Deacon Jones’s Deep Impact on the N.F.L.

By William C. Rhoden  The New York Times  Published: June 5, 2013

Deacon Jones, No. 75, during a game against the Baltimore Colts in Los Angeles in 1967.  AP Photo

Deacon Jones, No. 75, during a game against the Baltimore Colts in Los Angeles in 1967. AP Photo

 

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. 

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About Jeff Nixon

Jeff was a first team consensus All-American from the University of Richmond in 1978. He is 7th in NCAA history with 23 career interceptions. Played for the Buffalo Bills 1979-1984. Led the team with 6 interceptions in Rookie Year. Holds Bills record for 4 takeaways in a single game - 3 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Tied Bills record with four consecutive games with an interception. After 5 knee surgeries Jeff retired from pro football in 1985. He worked for 13 years (1988-2000) as the Youth Bureau Director for Buffalo and Erie County. He has worked for the past 11 years as the Youth Employment Director for Buffalo. Plays guitar and was voted best R&B guitar player by Buffalo Nightlife Magazine in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Posted on June 6, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. “Deac” was one of a kind. part assassin, part comedian, part PR/PT Barnum promoter, Escapee from the old racially segregated society of the “Jim Crow South,” and fully a human being who was always ready to help others.

    I am glad that He has found relief and release from the physical state that he had fallen into. Now he is free to be “Deacon Jones” again-forever.

    Rest in peace my friend and brother,

    Bob Grant.

    Baltimore Colts on

  2. len pettigrew

    Thanks Jeff for the heads uo upon The Deacons passing to eternal glory I was blessed to spend a minute with the fearsome foursome were he shared the with me the almighty head slap,A maneauver demonstrated by my elders giving me three more years lightenig strike thank God for his great soul
    may he rest in peace

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