If there was ever a player who was born to crush quarterbacks, it was David “Deacon” Jones.
Jones was an accidental discovery by pro scouts who turned into one of the best defensive linemen in pro football history.
As one of the LA Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome,” Jones is credited with first using the word “sack” when referring to tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.
Even though sacks didn’t officially become a stat by the NFL until 1982, Jones was arguably a master of the trade.
Don't let this man's easy smile fool you.
Deacon Jones is seconds away from delivering his a Halo Spinner headslap upside your dome. pic.twitter.com/p2XEIMd9Qs
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) August 28, 2020
“The Secretary of Defense” was a ferocious competitor who head slapped his way into football immortality.
This is the story of Deacon Jones.
Racism Fuels Jones
David Jones was born on December 9, 1938, in Eatonville, Florida.
— Ken Crippen (@KenCrippen) December 9, 2016
Jones was one of ten family members who lived in a four-bedroom house.
His parents ran a barbeque stand and the kids helped pay the bills by working as field hands near their home in Eatonville.
Jones became a good athlete at Hungerford High School where he played football along with baseball and basketball.
Growing up in the South, Jones was witness to countless acts of racism that stoked a fire inside him.
“I came out of a hellhole and I intend to cover that up before I die,” Jones said years later.
He once saw a group of teens hit an elderly black woman with a watermelon. That same woman later died from her injuries.
Around the same time, Jones and a group of friends went to see Jackie Robinson play baseball in Orlando.
During the game, Robinson’s hand was cleated by a white player, and nothing was done about it.
Instead of raising a fuss, Robinson said nothing and continued playing.
After the game, Jones had a chance to speak with Robinson.
Jones said to Robinson, “I guess you get used to it.” Robinson responded, “No, son, you don’t ever get used to it.”
The Lunch That Turned Into a Riot
While he was in high school, a tumor was found on Jones’ leg and removed.
He continued to play sports and did well, but no college scholarships materialized.
Jones then decided to try to earn some money for his family and traveled to New York City for a job.
That job didn’t pan out, and Jones returned home to Florida empty-handed.
Months later, he received a scholarship offer out of the blue from South Carolina State University.
“I had unusual ability, and I knew that,” Jones said in 2007. “I knew I could play the game, I knew I had the speed, the quickness. I just needed the training.”
During his time at SCS, Jones took part in a demonstration.
What began as a simple meal turned ugly when white patrons at a local lunch counter turned on black patrons who were trying to order food.
A local #BlackHistoryMonth story:
David "Deacon" Jones was born in Eatonville, Florida in 1938. A magnificent sports player, he attended South Carolina State to play football.
When they learned that he had participated in a civil rights march, his scholarship was revoked. pic.twitter.com/YLXcSUjuMh
— Former Congresswoman Val Demings (@RepValDemings) February 19, 2020
Jones was one of the patrons, and he’d had his fill of racism. He and the others refused to leave, and the police were called.
Soon, the local fire department arrived, and water hoses were used on the black protestors.
“I broke and ran,” Jones said. “I ran right up into that alley. Had no out to it. And they turned the hose loose right up in that alley on me, pinned me up against the wall, and it ripped the back of my (suit), right down the back. I almost drowned, man. I almost drowned, and I was a well-conditioned athlete. I couldn’t move a muscle. It had me pinned up against that wall, and I couldn’t move.”
Once the officials at SCS found out that Jones was involved in the protest, he was dismissed from the school.
Mississippi Valley State
Thankfully, one of the coaches from South Carolina State became the new head coach at Mississippi Vocational College (now known as Mississippi Valley State).
The coach offered Jones an opportunity to play for him, and Jones decided to make the most of what would most likely be his final chance to play college ball.
“Unlike many black people then, I was determined not to be what society said I was,” Jones later recounted. “Thank God I had the ability to play a violent game like football. It gave me an outlet for the anger in my heart.”
Unfortunately, the hate prevalent toward black people at the time was even worse in Mississippi.
“One of the worst moves I ever made,” Deacon said. “Ohhhhhh, man, to leave South Carolina, which is the mecca of bigotry, to go to Mississippi, that’s the pits. I didn’t know people could be treated that bad.”
On the football field, Jones excelled as a defensive lineman.
He was quick for someone towering at 6’5” and 270 pounds and frequently made plays behind the line of scrimmage.
South Carolina State College and Mississippi Valley State College Alumnus, NFL Hall of Famer, Civil Rights Activist, and Singer Deacon Jones passed away on June 3, 2013. pic.twitter.com/mhzUwdCllV
— MACCEXCLUSIVESAPPAREL (@maccexclusives2) June 3, 2022
When he was off the field, Jones continued to experience racial injustices.
