I talked to Deacon Jones at last year’s Super Bowl, and although he bore the scars of years in the trenches, used a cane and struggled to stand up straight, he still had the imposing air of a man who could break me in half without breaking a sweat. I felt intimidated in his presence.
Jones, who died on Monday at the age of 74, made a Hall of Fame career of being the most intimidating man on the football field. He told me he hated the way the NFL had changed the rules of football to make it safer, which he viewed as synonymous with softer.
“I’d probably be arrested with this bunch of guys, they’re soft — give me a break: These guys are soft,” Jones said. “I hit the head. I started there. . . . This game ain’t never going to be safe.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement on Tuesday calling Jones “an icon among icons,” but Goodell’s emphasis on player safety stands in sharp contrast to the way Jones played the game. Even after seeing how the game had changed in his retirement, old age didn’t soften Jones, who was asked in a 2008 interview if he had any regrets and answered, “Yes. . . . I’d kill more quarterbacks. That’s the only thing I could do differently. I couldn’t be any nastier. I couldn’t have any more intent. The only thing I do is execute better.”
In an NFL Films profile of his career, Jones summed things up by saying, “I wouldn’t want to be a lawyer, I wouldn’t want to be a doctor, I wouldn’t want to be the president of the United States. I was destined — just like Ray Charles was born to sing the blues — Deacon was born to rush quarterbacks.”
Jones was the first person to use the term “sack” to mean tackling the quarterback; he compared his role in rushing the passer to the role of destroyers sacking a vanquished land. He remains the greatest representative of a bygone era in the NFL, a time when players could openly delight in bringing violence to the game.
Ordinarily I’d conclude by saying, “rest in peace,” but Deacon Jones wouldn’t want to rest in peace. He’d want to go to a great beyond where he’s perpetually battling offensive linemen and conquering quarterbacks.