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The Very Frightening Secretary of Defense: Was Deacon Jones the NFL's Meanest

His nickname when he played-when he came marauding after the quarterbacks of his day all long, slashing arms and hard, charging legs-was the Secretary of Defense and it was a name that fit him as comfortably as his arms fit around the bodies of the same, overmatched quarterbacks.

David (Deacon) Jones, the man who literally put the sack in football-it was he who first matched the word with the deed-hit the quarterback bull's-eye an unofficial 173 times in 14 seasons in the NFL...unofficial because "sacks" didn't become an official part of the NFL lexicon until the 1980s and Deacon Jones had the bad timing to chase down his quarterbacks from 1961-1974.

If his numbers counted, he would rank third in NFL history today, behind only Bruce Smith (who played five more years to reach 200) and Reggie White (who played one more year to get to 198).

There are a lot of people who have watched a lot of football over a lot of years who would tell you to forget the numbers, that Deacon Jones was second to no one then and now when it comes to the business of playing defensive end in professional football.

Merlin Olson, who played with Jones for 10 seasons in the Los Angeles Rams Fearsome Foursome and who shares space with him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, says, "There has never been a better football player than Deacon Jones."

The late George Allen, another resident of Canton and who coached Jones in the last four of his five consecutive all-pro seasons (1966-1969), said of Deacon, "No one has ever had his combination of speed, instinct, intelligence, motivation, and drive."

Of himself, Jones says, "I had a lot of confidence. To be a great football player, you have to have confidence. It helps to be a little angry, too. I also was that. Frustration builds inner drive...at least it did for me."

David Jones' life story seem borrowed from a time and place long ago.

He was the seventh of eight children of dirt-poor parents whose babies all were born-David in December of 1938-in an old wood house they shared in Eatonville, Fla., five miles from Orland...on the site of Disney World to come but light years from a tourist attraction then. The Jones family had no indoor plumbing until Deacon was in high school.

David was a three-sport star (football, baseball, basketball) at Hungerford High School, an all-black high school, but when he was 18 there were no college recruiters offering easy dreams and thrilling promises.

He ended up at Mississippi Vocational, where he lasted on year ("I must have been out of my mind," he says now). He transferred to South Carolina State, a larger college but still a small minority school with a modest football program.

He fate not intervened in 1960, who knows what might have happened to Deacon Jones, who had become "Deacon" at South Carolina State because he always led the team in prayer-and also because he liked the distinctive name.

Good as he was a college football player, Jones was not on the talent lists of pro football scouts-and, with the AFL opening for business in 1960, there were two dozen teams competing for warm bodies.

Only a chance sighting brought Jones to the attention of Rams scouts Eddie Kotal and Johnny Sanders. They were looking at game film of a small southern school running back in a game against South Carolina State (years later no one could remember the name of the opposing school, much less the name of the running back). In the grainy film, a large defensive player from South Carolina State kept putting their running back on his butt.

Certain that no one else in pro football knew about the 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive player they had seen, Kotal and Sanders filed the information in their sleeper file.

In the fourteenth round of the 1961 NFL Draft, the Los Angeles Rams drafted who soon would become a who's who.

He had the name, the style, the brashness. Most of all, he had an amazing array of skills, raw in the beginning but evolving quickly into the definitive abilities for his position. The Packer's Willie Davis and the Colt's Gino Marchetti, both eventual Hall of Famers as well, were the epitome of defensive ends at the time. Deacon Jones raised the bar.

When the Rams drafted defensive tackle Merlin Olsen of Utah State in 1962 (no secret, Olsen was the third player chosen in the first round), the fabled Fearsome Foursome was born-from left to right, Jones, tackles Olsen and Rosey Grier, and end Lamar Lundy. They were monsters of their era, Lundy at 6-7, the others all at 6-5; they averaged nearly 270 pounds.

Those four men shared a line for only five years (1962-66) but Jones and Olsen were fellow gunslingers for a decade-until Deacon left the Rams to play for the Chargers in 1972 and 1973 and the Redskins (where he rejoined George Allen for a last hurrah) in 1974.

Jones brought the name and the deed of the sack to the game. He also added another weapon to his otherwise terrifying arsenal-the head slap. He would daze offensive tackles with a slap of his mammoth hand, then hunt down his real target: the quarterback. The head slap was so lethal that NFL rules makers outlawed it.

"But nothing stopped me in my pursuit of quarterbacks," Jones says now. "No legislation, nothing, could slow me down. Man, I was a force! I was never a bully...I was never mean, or deliberately mean. I just tried to do my job the best I knew how."

The newspaper clippings of the day talk about how the quarterbacks of his day feared him.

"Yeah, fear is probably a good word. I wanted their bodies. A lot of my hits resulted in quarterback's helmets popping off, but I used to say that it 's better their hat goes than their head!"

It has been three decades since Deacon left the NFL playing fields and a quarter-century since he was swept into the Hall of Fame in 1980, his first year of eligibility, and you cannot find an observer of the sport who doesn't believe that the Deacon Jones of another time wouldn't be a mega-star in today's game.

"I have no doubts, either," he says. "It's a fast and furious game today-and I'd fit right into it."

Deacon and his second wife, Elizabeth, have lived for years in the Anaheim Hills, not far from where the Rams departed in 1995 for the greener pastures of St. Louis. He continues to serve as ambassador of the game, and he follows it with great passion in the fall...

As he has for years, Jones continues to make appearances at the Hall of Fame each summer (he was there for the twenty-fifth consecutive time this year), at the Super Bowl, at Kickoff Weekend ceremonies, and, when summoned, at special situations.

One of the latter occurred last March when some NFL Alumni asked Deacon to join a small group that was going to visit American troops in Kuwait and Baghdad.

"It was very gratifying," he says, "but I have to admit that I've never been more scared in my life than I was in Baghdad. And only a few hours after we left, a bomb went off in the Sheraton Hotel across the street from where we had been hosted in a feast the night before."

Deacon later visited Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, where he met young people who were undergoing rehab after losing limbs in Iraq.

"To see eighteen-, nineteen-year-olds struggling with prostheses, just tore my heart out," Deacon says.

He was so touched, he invited six of them to join him and Elizabeth at the annual Hall of Fame weekend in Canton in early August.

"It made the usual incredible time in Canton all the more incredible," he says.

Clearly, the Secretary of Defense is angling for a new cabinet role these days. Secretary of Health and Human Services suits the new Deacon Jones just fine.

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