Any time the Delta Devils were on the road, Jones and his black teammates had to make different accommodations, usually sleeping in the opposing team’s gym.
Then, during Thanksgiving break that year, Jones and some friends were on campus playing cards when several police officers showed up unexpectedly.
They told the players they had one hour to pack and leave school.
Jones and his friends were stunned, but they knew to take the threat seriously.
“These are Mississippi cops. You don’t give them no static,” Deacon told his cohorts. “Everybody has got to be alert here. If they take us out in the woods, every man for himself. OK, we ain’t going to just sit here and let them hang us or put a bullet in my head. I’m going to go down fighting.”
Thankfully, Jones and his friends were unharmed, and they left college, never to return.
Although Jones played only one season of college football, he left an impression, though he didn’t know it yet.
As NFL teams were preparing for the 1961 draft, a Rams scout was watching film of running backs and noticed something unusual.
“Deacon was discovered kinda by accident,” said NFL Films writer Ray Didinger. “The Rams were scouting some running backs and they found this defensive tackle who was outrunning the running backs that they were scouting.”
Almost as an afterthought, LA selected Jones with the 186th pick in the 14th round of the 1961 NFL Draft.
The Rams at the time were a few years removed from their last playoff appearance and weren’t getting much better.
In 1959, the team won two games followed by four victories in 1960.
During Jones’ rookie year, the Rams won only four games again.
— Bate™ (@NoPlanB_) August 4, 2013
However, it was apparent that the new defensive end from Florida, who partnered with veteran defensive end Lamar Lundy, was pretty good, although a tad raw.
“He (Jones) 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,” Rams defensive line coach, Jack 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.”
Recently, an effort was made to pour over NFL game film from 1960-1981 to keep track of individual stats during that period.
Although the results of the research are still unofficial, Jones is credited with making 9.5 sacks in six starts in 1961.
Leafing through the LA phone book early in his Rams career, Jones saw a plethora of “David Joneses” and decided to give himself a nickname.
He chose “Deacon” to stand out from the crowd and help make a name for himself.
“Football is a violent world and Deacon has a religious connotation,” Jones told the LA Times. “I thought a name like that would be remembered.”
During his second season in 1962, the newly minted Deacon tallied 12 sacks in 14 starts (the NFL did not keep track of tackles at the time).
The Rams were somehow worse though and finished 1962 with one win – the worst total since 1937, its first season as an NFL franchise.
However, that same year, LA selected quarterback Roman Gabriel and defensive tackle Merlin Olsen in the draft.
In 1963, the Rams acquired defensive tackle Rosey Grier from the New York Giants.
LA Rams famed ‘Fearsome Foursome’: Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier, Lamar Lundy pic.twitter.com/ipdRn6bbfK
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) March 15, 2020
Jones, Olsen, Lundy, and Grier quickly gelled as a line and began terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
“The Fearsome Foursome”
The quartet was so good by 1966 that they became known as the “Fearsome Foursome.”
LA Rams Fearsome Foursome: Lamar Lundy, Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier pic.twitter.com/BbsLZFc5BL
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) May 30, 2020
LA won only nine total games the previous two seasons, but Jones is credited with 22 sacks in 1964 and 19 sacks and a safety in 1965.
With the hindsight of recent research, Jones was unofficially the NFL sack leader for both 1964 and 1965.
He was also voted to the first of eight Pro Bowls in ‘64 and was a second-team All-Pro that year and a first-team All-Pro in 1965.
In 1966, the Rams had their first winning record since 1958 under new coach George Allen.
They won eight games while the Fearsome Foursome helped the defense reach a second overall ranking in the NFL.
Jones pulled down opposing quarterbacks 16 times and snagged his second career interception.
He was selected first-team All-Pro again and added to the Pro Bowl roster.
Two-Time Defensive Player of the Year
Before the 1967 season began, Grier suffered an injury and retired from football.
He was replaced with former Detroit Lion defensive tackle Roger Brown.
Jones could not be stopped and is credited by some historians with 21.5 sacks and by others with an NFL all-time record of 26 sacks.
Either way, he led the league again in sacks.
Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen closing in on Jim Hart. The Rams defensive front line wasn’t called the Fearsome Foursome for nothing! pic.twitter.com/37kIhMFb1P
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) December 22, 2019
By then, Jones was a feared defensive lineman, and he strongly believed that he had no peers.
“I’m the best defensive end around,” Jones boasted. “I’d hate to have to play against me.”
Jones was selected as the NFL’s Defensive Player and returned to the Pro Bowl.
