacks which were initially called “spears,” never showed up in print. No newspaper guy would write that a black guy had speared a white quarterback. That would place him second all-time to only Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills. Sometimes the saddest news is that we forget how great players like Deacon Jones really were.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him atwww.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.