Modern NFL fans think of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a place where football history is safely preserved. Panels of wise journalists and veteran players keep vigilant watch over the entrance, allowing only the most celebrated players to enter the Hall, where they're cast in bronze and placed on a shelf.
Glass cases hold leather helmets and spiked cleats in eternal stasis; black-and-white photos and plaques tell of a rough-and-ready time when linemen were small, no holds were barred and all but the biggest stars had summer jobs.
Jones was a massive talent forged from a terrifying alloy of strength, speed and meanness. Jones not only dominated the NFL in his day; he would have been a blue-chip prospect had he come out for this year's draft.
On and off the field, Jones was a full-color, high-definition, 240-frames-per-second persona, popping out of still and moving film that was still mostly black-and-white when he entered the league.
Jones changed the way NFL offenses played. The mold for today's explosive defensive lineman was cast around him. In the wake of Jones' passing, great pass-rushers from many teams and eras are paying tribute to a player—and a man—who inspired them all.
Earning His Way
Jones' path to the NFL wasn't nearly as direct as the path he took to quarterbacks.
"I came out of a hellhole," Jones told Ron Pollack of Pro Football Weekly in 2000, "and I intend to cover that up before I die."
One of a family of 10 living in a four-room house, Jones helped the family make rent by working in the fields near their Eatonville, Fla., home. Jones was determined to help himself and his family rise above their circumstances. After hitching a ride to New York in hopes of making money "on the street," Jones had to give up and slowly work his way back home.
Jones saw countless acts of racism throughout his upbringing, including baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson getting his hand viciously "cleated." Robinson, as Jones told Pollack, had inspiring, chilling words for the young athlete.
"Deacon said to Robinson, 'I guess you get used to it.' Robinson responded, 'No, son, you don’t ever get used to it.'"
Jones landed an athletic scholarship at South Carolina State, a historically black university in Orangeburg. In 1957, Jones participated in a lunch-counter march, spurred by several SCSU students being denied service at a restaurant downtown. About a thousand peaceful protesters were met by police, their dogs and fire trucks.
Jones, chased down an alley and cornered by police, was one of many students subdued by fire hoses and arrested.
After the demonstration, confrontation and arrest, Jones' scholarship was revoked. He, and several teammates who suffered the same consequences, were offered scholarships by Mississippi Vocational (now known as Mississippi Valley State) when an SCSU assistant took a job there.
It went from bad to worse in Mississippi. Not only was the racial oppression far beyond what Jones had ever experienced, but his and his teammates' records of civil disobedience were eventually discovered. They were escorted by police to the state border, and told never to return.
Diamond in the Rough
In today's NFL, the draft is only seven rounds long, and there's a case to be made that it's too long at that. By the end of the draft, teams are primarily just taking the best players left on their board, and players are often praying they don't get drafted so they can find an ideal landing spot.
Now, imagine a draft with 20 rounds.
Imagine the St. Louis Rams taking a 14-round flier on a little-known kid with a college résumé consisting mostly of academic expulsions from a small university and a vocational school.
Then, imagine that 6'5", 272-pound defensive end showing up to camp with breathtaking speed and an unquenchable fire in his heart.
Jones not only made the team; he dominated. Jones quickly earned a starting spot next to All-Pro tackle Merlin Olsen. Together with tackle Rosey Grier and end Lamar Lundy, the Rams defensive line wreaked havoc. Soon, they became known as the "Fearsome Foursome."
Given his upbringing and lack of coaching, it's no surprise Jones didn't have much of a technique base when he came to the pros.
Jack Patera, the Rams' defensive line coach at the time, explained to ESPN.com's Mike Sando just how raw Jones was:
"He had all the speed and strength, but he had a stance like those 1920 pictures you see, guys squatting like a frog with their hand between their legs," Patera recalled with a laugh. "He didn't know anything about playing defense, but all he had to do was get his butt up in the air and let him take off. Once we got him in a stance where he could get off the ball, there wasn't a whole lot to teach him. Everything was very simple to him."
According to Pro Football Reference, the average weight of every offensive tackle in 1961 was just 249.75 pounds. Jones' combination of size, speed and intensity was decades ahead of his time.
