The iconic figure of the Los Angeles Rams’ magnificent Fearsome Foursome may come to symbolize more than a truly roughneck era of the contemporary National Football League.
It wasn’t long after the death of Deacon Jones this week at the age of 74 that at least one of his peers wondered aloud if the violent game he embodied claimed him as a victim.
“It’s a shame that he’s gone,” former Detroit Lions quarterback Lem Barney told USA TODAY. “I’m sure it’s due to the head injuries.
“He was still the Deacon, but you could see some things being lost.”
Upon hearing the news of Jones’ death, Rosey Grier, the lone surviving member of the Fearsome Foursome, wept. (He speaks about him here with Rich Eisen of the NFL Network.)
The initial reason for death is listed as natural causes.
The man credited with the coining the term “sack” and whose patented — and now illegal — use of his hands to assault opponents in the helmet became the title of his 1996 autobiography wasn’t known to be vocal about possible brain damage he may have received, or any medical treatment he may have sought.
As William Rhoden remembers in The New York Times:
Jones was part of an era in football in which everything was legal: Horse-collar tackles, clothesline tackles, below-the-knees crackback blocks. Defenseless receivers were a sight for sore eyes.
Peter Schrager rounds up a collection of quotes from Jones that probably would earn him plenty of fines today in Roger Goodell’s NFL. A sample:
“When I see guys huddling up after the game, to pray, that’s what scares me about the game. I’m a Baptist, but I’m also a quarterback killer, and I ain’t praying with you. But I will give you 30 seconds to ask your Lord and master to keep me from killing you.”
But Jones, who grew up in segregated Florida and was a 14th-round draft pick out of Mississippi Valley State (which later produced Jerry Rice), was quite a different soul off the field. He protested against segregation at South Carolina State, where he originally enrolled and which expelled him after getting arrested in the early 1960s. He wasn’t the only member of the Fearsome Foursome to get into acting after his football career, and he established a foundation in Los Angeles to work with troubled youth.
As Mike Tanier writes in Sports On Earth:
Deacon Jones represents an era when football came into focus, when America at large began to recognize the huge, ornery, scary men for who they really were: flesh-and-blood young people who amounted to much more than their race or the sum of their on-field actions. While Joe Namath was introducing pro football to Madison Avenue, the Fearsome Foursome infiltrated movies and television. There were so many ironies: The Fearsome Foursome was hardly fearsome in real life, the mud-caked marauders were located in the glamor capital of the universe, men who modeled their careers on pillaging warriors counted needlepoint among their hobbies and became football ambassadors to Middle America.
Michael Weinreb also has a nice tribute at Grantland:
I don’t know if Deacon Jones ever actually hated any of the offensive linemen he slapped into submission. I imagine he enjoyed playing a stylized version of himself in the media, as a generation of athletes have done in his wake. But no one in the history of professional football will ever be better at what defensive football is, at its heart, because no one will ever knock people on their asses quite like Deacon Jones did.