Deacon Jones and the Art of the SackJennifer Allen
June 24 (Bloomberg) -- In the shade of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, we gathered Saturday for a private service to remember a man who had once stormed the field below. The Olympic torch had been lit in his honor, its flame holding steady in the soft summer wind.
His name was David, and if you knew him, you knew his hands, and those alone told of a life of work, toil and effort.
In old age, his fingers were bent and skewed -- physical evidence, artifacts, of the National Football League in the 1960s and 1970s. Before every game, he would bind and tape his hands until they were as thick as a boxer’s gloves and could bear the inevitable force of slapping through the helmets of an offensive line en route to “sack” the quarterback.
David “Deacon” Jones, the Hall of Fame defensive end who passed away of natural causes on June 3, coined the phrase “quarterback sack” while perfecting the brutal task. He described it this way: “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.”
No soft-spoken words. No candy-coated speech.
“The quarterback is the head of the team,” Deacon often explained. “To kill the snake, you got to cut off its head.”
I grew up alongside Deacon when my dad, George Allen, was his coach with the Los Angeles Rams.
“I spoke my mind,” Deacon told me. “I never ate crow”.
And he never let up.
His relentless and pronounced pursuit of the quarterback broke the mold of the invisible, nameless and (often) black lineman. Deacon promoted disruption. He didn’t get down on his hands and knees like most defensive linemen, awaiting the snap of the ball. He stood tall and looked straight in the eyes of the guy lined up against him, as if to say, “What a long day this is going to be for you, sucker.”
Once the ball was snapped, he’d toss men aside like broken pieces of useless furniture -- all on his way to destroying and demoralizing the quarterback. “I hate quarterbacks,” he loved to say. “I even hate Roman Gabriel and he’s on my own team!”
Jones entered the league at the bottom of the heap -- a 14th-round pick in 1961. Standing 6-foot-5, weighing 275 pounds, he had the speed of a tight end, the quick feet of a cornerback and the endurance of a running back. Back then, there was no name on the back of his blue-and-white jersey -- just the “75” the Rams gave him. His rookie year, he nicknamed himself “Deacon,” he said, because when he arrived in Los Angeles, he saw there were too many other David Joneses in the phone book, and he wanted to be remembered. More than that, he wanted to be respected.
“When people mistreat you, when people look at you as nothing, it made me prove to them beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was somebody,” Deacon once told me. Football would be his proving ground.
Born in 1938, in Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black incorporated town in the country, Deacon grew up in the “separate but equal” world -- he rode in the back of the bus. The eighth of nine children, he earned a scholarship to South Carolina State University, only to be kicked out for participating in a lunch-counter sit-in. A year later, he entered Mississippi Vocational College. There, when traveling for road games, he and his black teammates slept on cots in the opponent’s gym while his white teammates slept in motels. When word spread that David had participated in civil-rights events, the college had a state trooper escort him to the bus station with clear advice to never return.
Deacon went home, where he lived with big brother Judson, a football coach who made sure his brother’s inborn talent would not go to waste. With daily drills to tune and test his speed and agility, Deacon was in prime form when the Rams came calling.
“Thank God I had the ability to play a violent game like football,” he once said. “It gave me an outlet for the anger in my heart.”
But his anger did not subside once he entered the league. With the Rams, things weren’t separate, but they were still unequal. Blacks weren’t allowed to play positions that involved calling plays, giving signals or even relaying calls from the coach to the huddle. Quarterback, tight end, center, offensive guard -- “these were called ‘thinking man’ positions,” Deacon once explained to me. “They didn’t think we had the brains to play those positions.” “They” were the coaches, the league owners.
Change came when my dad was named head coach in 1965 and appointed Deacon the Rams’ captain.
“He gave me his trust,” Deacon told me. “And no white guy had ever done that for me in my whole life.”
At home, at night, my dad would break down 16 mm game films and show us, in slow motion and reverse, why Deacon was a role model. In every play, every head slap, you could see the instinct, the persistence, the drive. With time, I came to understand how the fire hose, the jail cell, the cots in the gym were fueling his hunger to sack the quarterback.
Deacon went on to earn the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 1967 and 1968. During the 1968 presidential campaign, Bobby Kennedy asked him and his fellow linemen, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy, to be his bodyguards. He played in eight Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he asked my father to be his presenter. In his 14-year career, he missed only five games and secured a total of 170 sacks. He is the only player in pro-football history to wear his first name -- Deacon -- on the back of his jersey.
Years later, after his retirement, my husband and I would name one of our sons, Deacon, in his honor. One of the last times I saw Deacon, he wrapped his big hand around my son’s crew-cut head, palming it like a basketball.
I remember hearing a teammate once ask him, “Deacon, why didn’t you ever get those fixed?” Meaning, getting the bones of his fingers and knuckles straightened and aligned.
Deacon just shrugged. Why would anyone cover up the scars? He’d earned them. For himself. And for those who came after him.
(Jennifer Allen is the author of “Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter.”)
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