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Home » National Football League » We Were in the Presence of Greatness

We Were in the Presence of Greatness

William Shakespeare, the poet and playwright, said it best: “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” When I think of Deacon Jones’ football career and his life off the gridiron, this poem fits the man and the player.

I arrived in St. Louis in 2006 as the vice president of player personnel. Before taking the job, I studied the history of the organization, players and coaches, and it sent me back to my childhood memories. I recalled watching the Los Angeles Rams play as if it were yesterday. Spending a Sunday afternoon watching the NFL with my father and uncles – watching the “Fearsome Foursome” – was the norm.

As kids, when playing touch football in the streets, if you couldn’t be Jim Brown or Gale Sayers you wanted to be Deacon Jones. Keep in mind that my corner of the Pacific Northwest only had college and semi-pro football back then. The Seattle Seahawks were not established until 1975, so the teams that I watched were the Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and the Rams. While I was a Raider fan growing up, I loved the Fearsome Foursome. The Rams wore the navy blue helmets with white horns; their uniforms were plain, not flashy, compared to other teams in the mid-60s.

David “Deacon” Jones was, quite simply, legendary on the field. It is a shame that the man who coined the phrase “sacks” was never allowed to get all of his sack numbers attached to his name in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He changed the game, defined the way the defensive end position is played today. Opposing squads knew that he was coming to get the quarterback, and they still couldn’t block him. Behind outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Deacon was the most intimidating pass rusher who has ever played the game. Quarterbacks feared his presence.

The unofficial totals for Deacon were 159.5 sacks in his 151 games over 11 seasons with the Rams, and 173.5 sacks in his 14 years covering 191 games in the NFL. He tallied three 20-sack seasons, including back-to-back totals of 26 and 24 in 1967 and 1968. During a seven-year span, he accumulated 129 sacks. His head-slap technique (which was later ruled illegal and banned from the NFL) threw offensive lines off balance and had them second-guessing his every move. His overall sack numbers of 18.4 per season provided the benchmark for edge players today, akin to the 2,000-yard mark for running backs. Jones was also very durable, missing only three of 154 games played by the Rams while he was in Los Angeles (all in his final season with the team).

For years, I heard my uncles scream, “Get ‘em, Deacon!” In 2007, at the Rams’ 70th reunion held in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, I met David “Deacon” Jones for the first time. Guests were seated in the red zone part of the field, located at the base of the ascending stairs and reaching upwards toward the Olympic cauldron – a stunning backdrop. Merlin Olson served as the master of ceremonies, with several guest speakers recanting and stirring up great Rams. Broadcaster Dick Enberg held court, highlights and game footage thrilled everyone, and former Rams coach Chuck Knox was part of the crowd that entertained nearly a thousand people from various fields.

While I was introduced to most of the Rams’ players, having a few friends like Lawrence McCutcheon and James Harris on hand, I missed Deacon. I saw him mingling and moving around and heard him as well, but I just didn’t get that opportunity to introduce myself. As the evening came to an end we were asked to head back up the stairs, where gifts and limos awaited to take us back to the hotel. It was then that I finally met one of my childhood idols. I made my way to the top of what felt like a mountain of a million stairs, teeming with sweat and with legs that were on fire. As I stood atop the stairs, grabbing a last look at what was a Rams fan’s dream event and catching my breath, I heard, “Hey, man.” I turned around. It was Deacon, just coming to the top of the stairs.

“Give me a hand,” he said. I extended my hand as if to shake his and to exchange greetings, but at the same time he gave me a bear hug and said, “Hold me up.” We both started as he was experiencing the same lower-body burn from which I had just recovered.

“What’s your name, man?”

“Tony Softli.”

“I’m Deacon Jones. What kind of name is Softli?” he asked, inquisitively, and we laughed. “Where you from, Softli?”

“Seattle, Washington.”

“I know Seattle is located in Washington,” he said with that loud, deep, harsh and raspy voice. The conversation went on for several minutes and, after having a Rams employee take a picture of the two of us, we exchanging goodbyes and went our separate ways.

Our paths crossed five or six times over the next five years with his visits to St. Louis and a few encounters on Radio Row during Super Bowl week. The last time that I saw Deacon occurred when the Rams honored him by retiring his No. 75 which now hangs in the Edward Jones Dome. Each and every time I saw him, he would point at me and say, “Softli from Seattle.” I’ll miss that.

When comparing the top leaders in sacks according to the NFL official stats, you won’t find one defender whose numbers beat Deacon Jones. Buffalo Bills DE Bruce Smith is the leader in sacks with 200 (in 279 games), or 0.72 sacks per game. Longtime Green Bay Packer Reggie White’s 198 sacks (in 232 games) slot him in second place on the all-time list. White, who finished his career with the Carolina Panthers, is the only player other than Deacon Jones to have more than 100 career sacks with one team and average at least a sack per game. Even as a Philadelphia Eagle, the Minister of Defense had 124 sacks in 121 games – a 1.02 sacks-per-game figure that still lands him short of Deacon Jones. What is particularly remarkable is that Jones’ total of 129 sacks in 98 games over a seven-year period – when the NFL played 14-game schedules – meant he averaged 1.31 sacks per game. Only 10 players have recorded at least 129 sacks officially in their entire careers.

Here’s what several of Deacon’s peers and teammates had to say about him following his passing on Monday:

“Deacon loved being a Ram. If you stop and think about it, Deacon changed the game of the National Football League. He changed how defensive linemen play the game. There will be no more like him. We’ve lost a brilliant icon of the game.” – Jack Youngblood

“Deacon was an incredible team guy and he always wanted to win, he wanted all of us to run the race together. We didn’t play run, we played pass and we all came off the ball together. The whole point was to get in the backfield fast and mess everything up. They couldn’t stop the Fearsome Foursome – we made a great contribution to the game of football. He really was an impressive guy – tall, strong, fast. He ran full tilt and it was amazing to see him go like that for a whole game.” – Rosey Grier

When I look back at the on-field accolades of Deacon Jones, how this man changed how the position was played and the rules of the game, it’s hard to grasp the breadth of his importance. One thing, however, is for certain: We were among greatness.

Dr. Richard Winer contributed statistical data to this report.

About Tony Softli

Tony Softli is 101ESPN’s NFL Insider. Prior to joining 101ESPN, Tony worked in the personnel departments for several NFL teams, including the St. Louis Rams.