He was the Secretary of Defense. He was the Deacon. He coined the term “sack.” He innovated the head slap. He was a member of the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome. He was the best defensive end of his era, one of the best of all time.
When a great player of yesteryear like Deacon Jones dies, we bullet point his accomplishments. Blessed are the players who require many bullet points. Blessed are those who collect nicknames like stamps on a passport.
Deacon Jones was a philanthropist. He was an activist, a civil rights figure. He was a broadcaster. An actor. Deacon Jones was on ”The Brady Bunch” and “Bewitched,” for heaven’s sake. He changed football. He changed the way we talk about football and cover football.
The bullet points and accomplishment listings make for convenient obituaries and capture the outline of why an individual was important. But they miss substance. Deacon Jones was a feared defender for a great team, as are many football players. He had cool 1960s-1970s nicknames, as many of his era came to have. He was a man of faith, like so many football players. He gave back to his community, like so many football players. He did time in the booth and earned some television cameos, again like so many football players. The bullet points and lists make Deacon Jones sound like part of the crowd.
He wasn’t. Deacon Jones represents an era.
Jones represents an era when young black men in the South still paid dearly when they dared to fight for their basic human rights. Jones lost a scholarship to South Carolina State for his involvement in the civil rights movement. He wound up at Mississippi Valley State, which was Mississippi Vocational College at the time. Had some Rams scouts not noticed him on grainy film, a 270-pounder chasing running backs from behind, he would have disappeared from history because he dared to demand equality. How many of his peers weren’t so lucky, gifted young men who weren’t discovered and did disappear? The black players who survived, who climbed the ladder to the NFL and AFL, did so by sleeping in separate hotels in road trips through the Deep South or, in Jones’ case, in road-team gymnasiums. That was the experience of a pro football player in Jones’ era. This was the early 1960s, mind you, not the early 1860s.
The reward for survival was employment in a gritty, violent pair of warring leagues, where salaries were in no way commensurate with the risks, the expectations, or the fame. The NFL (and AFL) were popular enough, but defensive players toiled in obscurity. They were nameless trench soldiers who did not even accumulate stats to talk about.
Jones created a stat to talk about. He reached back in history, to the days of marauding barbarians viciously looting cities, and coined a term for the act of obliterating the opposing line and throwing the quarterback to the ground, then (amazingly) a nameless feat. Suddenly, defensive linemen did something worth noticing, even if it was something they had always done.
The sack. Deacon Jones accumulated 194.5 of them, according to the research of historian John Turney, who tabulated the total from Rams and Redskins media guides, newspaper accounts and game film. It took over a decade for the sack to go from a bragging right for Jones and his Fearsome Foursome to an official stat. Such was the era that Jones represents: sepia-toned, semi-legendary, a time of giants and tall tales.
When we started tabulating sacks, giants like Jones reacquired human scale. They were men who could be measured. Only Reggie White and Bruce Smith have measured higher than Jones on the all-time sack list. Both are Hall of Famers. White was a man as complex and mythic as Jones. Yet they needed 16-game seasons and an era of pass-happy offenses to pass the man who coined the phrase.
Deacon Jones represents an era when football came into focus, when America at large began to recognize the huge, ornery, scary men for who they really were: flesh-and-blood young people who amounted to much more than their race or the sum of their on-field actions. While Joe Namath was introducing pro football to Madison Avenue, the Fearsome Foursome infiltrated movies and television. There were so many ironies: The Fearsome Foursome was hardly fearsome in real life, the mud-caked marauders were located in the glamor capital of the universe, men who modeled their careers on pillaging warriors counted needlepoint among their hobbies and became football ambassadors to Middle America.
In 1967, less than a decade after he lost a scholarship for standing up to racial equity and was forced to sleep on gymnasium cots during road trips, Jones and his teammates shared the bill with Milton Berle and Bing Crosby on a show called ”The Hollywood Palace.” The Fearsome Foursome — Deacon Jones, Rosie Greer, Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy – SANG.
Such was the era Deacon Jones represents: an era of rapid physical and emotional growth for his sport, and for his nation.
And then there was “Deacon.” Jones chose the nickname himself. He wanted to contrast its religious connotation with the brutality of football. He also wanted a memorable name to give him an identity at what was then a forgettable position on the field. Back then, the merger of football and faith was not a reason to be arch or silly or take sides in a culture war. We may have had much to learn about tolerance, but we knew how to be matter-of-fact.
The Fearsome Foursome were steeped in faith. Greer was an ordained minister. Olsen played a priest on television for three years (a fake priest, but still). Jones stamped piety into his name, but he understood that his profession and his religion made strange bedfellows. “When I see guys huddling up after the game, to pray, that’s what scares me about the game,” he once said. “I’m a Baptist, but I’m also a quarterback killer, and I ain’t praying with you. But I will give you 30 seconds to ask your Lord and master to keep me from killing you.”
Jones represented all of those paradoxes. Social injustice channeled into social progress. On-field rage fostering off-field peace. Bruised knuckles and slapped helmets gone Hollywood. The cog-in-the-machine anonymity of the trench soldier transformed into the personal glory of a sacker standing over his victim. Jones and the Fearsome Foursome begat the Purple People Eaters and Steel Curtain, the No Name Defense, the Sack Pack, the New York Sack Exchange, a new and colorful way of celebrating the grimy men at the heart of pro football, who we came to appreciate as people and personalities, not faceless grunts.
Jones helped football stake its claim at the center of the American imagination. Blessed are those whose represent their era so well, and who represented themselves even better.