Deacon Jones: The King of the Sack

Deacon Jones

Deacon Jones: The King of the Sack
| Published March 9, 2014|

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Rosa Parks, W.E.B. Du Bois...

The list of American civil rights activists and icons is a long and storied one, but many overlook the examples set by sports legends.

The United States has always had a soft spot in its heart for athletes and their accomplishments. You're certainly not obligated to agree with everything someone says or does, but athletes changed the world and how we perceive others.

There's Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Ali, Henry Aaron, Wilma Rudolph, Jim Brown, Curt Flood, Roberto Clemente, and countless others. Some were remembered for how they played the game, but also for actions off the field, the way they carried themselves and what they said.

And then there's Deacon Jones. Headslap is an appropriate title for Jones’ autobiography, because he always showed up with quickness and a nasty attitude. The book (Headslap: The Life and Times of Deacon Jones; Prometheus Books; 570 pages) is a history lesson on America, although some would consider it a synopsis of one man's reflections on his attitudes, hopes and dreams for a nation. And you know the stories will be incredible when an early passage trots out the line " for a white man over in Winter Park." That zinger was describing his father's role as chauffer, butler, fix-it man and all-around servant.

Some would question placing Jones on any kind of list using the words icon, happy, contented and love, especially if you study the history of his life, but all those qualities shine through. The nation had been roiled by racial animus for generations before Jones and his seven siblings came along, born to black parents in a black town, in the Deep South—a place time forgot and where segregation reigned. He was born with a big mouth and a rage for injustice, but his fury flowed from an incident when he was 12 years old.

Eatonville was on the outskirts of Orlando, the year was 1950 and it was a warm and sunny morning as all-day Sunday Church was in full swing at the Open Door Missionary Baptist Church. The congregation was filled with joy and happiness, chatting in small groups out front, awaiting Sunday School and lunch, which were always followed by the Baptist Youth Progressive Union and then evening services.

Then came the shiny new convertible, a pale yellow Plymouth, careening down the dirt road. Several white boys from Maitland, Florida, dressed casual like they were headed for a picnic at the lake. Then the big red-faced cracker holding the green watermelon over his head yelled "Here ya go! You niggers like watermelon."

Davey screamed a warning, but a group of older ladies were deep in conversation as the melon floated through the air. It came crashing down on a frail old grandmother, driving her to the ground where her head cracked on a stone. She died a few weeks later, and of course, there was no investigation. Just a common occurrence for the time.

Jones was versatile and fast enough to play baseball, football and basketball as a teenager, but he was a truly great high school player. Later, he played tackle both ways at South Carolina State, before moving on to the Los Angeles Rams and eventually the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

But oh, it was certainly an incredibly rocky road throughout his career. How does the greatest player to ever play for a black team get tossed from the all-black university? There was an incident concerning protests against segregation in Orangeburg, South Carolina, causing all the football players from Florida to be expelled.

And I'm still positive he was eventually dumped by the Rams with plenty of gas left in the tank. In the books' liner notes, teammate Lamar Lundy gladly shared what made folks uncomfortable.

"My very good friend Deacon Jones always did have a big mouth,” Lundy said, “and a ready rage for injustice on or off the football field. He could near frighten a person to death, the things he would say.”

Jones was selected in the 14th round of the 1961 NFL draft by Los Angeles. He and Lundy teamed with Merlin Olsen and Rosey Grier to form what may have been the best defensive line in NFL history (though some might argue the Pittsburgh Steelers’ mid-1970s line was equally powerful).

In 1964 the Secretary of Defense won All-Pro honors for the first time and was recognized as the league's best defensive end. He registered 26 unassisted sacks in 1967, and was voted defensive player of the year in '67 and '68.

Jones was 6 feet, five inches tall, weighed 260 pounds, but he was also agile and quick, surprisingly nimble for a man of his size. He had an explosive nature off the ball rarely seen until recent years, according to Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton.

"I owe everything to Deacon Jones," Tarkenton said. "If it wouldn't have been for him and his lightning sack rush, I wouldn't be known today as the greatest scrambling quarterback in history." Before Deacon Jones, there were no official statistics to record the times when a quarterback was tackled behind the line of scrimmage. Jones’ attack was such a game-changer (not a misuse of that often overused word) that forever after “sacks” would become a quantified part of every game—pro and college. In fact, Jones may have coined the term sack himself.

He would fake, dodge or slide around opposing linemen to reach a ball carrier, and many players feared him. His trademark head-slap was eventually outlawed by the league. He used the maneuver to scare and distract opponents, often striking them, but his hand movement alone was a distraction that caused them to blink. That split second was all the time Jones needed to blow past them. Someone once said that when Jones attacked it was like someone jumping through a skylight. That Jones was so large a man often made his formidable quickness and dazzling agility seem incongruous and even deceptive.

The Rams included Jones in a multi-player trade to San Diego in 1972. He played two seasons for the Chargers before finishing with the Washington Redskins in 1972. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1980.

Jones was not only a ferocious tackler and pass rusher, but also a spokesman for the Rams and pro football in general, according to Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times columnist.

"Deacon was a crusader against racial prejudice by the sheer weight of his personality, accomplishments and attitude," according to sports columnist Jim Murray, a writer for the Los Angeles Times. "It was impossible not to listen to him. Deacon was not only all-pro, he was all man.”

"He was the greatest at what he did,” writes Murray. “His achievements lit the way for generations who came after him. There was only one Deacon."

He led a segregated life, then went to a segregated college before landing in Los Angeles. Another interesting fact about Jones was that he had a special affinity for the Jewish people, noting parallels between the two group’s struggles.

The Kennedy family sought his opinions on race relations for several years, and he was a respected member of the political community, Murray said. Later in life Jones thanked his family and friends in Eatonville for raising and mentoring him, and for letting him go. In the introduction to the book, Jones also praised George Allen and Allen's wife Etty for guiding him.