(This story originally ran in September 2009 just before Deacon Jones' No. 75 was retired)
The term “game changer” is thrown around too loosely in sports these days, almost to the point of cliché.
In any given sporting event, you can almost guarantee that at some point, the broadcast team will refer to at least one player as a game changer, the type of guy who alters the way the game is played and ultimately, the game’s outcome.
But few athletes have ever truly fit the bill. Few have ever really been the type of guy who can play a team sport at a level so high that opponents can’t stop him and the league in which he plays has to intervene.
Think Lew Alcindor playing basketball at UCLA and having the dunk outlawed because it made the game too easy. Or imagine Major League Baseball lowering the mound five inches after Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson dominated the 1968 season with a 1.12 earned run average.
Football had its own equivalent, a man so dominant that rules had to be changed to level the playing field. That man is honored today when the Rams raise the No. 75 of defensive end David “Deacon” Jones to the rafters of the Edward Jones Dome, never to be worn again.
Jones didn’t come up with the head slap, a move so forceful and violent that the NFL outlawed it in 1977, but there’s no doubting that he made it his own.
“I did not invent the head slap but Rembrandt didn’t invent painting either,” Jones said. “I perfected it.”
Born in Eatonville, Fla., Jones grew up in a big family and the seventh of eight children and embraced sports at an early age. At Hungerford High, Jones played football, baseball and basketball but it was football that would become his passion.
It never really occurred to Jones that football could be his ticket to college but eventually it landed him a shot at South Carolina State University.
Jones didn’t last long there, spending one year at the school before he was dismissed for taking part in a sit-in during the civil rights movement. He was there long enough to do two things: get the nickname “Deacon” for his penchant for leading the team in prayer and to befriend an assistant coach who would later give him another chance to play college football.
After sitting out of football for a year, Jones landed at Mississippi Vocational College (now Mississippi Valley State) in 1960. Jones spent a year there dealing with the difficulties of a still segregated university and hoping to somehow make football his profession.
Former teammate and close friend Merlin Olsen says the difficulties of Jones’ journey made him a better football player.
“Having grown up in the south and gone to small schools and having been told for a good part of his life that there was not much for him to do and no place for him to go, I think Deacon always carried a little bit of a chip on his shoulder,” Olsen said. “And who could blame him for that?”
Jones was far from a polished, well regarded prospect as he entered the NFL Draft in 1961. Were it not for a simple twist of fate, he might not have been noticed at all.
Rams scouts Eddie Kotal and Johnny Sanders happened to be watching game film of a small school running back playing against South Carolina State when they noticed a 6’5, 260-pound force of nature who kept slamming running backs to the ground.
The scouts made a note of Jones and dropped him in the sleeper pile. When draft day came, after a long wait, the Rams finally called for Jones in the 14th round.
Never one to turn down a chance to find some outside motivation, Jones took his late draft position personally and used it to prove the doubters wrong.
“It really pissed me off,” Jones said. “I had one thing in mind, that was to make the team.”
Making the team was one thing, fitting in with it something entirely different. Coming from the south, Jones had never played with or against players of a different race.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Jones was a bit worried about how he would be accepted in an integrated setting.
Those fears were quickly alleviated.
“That could have changed the whole dimension,” Jones said. “Everything could have been the opposite if I had wasted time going through those problems or had somebody on the other side who thought a different way. We had guys who understood, paid no attention to what was going on. We all wanted to be good football players and we handled the situation the way it was.”
While Jones felt comfortable in his new setting right away, he didn’t take long to fit in on the football field, either. Jones made an immediate impression and says it took him all of two weeks to know he could play and succeed at the NFL level.
The Rams agreed with that assessment and decided that Jones’ speed, strength and agility would best fit at defensive end. It was a decision that would change football forever.
A FEARSOME GROUP
When Jones arrived in Los Angeles, he was a brash but talented player who was still a bit raw. He was as outgoing as anyone on the team but he was also quick to embrace the wisdom he could gain from some of the players around him.
In 1961, Jones posted a strong rookie season with the help of defensive tackle Rosey Grier and defensive end Lamar Lundy.
The following year, the Rams used their first-round pick on a defensive tackle out of Utah State by the name of Merlin Olsen.
Olsen was essentially the foil to Jones, a fundamentally sound yet equally dominant player from a very different background. And Jones wasted no time in making Olsen’s life difficult and embracing him at the same time.
“The guys who were playing on me when I was playing on offense were getting off the ball so quickly I couldn’t understand how they could do that,” Olsen said. “I finally happened to glace back before the play and I saw Deacon holding up one finger and I knew what was going on. There was a little bit of hazing and welcome to the NFL going on. But I tell you from the very beginning I was very comfortable with Rosey and Lamar and Deacon and fitting in to what was a rather incongruous group if you happened to have been raised in a small northern Utah community.”
Thus was born perhaps the most dominant quartet in NFL history, the group that over the next five years would come to be known as the “Fearsome Foursome.”
