Sunday, 9 June 2013


I was hoping to write Deacon Jones' obit for one of the papers, but he wasn't really a concern for British audiences, so I wrote this instead, aimed not at an audience that had never heard of the Deacon, or did not comprehend American football, but one that does.

Great sportsmen leave legacies of definition. Some are so dominant they redefine the game, forcing changes in the rules. Basketball devised goaltending, offensive goaltending, widened the lane, and banned the dunk to neutralise big men, like Bob Kurland, George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Lew Alcindor, when their opponents could not. Lords made rules to restrict fast bowling after Thompson and Lillie and the great West Indies attacks of the late 70s.

Greats often have signature moves, even outside pro wrestling. Deacon's was the head slap. He didn't invent the head slap, but as he famously said, 'Rembrandt didn't invent paint'. He was so devastating smashing his open hand over the ear-hole of opponents' helmets that the NFL banned the move ('hands to the face'), which was still being coached in high school and college when I played, the celebrated 'ringing his bell'.

And finally, greats are often defined by their nicknames, different ways of capturing their greatness which eclipse their given names. The true greats often have more than one, and some of them are the kind of definers sportswriters used to make up in the pre-Chris Berman days. Think of 'Babe' Ruth, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat. Deacon Jones, who has died aged 74, is one of those rare sportsmen who qualifies in both those categories, but more than that, he also defined his own dominance so perfectly, his definition sticks as part of gridiron football's jargon. 'Deacon' gave himself that name, which has a threatening, grave-side feel to it, because he didn't want to be just another David Jones. If he hadn't, in LA he might have been mistaken for one of the Monkees. But the press also termed him 'the Secretary of Defense' when he went to Washington.

Starring for the Los Angeles Rams' defensive line known collectively as 'The Fearsome Foursome', Deacon specialised in turning the drop-back pass into hazardous duty for quarterbacks. As he explained: '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.' The term 'sack' was born, but it took nearly 20 years before it became an official statistic in 1982.

Which is a shame, because if anyone had been counting sacks while Deacon was busy accumulating and defining them, his legacy might well be even greater, if that's possible. There have been attempts to go back and count sacks, post quarterback mortem if you will, but its a haphazard business without actual film: you can't reconstruct a sack from the box score, like baseball historians did when they retroactively counted saves by pitchers who saved games before the concept or the stat even existed. The consensus seems to be that Deacon had two seasons, 1964 and 1968, of 22 sacks each, which would be the NFL record if anyone had been counting, and if Michael Strahan's bogus sack on Brett Favre's lie-down were removed from history as it should be. Some historians give him 26 sacks in 1967 (he was the NFL's defensive player of the year in both 67 and 68). Coy Bacon is sometimes also credited with 26 sacks in 1976, but in both cases other recounts have lowered the figure. Deacon's unofficial total of 194, including that 26, would still rank third all-time.

Deacon's path to the NFL was not easy. He was expelled from South Carolina State, a black university, for participating in civil rights protests, and wound up at Mississippi Vocational College (now Mississippi Valley State) another segregated institution, but one well off the scouting circuit. The story is Rams scouts saw him on film, while watching for someone else, and noticed a 270 pound lineman running down pass receivers. They drafted him in the 14th round.

He joined a Rams team that had a decade earlier been the NFL's most exciting and glamorous, but was struggling. He joined veteran Lamar Lundy to form a good pair of defensive ends. Coach Bob Waterfield would soon be replaced by Harland Svare, and the Rams drafted Merlin Olsen with their first pick in 1962, and he made an immediate impact at tackle. In 1963 Svare traded for his former Giants' teammate Rosey Grier and the Fearsome Foursome was complete.

Historians will show there were other references to defensive lines being called 'Fearsome Foursomes', including one Grier played on, and Svare played behind, in New York. But the label had been placed on the AFL's Chargers the year they moved from LA to San Diego, 1961, when the now sadly overlooked Earl Faison joined Ernie Ladd, Bill Hudson, and Ron Nery. Maybe the LA press stole the name from San Diego, but when George Allen arrived as head coach in 1966, he turned the defense loose, and the Rams' fortunes around.

In Allen's second year, 1967, the Rams lost only one game in the season, finishing 11-1-2. But they had to travel to Milwaukee to play Green Bay (9-4-1) for the conference playoff, where they lost decisively to the Packers, which set up the Ice Bowl the following week in Green Bay. Having the play on the road was unfortunate, but Green Bay matched up well against the Rams; in the regular season's final game the Rams had just squeaked past the Pack despite sacking Bart Starr six times. The Packers had probably the league's best offensive line, and they used fullback Chuck Mercein to help; Starr was sacked only once in Milwaukee while Willie Davis and the Packers got to Roman Gabriel six times, which blew a hole in the Rams' accusations that the Packers softened the Milwaukee field to slow them down. I can recall the Packers suggesting that the Fearsome Foursome were controllable, just as they thought they could handle Dallas' D, led by Bob Lilly.

The Rams might have fallen short of the big prize, but Jones and the Rams captured the hearts of LA, if such things exist in LA, and took advantage of the media opportunities that attention created. Olsen became a successful actor, Jones was a successful singer, did quite a bit of acting and was a frequent pitchman, most famously for Lite beer, and Greir did a bit, as well as becoming an aide to Bobby Kennedy; he was at his side when RFK was killed. Deacon's self-promoting wasn't as flashy as Joe Namaths, but it was always backed up with results—he is a significant figure in the development of modern sportsmen.

Deacon played with the Rams between 1961-71, two years for the Chargers, and 1974 when he was reuinted with Allen at the Redskins. That's Allen, in the photo above, presenting Jones when he was inducted into the Hall Of Fame; when Allen went in, posthumously, in 2002, it was Jones whom the family asked to present him.

Jones was All-Pro, unanimously, every year between 1965-69, and second team three other times. He went to seven straight Pro Bowls with the Rams, and another with the Chargers. He was an automatic choice for the 75th anniversary all-time NFL team picked in 1994. His individual dominance is hard to assess partly because of the flair with which he accomplished it, and partly because of the hype, but whenever I look at all-time teams, and get into the argument of could these guys play in the modern game, where everyone is bigger and stronger, I point to Jones, a 270 pound end with strength, quickness, and an arsenal of pass-rush weapons, and say 'he could'.

1 comment :

David Logan said...

Great obit. of a great man. Thanks Mike.