Deacon Jones died last month at age 74. If you’re under 40 and not a walking encyclopedia of NFL trivia, you might not have recognized his name. Jones never won a Super Bowl and mostly left the football world after he retired, making him somewhat of a forgotten legend. His death reminded many fans about his tremendous impact on the sport and his tireless desire to improve both football and the world. Here are ten things you should know about the late, great Deacon Jones.
1. He was the godfather of the sack
Jones is often credited with coining the term “sack.” Journalists in the early ’60s probably beat him to it, but he definitely popularized both the act of tackling the quarterback and the colorful word to describe it. Defensive ends had occasionally sacked the QB before Jones, but he mastered the tactic and made it central to the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive strategy in the late 1960s. Sacks weren’t tabulated as a statistic in Jones’s own time, but if they were, he’d have 194.5 career sacks, the third highest total in NFL history. He’d still hold the record for sacks in a single season with 26 in 1967.
2. He got kicked out of college for civil rights activism
Jones wasn’t formally expelled from South Carolina State University, but when he lost his football scholarship, it amounted to the same thing. When Jones was a freshman there in 1957, students began to protest the segregation of cafeterias at the bus station in Orangeburg, SC, where the university is located. Jones, along with several teammates, participated in the demonstrations and marches. He was sprayed with high-powered fire hoses, a brutal method of crowd dispersal — Jones later said, “I almost drowned.” After leaving SCSU, Jones briefly studied at Mississippi Vocational College, but he couldn’t stand the racism and soon dropped out.
3. He went from fourteenth-round draft pick to the Pro Football Hall of Fame
The Rams didn’t realize what a great deal they’d snagged when they chose Jones as the 186th overall draft pick in 1961. By the end of the season, they’d figured it out: he was the team’s Rookie of the Year. Jones played in the Pro Bowl eight times between 1964 and 1972 and was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in both 1967 and 1968. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible, in 1980, and the Rams retired his number in 2009.
4. He had a lot of great nicknames
Jones wanted people to remember his name, and he felt “David Jones” was too common. He said he liked the religious connotation of “Deacon,” and it stuck. His leadership on the field and his well-spoken confidence led fans to dub him “The Minister of Defense.” He was also a key member of the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome, along with defensive end Lamar Lundy and tackles Merlin Olsen and Rosey Grier. As a group, the four innovated complex, dynamic defensive strategies that challenged conventional wisdom about the role of the defensive line.
5. After retirement, he devoted himself to improving the world
Jones grew up poor in the South: his family of ten lived in a four-bedroom house, and he and his siblings earned money in the summer picking watermelons and other crops. Jones felt blessed by his talent, and he used his fame to help others find opportunities and achieve equal rights. In interviews during his football career, he was cautious about getting in trouble for his views but found ways to subtly advocate for race and gender equality. Nonetheless, his passion came through when, for example, he told ESPN that he wished he could have dinner with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy, so they could all sit together and talk about their differences. With his wife, Jones started the Deacon Jones Foundation, which helps inner-city youth — especially young men of color — access education and community resources. “I came out of a hellhole and I intend to cover that up before I die,” he said.
6. The NFL made a new rule just for him
One of Jones’s most successful defensive strategies was the “head slap.” To confound and intimidate offensive linemen, he’d slap them away with his quick hands, getting right in their faces. This kind of obstruction is dangerous, and the NFL outlawed head slapping shortly after Jones retired. By doing so, the league ensured that this signature move — unlike the now-ubiquitous sack — would forever remain unique to Jones.
7. He left his mark on music and TV
Jones didn’t make it far as a football commentator — he lasted just one season in 1994 — but he had a long and quirky career as an actor and product spokesman. Among his most memorable was a cameo on The Brady Bunch in 1971, in which he taught Peter Brady’s peewee football team a lesson about bullying. He also sang on War’s 1975 R&B hit, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” In both cases, he promoted the message of equality and fair play that motivated him throughout his life.
You can contact Sarah Rasher on Twitter @pas_dechat