Deacon Jones’s Deep Impact on the N.F.L.
By William C. Rhoden The New York Times Published: June 5, 2013
Deacon Jones was one of the first pro football players to put a sunny spin on what we know to be a very dark game.
Beginning with his nickname, “Deacon,” Jones, who died Monday at age 74, touched many lives inside and outside of football. Jones was not the product of a college football factory — he attended South Carolina State and Mississippi Vocational, now known as Mississippi Valley State. Yet he climbed out of relative obscurity to put an indelible stamp on the National Football League.
The flood of heartfelt tributes tells the story of a pro football fraternity that has found itself splintered — young players against old, team executives against players.
Deacon Jones, in death as he was for much of his life, has been a bridge between those sides.
Jack Youngblood, Jones’s teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, said, “Deacon Jones has been the most inspirational person in my football career.”
Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen said: “Deacon Jones was one of the greatest players in N.F.L. history. Off the field, he was a true giant.”
Allen’s father, George Allen, coached Jones with the Los Angeles Rams and the Redskins.
“His passion and spirit will continue to inspire those who knew him,” Bruce Allen said. “He was a cherished member of the Allen family and I will always consider him my big brother.”
N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell called Jones an icon among icons.
Even contemporary players who had no way of knowing Jones’s impact saluted him. Philadelphia Eagles running back Felix Jones said on Twitter, “He truly changed the culture and way the games played.”
Indeed, he did.
Jones was the leader of the Rams’ fierce pass-rushing unit, the Fearsome Foursome. It spawned an era of defensive fronts in a time in which defense ruled the N.F.L. There were the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters, the Cowboys’ Doomsday Defense and Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain.
Jones was part of an era in football in which everything was legal: Horse-collar tackles, clothesline tackles, below-the-knees crackback blocks. Defenseless receivers were a sight for sore eyes.
Jones is credited with coining the term “sack.” What I remember Jones for is the head slap, easily the most devastating defensive maneuver in professional football this side of the clothesline. Jones would take a step, slap the offensive lineman’s helmet with his forearm or perhaps with both hands. The head slap was eventually outlawed, but it remains a monument to a legacy of violence and brutality that defined an era.
How many concussions did Jones cause? How much brain damage?
These are questions for our era, not his. You played to the extent that the rules allowed. Defensive backs reveled in defenseless receivers, better to bury shoulder pads in ribs. This was an era in which defenders were encouraged to launch their bodies; leading with the helmet was an accepted practice, and a concussion was the cost of doing business.
Fans could not get enough.
Many of the players we lionize were part of pro football’s brutal past. Tactics lauded then are no longer legal tender. This is the complex tightrope that professional football continues to negotiate with each passing decade.
Today the economically vibrant N.F.L. finds itself in an increasingly uncomfortable moral bind, uneasily embracing its brutal past — represented by stars like Deacon Jones — while sanitizing the game with new rules that give the veneer of safety.
There is no way to make football safe. Players of Jones’s era knew this, accepted it and, in some ways, reveled in the reality that they played an often deadly, violent game.
Some players played with a relentless, humorless, nonapologetic fury. Jones chased quarterbacks with a passion, slapped offensive lineman silly and was probably responsible for more concussions than anyone will ever know.
While Jones played a violent game, he always maintained a sense of humor, always provided reporters with a good quote or a snappy line. Who could forget his infectious smile?
Deacon Jones was a product of his era. And he was the best of his era.