The affectionately called “Secretary of Defense” did the dirty work (according to some) of bringing down a quarterback by head-slapping his way past opposing blockers.
— Deacon Jones (@DeaconJones_75) June 20, 2015
Jones would then “sack” (his word) the QB behind the line of scrimmage.
“Sacking the quarterback is like when you devastate a city, or you cream a multitude of people,” Jones later explained to NFL Films. “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 head slap was effective but was ultimately outlawed by the NFL in 1977, a few years after Jones retired.
“It was the greatest thing I ever did and when I left the game they outlawed it,” Jones said in 2009. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
LA went 11-1-2 in ‘67 and lost to Green Bay in the Conference Playoffs.
In 1968, Jones was once again named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year by leading the NFL in sacks with 22.
Then, in 1969, Jones led the NFL in sacks for the third year in a row when he tallied 15.
Meanwhile, Roman Gabriel helped lead the Rams back to the postseason and a close 23-20 loss to Minnesota.
Trade to San Diego
By 1969, both Brown and Lamar Lundy were gone from the Foursome, but Jones and Olsen continued on.
They proved to be a valuable one-two punch for the Rams’ defense.
“Deac and I had a great unspoken rapport on the field,” Olsen said. “After playing together for so long, we’d learn to anticipate each other’s moves. I never had to worry about him.”
Deacon replied, “We were lucky enough to blend so well. We put pressure on the quarterback on every play.”
In 1970, Jones was credited with 12 sacks and reached his seventh Pro Bowl.
— Deacon Jones (@DeaconJones_75) June 19, 2015
The following year he played through foot injuries and appeared in only 11 games. It was the first time Jones did not play an entire season in his career.
(He played in 191 of a possible 196 games during his time in the NFL.)
After getting just 4.5 sacks, LA did the unthinkable and traded Jones to the San Diego Chargers in early 1972.
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) January 2, 2023
San Diego wasn’t very good, but Jones gave the team some leadership.
“Deacon had something left,” said Jerry Magee of the San Diego Union. “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.”
After being named a team captain, Jones made his eighth Pro Bowl in ‘72 on the strength of six sacks and added another five sacks in 1973.
The Chargers could only muster six wins combined during that period.
Jones Goes to Washington
In 1971, George Allen was hired as the head coach of the Washington Redskins.
Before the 1974 season, he brought Jones in to bring a veteran presence to the Washington locker room.
Right Man, Wrong Team: Deacon Jones with the Redskins. pic.twitter.com/vSG10v2FGl
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) December 10, 2016
Now in his 14th year, Jones played in all 14 games but only started one, accumulating three total sacks.
During the final game of the season against the Chicago Bears, Jones asked Allen if he could kick an extra point attempt.
With Washington comfortably ahead, Allen gave his blessing, and sure enough, the kick was good.
That time Deacon Jones was the Redskins kicker pic.twitter.com/2unV8yDgiy
— Drew Hall of Fame (@NFLHistoryX) June 4, 2018
As fate would have it, the Redskins then faced the Rams in the Divisional round of the playoffs and lost 19-10.
Not long after the contest, Jones retired.
In his career, Jones had an unofficial count of 173.5 sacks, along with two safeties, two interceptions, and 15 fumble recoveries.
He was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, five-time first-team All-Pro, three-time second-team All-Pro, eight-time Pro Bowler, and unofficial NFL sack leader five times.
Jones was named to the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade Team, the league’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams, the St. Louis Football Ring of Fame, and had his number 75 retired by the Rams.
Retirement and Death
After retiring, Jones stayed busy and was in the public limelight as an actor, singer, and broadcaster.
He worked in the business world in a number of capacities and also founded the Deacon Jones Foundation.
His foundation existed to help inner-city youth receive an education and get the help they needed to be successful.
Hall of Fame DE Deacon Jones was born OTD in 1938. Hall of Fame Enshrinement Class of 1980. Jones played 14 seasons with the @RamsNFL, @Chargers & @Redskins. He was selected to 8 Pro Bowls and the NFL 1960s All-Decade and 75th Anniversary All-Time Teams. pic.twitter.com/2dLbCAcDVZ
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) December 9, 2018
In 1980, Jones was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame – the only 14th-round draft pick to be inducted into the Hall.
“When I first came up, defensive linemen were dull as hell,” Jones said that same year. “Some were great performers, but nobody knew who they were. I set out to change that.”
Jones was also added to several other halls of fame including the Florida Sports Hall of Fame.
On June 3, 2013, Jones passed away after suffering from lung cancer and heart disease.
He was 74 years old.