Jones was named to his first Pro Bowl in 1964, his fourth year in the NFL, and earned that honor for each of the next six seasons. From 1965 through 1969, Jones was named a First Team All-Pro five times. Put another way, Jones spent most of a decade as the consensus best defensive end in the NFL.
Deacon Jones was called the "Secretary of Defense," but defense wasn't very well kept track of in his day. There are almost no official defensive statistics from Jones' time in the NFL, but he originated his position's marquee stat: the sack.
Jones redefined the way his position was played, from read-and-react run-stuffing to quarterback terrorizing. He relentlessly pursued the quarterback in a way no player ever had. There wasn't even a name for what Jones did—not until Jones put a name to it.
Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports transcribed Jones' sack description from old NFL Films interviews:
Sacking the quarterback is like when you devastate a city, or you cream a multitude of people. You take all the offensive linemen and put them in a burlap bag, and then you take a baseball bat and beat on the bag. You're sacking them, you're bagging them. And that's what you're doing with a quarterback.
Years after Jones retired, the NFL began counting "sacks" as an official stat. What about all of those unofficial stats Jones tallied?
Years ago, as Peter King of Sports Illustrated recounts, football historian John Turney reviewed all of Jones' film. Spanning his career, Turney credits Jones with eight sacks in his 14-game rookie season, and 12, 20, 22, 19, 18, 26, 24, 15 and 12 tackles of quarterbacks behind the line for the rest of his first 10 seasons in the NFL.
Turney, as King explained, didn't use today's official standards for a sack, so the numbers aren't quite gospel. Still, his 1967 and 1968 totals both stand above the official record of 22.5, set by Michael Strahan in 2001.
Famously, Jones employed a technique called the "head slap" to gain an advantage. Sando, on Twitter, attributed a masterpiece of a quote to Jones:
According to Pro Football Weekly, Jones would have registered 194.5 sacks under modern scoring, No. 1 all-time at the time of his retirement, but behind fellow Hall of Famers Reggie White and Bruce Smith.
The San Diego Chargers
In 1971, Jones' streak of Pro Bowls finally ended. Fighting a foot injury, his production dipped, and he was traded to the San Diego Chargers.
It was there that Jones was rejuvenated, making the Pro Bowl for the eighth time.
U-T San Diego columnist Tom Krasovic relayed the memories of Jerry Magee, who covered Jones for the old San Diego Union, and Joe Tutino, who co-hosted a radio show with Jones in the 1990s:
"Unitas, he was washed up," said Magee, speaking of another Hall of Famer who landed in San Diego. "But Deacon had something left. He didn’t have what he had earlier. But he had something left. He was a good player. He was more than a good player. He was a dominant personality. Any team that had Deacon Jones, I think sort of assumed his personality."
Tutino shared the tricks a lineman would play to ward off the famous head slap. "Some of them would turn around the screws in their helmets, so that when he would go to smack them, the screw would puncture his hand," Tutino said.
In 1974, Jones left San Diego for one last season, this one with the Washington Redskins. Pro Football Reference credits Jones for just one start in that final year. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, Jones missed just five games in his 14-season career.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980, his first year of eligibility.
A Living Legend, and a Legendary Legacy
Deacon Jones was far from done making an impact. He lived a rich post-football life, dabbling in acting, broadcasting and advertising. He hosted the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame luncheon, needling the enshrinees-to-be and entertaining the crowd year after year, as Jarrett Bell of USA Today recalled.
Jones has provided inspiration and personal guidance to many NFL defenders over the years, as the outpouring of support on Twitter from great players of yesterday and today attests to. Bleacher Report's Zach Kruse collected the best of these tributes.
Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times shared how merely wearing Jones' number in Pop Warner inspired him to persevere through the relentless training of an abusive coach.
Jones' most important legacy, though, is the Deacon Jones Foundation.
The Foundation helps disadvantaged youth learn vital leadership and community-outreach skills. Its scholarship and technology programs help provide students with opportunities to learn, grow and succeed—then give back after college graduation by providing the same mentoring and training to other disadvantaged youth.
Football fans will always remember him as being larger than life, on the field and off.
The beneficiaries of his foundation will always remember him as the man who gave them a chance to lead a full, rewarding life—the chance he had to fight poverty, the police and incredible odds to earn.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!