Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Deacon Jones: The Man Who Brought Sacks to Life

Imagine if Mariano Rivera was not only the greatest closer in baseball history but had also invented the concept of the save. Or if Bob Cousy had come up with the word “assist.” See, Deacon Jones was more than a legendary defensive end, more than a pioneer. He helped invent professional football. He was an American original.
When it comes down to it, these games we play are constantly evolving, right? Football bears only a passing resemblance to the violent and raw game the kids at Rutgers and Princeton were playing after the Civil War. It is almost nothing like the game Walter Camp taught or Red Grange played. Why? Rules have changed over 150 years, but that’s not the big reason. It’s not about legislation.
No, the big reason is that the game, like society, has progressed, regressed, expanded, changed course thanks to thousands and thousands of small adjustments and innovations: The forward pass; the draw play; the trap play; the T formation; the flex defense; the West Coast offense; the yellow first down line on television; the helmet; instant replay; the three-point stance; the screen pass, on and on and on. The game has grown rich in detail and style because of the many fertile minds that have considered it and, even more, because of the many brilliant and original athletes who played it. Deacon Jones just happened to be both of those.
It seems absurd to us - at least it always did to me as a kid - that the NFL did not count the sack when Deacon Jones was playing defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams. Why would you not count the sack? In sports, we just naturally count things - goals, rebounds, home runs, touchdowns - and what could possibly be easier to count than the sack? You just count the times the guy gets the quarterback … what’s hard about that? I felt the same way about blocked shots in basketball. How could they not count Bill Russell’s blocked shots?
Then, it’s a hard concept for a kid to understand that everything, even seemingly the most ubiquitous things, had to be invented. They didn’t just happen. Someone had to be the first to put a camera in the blimp (this was the great sports producer Frank Chirkinian). Someone had to be the first to create the drive-thru window (often credited to Ray Kroc, who made McDonald’s the world-wide phenomenon, but it seems likely that it was in existence in various places around America years before). Someone had to discover that a baseball, thrown certain ways, curves (credit for this goes to Hall of Famer Candy Cummings, though there are several others who have a claim on the discovery).
And someone had to invent the sack. Well, that’s not exactly right. No one person could invent the sack. For one thing, it already existed – players had been tackling quarterbacks since the dawn of the game. But it did not exist as an individual concept. It did not have a name. It was not counted. The quarterback tackle blended into the game unnoticed … until Deacon Jones.* He may or may not have come up with the word, there is debate about that. But he definitely invented the concept with the way he played.
Deacon Jones was bigger than life from the start. Well, for one thing, he really WAS bigger -- 6-foot-5, 270 pounds. He grew up in Florida -- the seventh of eight children -- at a time when it was a deeply segregated place. This is not so long ago. He did drink from the colored drinking fountain. He did use the colored bathroom. It did not sit right with him. He was smart and outspoken and unwilling to simply go along. He sometimes talked about seeing Jackie Robinson play, and the impact that had on his life, the responsibility he felt because of that.
After various adventures, he found his way to South Carolina State and the football team. He often led the team in prayer - that’s why they called him Deacon. He was also a force of nature - even 40 years later, people remembered the crazy things he would do. There was always debate about why he left S.C. State - some said it was because he was deeply involved in civil rights politics, but his old teammate, Willie Jeffries, told the school magazine many years later that he simply flunked out. Either way he ended up at Mississippi Vocational College, which became Mississippi Valley State. Like so many other wonderful sports stories, the Rams scout was actually looking at another player when he noticed Jones. The Rams took him in the 14th round.
His first year, he made $7,500. He didn’t think that was especially fair. He never liked being overlooked - would not tolerate it. And so he started talking about sacking the quarterback. Until then, in the papers, defensive players - when they were named at all - tackled quarterbacks. But “tackle” well, that’s a fishing word, a perhaps adequate word when you bring down a running back or a receiver or someone like that. But quarterbacks are different. Quarterbacks are kings on the chess board. Quarterbacks are like capitols of nations. You don’t TACKLE quarterbacks. You sack them, the way the Visigoths sacked Rome. Nobody can say for sure if Deacon Jones actually coined the phrase. But he was the first to use the word who mattered.
Jones did not only use sack as a verb, though. He used it as a noun too. He began to talk of his quarterback tackles as sacks. He began to explain that he had more sacks than anyone.
It isn’t like the term caught on right away. Few used it in print. Nobody counted sacks, not until 1982, long after Deacon had retired. But it was Deacon Jones’ colorful name - and his vivid play - that brought the sack to life. Jones was better at sacking the quarterback than anyone had ever been. He formed this move - blandly and accurately called the head slap - where he would whack an offensive lineman in the head and then run around him and sack the quarterback. It was not necessarily the most sporting of moves - it is illegal now, of course - but it was effective. Offensive linemen, one after another, would say that getting hit in the head by Deacon Jones felt like getting hit with a sledgehammer. Deacon was big, and he was ridiculously strong, and he was shockingly fast. Once offensive linemen were immobilized, he swallowed quarterbacks whole.
One of the great historical football question of the last 50 years is this: How many sacks did Deacon Jones’ have? He estimated about 180 for his career. Pro Football Weekly did a detailed study and came up with 194 1/2 including what would still be a record 26 in 1967 - and remember that was only in 14 games. But the numbers remain distressingly unofficial, and so far there has been no real effort by the NFL to complete the historical record. It’s a shame. I maintain that if the sack was an official NFL statistic when Deacon Jones was playing, he would be prominent in the discussion as the greatest defensive player who ever lived.
He still SHOULD be in that discussion, of course - after all, count them or not, he did sack all those quarterbacks - and in certain circles, he is talked about that way. But most of the time the argument revolves around Lawrence Taylor or Reggie White or Dick Butkus, who was colorful in his own way. Deacon Jones saw, the way visionaries see, that if people don’t count sacks, then sacks won’t count. It is the old tree falling in the empty forest bit.
Deacon Jones died on Tuesday, and it reminded me that when I was a kid, absurdly, I tended to confuse Deacon Jones and Bubba Smith. Hey, I was young, and they were both before my time, both huge former football stars who showed up in movies and on television. Also no one counted sacks. I remember once admitting my Bubba Smith-Deacon Jones comparison to my friend Roman Gabriel, a star quarterback on Deacon Jones’ Rams. He shook his head sadly.
“Bubba Smith was a good football player,” he said. “Deacon Jones was a legend. There’s a big difference.”

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