So talented and dominant was the group that teams had almost no way of stopping them. On the field, the foursome would rush the passer on every play, usually with great results; because they were so good and so in tune with one another that they could easily adjust on the fly to stop an opposing running back.
At the center of it all was Jones, the one guy in the group who would never allow you to forget he was there. It was a group that was ahead of its time in many ways.
Bigger than almost all defensive lines, the quartet averaged 270 pounds and Lundy checked in at 6’7 with the rest at 6’5.
Of course, none of what was done on the field would have been possible were it not for the undying devotion and friendship the group formed off of it.
Before Lundy’s passing in 2007, the group would congregate at least once a year and instantly begin reminiscing about old times. It’s a friendship that endures even today.
“We have never had to test our friendship,” Grier said. “It’s there. It’s not about you having to do this to prove anything. We don’t have to prove we love one another. It’s there. It’s always going to be there.”
COINING THE SACK
As the self-appointed and unanimously elected loud mouth of the defense, Jones felt it was his personal responsibility to make sure his presence was felt in any room or on any football field at all times.
“Deacon loved to talk,” Olsen said. “You never had to ask the question, ‘Where is Deacon?’ You just opened your ears. Deacon was one of the early trash talkers, I think.”
Jones’ first contract with the Rams was worth a whopping $7,500. It wasn’t awful for the time but it was peanuts compared to what some of the other players in the league would make.
The way he figured it, there was no way for teams to realize how important it was to have a pass rusher because there were no statistics that could quantify their production.
Jones quickly decided that since nobody would come up with something, he would take it upon himself. And when he did, he took all angles into account.
“When I came into the game, linemen were last on the totem pole and there was a unique reason for that,” Jones said. “There was no way at the time to identify what was good. People like you would write that Deacon Jones tackled the quarterback. There was no way of determining or naming what we did so we had to have a word that describes what we did so it would fit into a headline. When I use the term sack, it reminds me of putting all the offensive linemen in a big bag and taking a baseball bat and beating on the bag. I just threw it out there and the press did the rest.”
Sure, the media helped Jones spread the gospel of the sack but it was Jones that was regularly appearing in those headlines.
When Jones came into the league, he was already bigger, faster and stronger than most of his opponents but when he picked up the head slap and made it his own, he became truly dominant.
“Put on a helmet sometime and have somebody slap you upside the head,” Olsen said. “The first thing that happens is you shut your eyes so there was a period of time where the offensive lineman didn’t know where Deacon was going.”
Sacks didn’t become an official statistic until 1982. By then, Jones’ playing days had long since passed. But football historians have gone back and attempted to put a number on his production. Jones himself has joined in that pursuit.
Jones has himself down for 180.5 for his career while historians say the number is 173.5. In 1967, Jones says he had 26 sacks and followed it up with 24 the following year.
“That’s 50 sacks back to back,” Jones said. “I dare anybody to come close to that.”
Regardless of the numbers, there’s no denying that Jones remains the “Minister of Defense.”
A MEANINGFUL MOMENT
At 70 years old, Jones can still walk around without much of the pain that former players deal with on a daily basis.
But Jones has dealt with some illnesses in recent months. In fact, Jones had just come out of a pair of surgeries back in June when he got a call from St. Louis informing him his No. 75 would be retired permanently.
“I have been waiting on it and they picked the right time to call me because that’s when I needed it,” Jones said. “They say these things happen for a reason that seemed like it was just perfect. It didn’t matter that it was 35 years it just mattered that it happened and it happened at a good time.”
To this day, Jones can’t get enough of his football. He watches every week and can’t stand the rules that have been put in place to protect quarterbacks. He resides in California with his wife Elizabeth and he is still involved in the Deacon Jones Foundation, helping at-risk youth.
“Deacon always has you on edge,” Grier said. “Deacon would make me nervous because you never know what’s going to come. Even now when I am around Deacon, he comes out and you have no idea what he’s going to say. But he is very good with words and he can say words that really encourage people or he can challenge people with his words. Deacon has a great heart. He’s loud and you think he doesn’t care but Deacon really cares what is going on around him.”
Make no mistake, though, Jones remains the brash, confident and out going guy he’s always been. He’s the same guy who would regularly let the opposing offense know what’s coming before the play because he knew that group had no way to stop it. Or the guy who would regularly hold impromptu press conferences at his locker after games.
Jones retired from football in 1974, spending the bulk of his career with the Rams. Given 35 years to reflect on what he’s accomplished, it all comes back to the legacy he left behind and the future it helped create.
“I am proud of the fact that my style was copied,” Jones said. “Until they outlawed the head slap, the whole league was using it. I am very proud of that. I am very proud that I played the kind of ball that inspired young people even today, even these young boys now that never saw me play but they heard about it, I have great conversations with them. I always hang around the game in some capacity. I like to be around the guys. I like to hear their questions and hear them talk about what they have never seen.”
What they’ve never seen is a player so exceptional that in every sense of the term, changed the game like Deacon Jones.