Way back in time when my father was still alive, we would often spend our autumn Sunday afternoons at Los Angeles Rams football games. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Rams’ David D. “Deacon” Jones and his “Fearsome Foursome” partners dominated opponents.
One of the most passionate debates in football was whether the Rams’ front defensive four — Lamar Lundy, Roosevelt Grier, Merlin Olsen and Jones — were tougher on quarterbacks than the Minnesota Vikings “Purple People Eaters” — Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larson. The argument was the kind fans love to have but which can never truly be settled.
Earlier this week, Jones, 74, died of natural causes at his Anaheim Hills home. Of the original foursome, Grier is the lone survivor. The Purple People Eaters are well into their 70s but still hale and hearty.
Jones, more than any of his teammates, caught fans’ attention mostly because of his relentless pursuit of quarterbacks. Jones’ favorite move was a head slap to the quarterback’s helmet that was so effective, the National Football League eventually banned it. Before Jones, defensive lineman were anonymous, interchangeable, very large men with whom the fans had trouble identifying.
As Jones told the Los Angeles Times in 1980, “When I first came up, defensive linemen were dull as heck. Some were great performers, but nobody knew who they were. I set out to change that.”
And Jones did change the game. He invented the term “quarterback sack,” and suddenly fans were as fired up when the Rams played defense as when the offense had the ball. With Jones, excitement was just a snap of the football away. Jones performed with such outstanding consistency that he earned a second nickname, the “Secretary of Defense.”
In all, Jones played 13 seasons for the Rams (from 1961 to 1971) and finished his career with two seasons in San Diego and one in Washington. In his 14 seasons, the durable Jones missed only 6 of a possible 196 regular-season games.
Sadly, though, Jones came along a little too early to cash in big-time on the NFL’s meteoric rise to the top of professional sports popularity, when star players could supplement their modest football salaries (by today’s standards) with television commercials and special appearances. During Jones’ era, the Super Bowl, luxury boxes and weekday night prime time games hadn’t been thought up.
Jones did manage to land cameo roles in minor films and briefly promoted Miller Lite. But Jones earned only a small percentage of what he could have made just a decade later.
In 1997, he started the Deacon Jones Foundation, to help young people obtain their educational goals and contribute to their communities. During the Gulf War, Jones also made several trips to Iraq to bolster troop moral.
Jones’ on-field legacy is second to none: eight-time Pro-Bowl selection, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 75th Anniversary All Time Team, 1960’s All Decade Team, and Canton Hall of Fame inductee in his first year of eligibility. Sports Illustrated named Jones the Greatest Defensive Lineman of the Century.
Had Jones arrived on the gridiron in the 21st century, fans may never have seen him play. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ average defensive lineman weighs 315 pounds. Jones, a mere 270, might have had to find another position.
But wherever he lurked on the field, Jones would have excelled.
Joe Guzzardi rooted for the Rams until the team unceremoniously left Los Angeles for Anaheim, where it quickly played fourth fiddle to the Raiders who moved into the Coliseum, as well as the emerging Lakers and Kings. Contact him at email@example.com.