Jones, David ("Deacon")

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JONES, David ("Deacon")

(b. 9 December 1938 in Eatonville, Florida), Hall of Fame football player who was one of the first fast, hard-hitting defensive linemen and who perfected the head slap and coined the term "sack" for tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.

From his early childhood in Eatonville, Jones was determined and headstrong. Ishmael, his father, was a handy-man, and Mattie, his mother, was a homemaker who helped the family in the fields during harvest seasons. His parents raised Jones, his two brothers, and his five sisters to be disciplined and hardworking as they struggled in their poor African-American town. His early experiences with poverty and discrimination led Jones to fight against injustice all of his life. He played basketball and baseball in the local schools, but football was the sport that he hoped would get him out of Eatonville. Playing both offense and defense for Hungerford High, Jones earned awards and high praise but received no inquiries from college teams. He graduated from Hungerford in 1956, and was convinced that his outspokenness led one of his coaches to squelch the interest of any college recruiters.

Jones worked in the fields and played semiprofessional basketball in an African-American Florida league until 1957, when a coach from the African-American South Carolina State College heard some stories about Jones's football skills. With his speed, power, and determination, Jones quickly won the South Carolina starting tackle position from the current All-Conference lineman and won the All-Conference Tackle honors himself in 1958. Although the likelihood of an African-American lineman at a small school getting noticed by the National Football League (NFL) was slim, his chance came when South Carolina played Florida Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) University. A scout from the Los Angeles Rams was present to observe the A&M players, but most of his resulting notes concerned the six-foot, five-inch, 265-pound South Carolina offensive and defensive tackle who was all over the field, often chasing down running backs and receivers with his unusual speed.

In 1960 South Carolina revoked Jones's scholarship and expelled him, because of his failure to meet academic standards and his difficulties with the police after participating in civil rights protests. He briefly attended Mississippi Vocational (1960–1961) but was kicked out of the state by police who didn't want any "black troublemakers" in town. Not long after moving to New Orleans to live with his brother, he learned that the Los Angeles Rams had selected him in the fourteenth round of the NFL draft.

A fellow passenger on Jones's flight to Los Angeles remarked that no one would ever remember a football player named "David Jones." At his rookie press conference Jones told the reporters, "My name is Deacon Jones … and I've come to preach the gospel of winning football to the good people of Los Angeles." The Rams converted him to a defensive end, and Jones worked hard to make the team. Meanwhile, he discovered the unwritten NFL rule: no team had more than four African-American players. The Rams had been one of the first teams to accept any African-American players; this time they chose eight. In 1961, during training camp of his first year, Jones's speed, toughness, and determination ensured him a spot on the roster.

The Rams struggled during Jones's first two years under the head coach and former Rams quarterback Bob Water-field, but Jones drew attention. Opposing teams had never seen a defensive end as fast as Jones, and even the celebrated offense of the Green Bay Packers led by Bart Starr struggled against him. While the Rams had a losing season, Jones was named the Rams Rookie of the Year in 1961 and was awarded a new contract. The Rams failed to improve from 1962 to 1964, when Harland Svare replaced Water-field, but Jones and the Rams defense dominated the league. Svare, not fond of Jones's outspoken ways, suggested that he "settle down" and get married. Jones did so, but his marriage to Iretha Oberton in 1963 soon foundered. Although Jones was not faithful, he refused to divorce Oberton.

Jones was named to his first Pro Bowl in 1964. He and his fellow linemen Merlin Olsen, Roosevelt Grier, and Lamar Lundy became known as the Fearsome Foursome. Fortunes changed for the Rams in 1965 when George Allen became the coach, and the team then enjoyed five winning seasons and a number of playoff appearances. Always looking for an edge, Jones perfected the "head slap" after watching the boxer Muhammad Ali. Banned by the NFL after Jones retired, this crushing blow to the helmet, coupled with Jones's blazing speed, earned him more sacks and tackles than anyone in the league. Jones also coined the term "sack" to describe bringing the quarterback down behind the line of scrimmage. He said the move was "like sacking a great city like Rome or Troy."

The Rams owner Dan Reeves fired Allen in 1972. Reeves had tried to fire Allen before, but Jones and other players had rallied together and forced his reinstatement. This time, the coach was gone. A year later Jones was traded to the San Diego Chargers. His season ended bitterly as the NFL, wracked by criticism for allowing the widespread use of amphetamines and other drugs, singled out the Chargers and Jones (Jones was never convicted for illegal drug use). Fined by the league and disheartened, Jones considered retiring but he was traded to the Washington Redskins in 1974 and was reunited with Allen, his former coach. He played mainly on third-down passing situations, still performing admirably, and even kicking a field goal in his final regular season game. Jones retired after his 1974–1975 season with the Redskins.

During his fourteen years in the NFL, Jones was the Outstanding Defensive Player twice, went to eight Pro Bowls, and was named All–NFL/National Football Conference (NFC) six times (1965–1970). Although the NFL did not keep sack records during his career, unofficially Jones ranked second behind Reggie White with 180.5 and, as of 2001, he still held the single-season sack record of twenty-six in a fourteen-game season. He held the unofficial record for most solo tackles (753) and was named to the league's Team of the Seventies and to the All-Time Seventy-fifth Anniversary Team. In 1980 Jones was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

During his time in Los Angeles, Jones began singing and recording with various bands. He also worked as a bodyguard for the candidate Robert F. Kennedy during the 1968 presidential campaign, but he was not present when Kennedy was assassinated, a tragedy that haunted him for years. After his retirement Jones continued singing and appearing in commercials and movies. He started the Deacon Jones Foundation, of which his second wife Elizabeth is chief operating and financial officer, to help inner-city students find scholarships and programs. In July 2001 Jones, along with Boomer Esiason, became an analyst for the Fox Sports Network's NFL This Morning, a live, Sunday-morning pregame show.

Jones's career statistics in sacks and solo tackles were astounding. In addition, his outspoken crusade against injustice off the field paved the way for a more fair and open NFL. Jones became known as the Secretary of Defense, a fitting epithet for a man who was not only the game's first star defensive lineman, but quite possibly the best pass-rusher in football history.

For an insightful and lively narrative of Jones's life from childhood to retirement, see his book with John Klawitter, Headslap: The Life and Times of Deacon Jones (1996). A second book by both men is The Book of Deacon: The Wit and Wisdom of Deacon Jones (2001), a collection of stories and sayings that underscores the player's toughness, determination, and outspokenness. A biography written about Jones at the peak of his NFL career is Bill Libby, Life in the Pit: The Deacon Jones Story (1970).

Markus H. McDowell