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CROWE'S NEST

Deacon Jones: 'Secretary of Defense' was king of the sack

The former L.A. Rams great, now 70, not only was among the pioneers of the quarterback sack, he even coined the term. These days he talks as good a game as he once played.

April 21, 2009|JERRY CROWE

Deacon Jones attacks interviews the way he used to stalk quarterbacks -- with abandon, no holds barred.

Outspoken, opinionated and unwary of offending, the Hall of Famer credited with giving a name to one of football's signature defensive plays seems to hold cliches and rote answers in the same regard he once did his prey -- which is to say, very little.

Jones' forte, of course, was sacking quarterbacks, a term he coined to give cachet to the art of tackling passers.

"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," Jones says, explaining the term. "You're sacking them, you're bagging them. And that's what you're doing with a quarterback."

Jones, 70, pulls forward in his chair as he speaks, voice booming to a near-shout as he makes his points. Cigarette in hand, the greatest defensive end in the history of the Los Angeles Rams is seated in the living room of the spacious home he shares with wife Elizabeth in a gated community in Anaheim Hills.

Of his legendary aversion to opposing quarterbacks, he notes, "You kill the head of the snake, the body dies. He is the rallying point, so you've got to create that daily hate" for the quarterback.

Pro football may never have seen a more ferocious pass rusher than David "Deacon" Jones, a 14th-round pick who turned out to be one of the greatest steals in NFL draft history.

Relying on footwork, speed and a devastating set of flying hands -- his 1996 biography, "Headslap," was named after his since-banned signature move -- Jones struck fear in the hearts of opposing quarterbacks for 14 seasons with the Rams, San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins from 1961 to 1974. An eight-time Pro Bowl selection and five-time first-team All-Pro, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980.

"Unstoppable as a flood, as elusive as a fly in a hot room," Jim Murray wrote of Jones, who nicknamed himself Deacon after a chance meeting with a Disney executive convinced him that he needed a more distinctive moniker to stand out in a crowd.

Said Merlin Olsen of his former teammate: "There has never been a better football player than Deacon Jones."

Jones doesn't argue.

"I came as close to perfection," the former "Secretary of Defense" says, "as you can possibly get."

Except he never won a ring.

"I did it all but one thing in my football career," he says, "and that was, win that damn championship. Everything else, I double-timed; it wasn't even close, OK? But within that structure didn't come a championship, and I live with that every day. I've been in the Hall of Fame [nearly] 30 years, and I still can't dump it."

A larger-than-life figure during his playing days in Los Angeles, Jones fronted a band that performed at the Cocoanut Grove and says he sang onstage with Ray Charles. He never seriously pursued a singing career but has worn a variety of other hats since leaving football: actor, businessman, commentator, benefactor, sports and pop culture memorabilia collector.

"I've dabbled in a lot of everything," says Jones, who still makes public appearances at charitable events such as "Evening With the Stars II," Thursday's fundraiser at Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes. "When I hit 65, I lied to myself like most people do and said, 'I'm retired, I ain't doing nothing else.'

"Well, when I looked at the things I was doing, it wasn't like a job. It was all [an extension of] my football career."

And football, of course, is still his favorite subject.

Though Jones was one of three defensive ends named to the NFL's 75th-anniversary all-time team in 1994, his No. 75 has not been retired by the Rams, a decision he calls "asinine."

He says a friendly rivalry with Olsen, drafted by the Rams a year after Jones arrived, helped him reach his full potential.

"I learned so much from Merlin," he says. "The guy was just fantastic. We played 10 years together, side by side, and you saw the results of it: There ain't no left side in the history of this game better or more dominant than me and Merlin Olsen."

Of his signature move, Jones says, "The headslap was not my invention, but Rembrandt, of course, did not invent painting."

Jones, in other words, turned it into a concussive art form.

"The quickness of my hands and the length of my arms, it was perfect for me," he says. "It was the greatest thing I ever did, and when I left the game, they outlawed it.

"I couldn't be more proud."

Slim and trim at 6 feet 5 and 237 pounds -- about 40 pounds lighter than his playing weight -- Jones says a bout with prostate cancer about 20 years ago prompted a lifestyle change and resulted in his dropping more than 100 pounds.

Now he's taking medication to help him stop smoking.

"I smoked my whole career," he says. "Sunday morning, I'd smoke a pack of them [things], my nerves was so scratched up. If I'd had myself a quart of whiskey, I'd have drank that."

Instead, he relieved his stress by chasing quarterbacks.

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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