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The Sack Artist: A look at Deacon Jones' legacy

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The modern athlete and professional football wouldn't be the same without the Hall of Fame defensive end.

David Boss-US PRESSWIRE

I can trace my interest in football to two specific origins. One, watching cheesy Jim Brown genre pictures with my dad on Saturday afternoons when I probably should have been outside, you know, playing football. The other was an old highlight reel -- it might have actually been one of those Crunch Course tapes -- featuring the Los Angeles Rams defensive line of the 60s and Deacon Jones.

A defensive line with Jones, Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy still qualifies as one of the best. The line took on various forms over the years, but that version of it defined the group, thanks largely to Jones' outsized personality. Boisterous and tough, he was proud because he was damn good at his job, and he knew it.

1. Nicknames are easy to come by. Being named "Secretary of Defense" meant something. Jones' contributions to the game -- speed and quickness, for instance -- changed the way it's played. Jones started attacking quarterbacks at a time when most defensive ends were just there to fill space and close running lanes. It was a revolution.

2. You know Jones was important because of his contributions to the language of football. The word "sack" started with Jones. He claims to have coined the term, and whether he did or not, he gave it meaning. Jones also invented the head slap, his signature move for turning aside blockers. Of course, the head slap has a variety of uses, as explained by Jones.

Things were different in 1960s America. You never knew when you'd need a head slap to fend off an amphetamine-crazed Dennis Hopper or one of Jack Nicholson's lady friends on a bad trip. I'm pretty sure that's what Jones was probably talking about.

3. To be a star in the NFL in that era required more than being a backup quarterback for the Jets and a Chuck Norris endorsement. Players had to be really good at what they did. To further transcend, beyond the growing audience of 1960s football fans, you also needed a proximity to Hollywood. Jones had both.

He used his stardom to appear on the Brady Bunch, where he defended Peter Brady from a vicious bout of schoolyard McCarthyism.

Note Jones' tacit acceptance of playing football in jeans, truly a watershed moment in the decade's struggle for tolerance.

4. In the mid-1970s, some panicked ad men approached Jones. Having seen what Jones did for Peter Brady and choir, Madison Avenue knew that he could also "sack" the stigma attached to light beer.

Jones' shirt does have buttons, but it would only take away from your ability to see his gold medallion.

That's the birth of the modern superstar athlete you're witnessing in the videos above. Football players were pitching things and making guest appearances before Jones. Jones revolutionized the player in the spotlight off the field. He gave that role a voice -- a tone -- in the same way he helped give defensive linemen a new identity on the field.

5. Jones' most important work as a pitchman was in 1968, when he and Rosey Grier stumped for Robert Kennedy. Today, athletes and other celebrities get trotted out as props for campaigns all the time. But it was different in the 1960s. Jones grew up in the Jim Crow South. He played college ball at Mississippi Valley State because South Carolina State stripped him of his scholarship over his involvement in the Civil Rights movement.

When he reached the peak of his stardom, blacks and America's underclass were carrying an undue burden in a needless, costly and divisive war. Standing next to Bobby Kennedy wasn't some sponsored PSA like football players have to do now. These were black athletes campaigning for a pro-Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam candidate. It was an acknowledgement that there were more important things to fight for than a Super Bowl.

6. The head slap is outlawed now. High hits, horse collar tackles, I'd guess that something like half of Jones' hits would get a flag today. His euphemisms too.

Describing the origin of the word sack:

"It's like putting all the offensive players in one bag, and I'd just take a baseball bat and beat on the bag."

That mouth ran on the field too, another weapon in his arsenal and another antecedent to the current version of the game and its players.

Set aside the legend for a minute, and just watch Jones at work. That's only a highlight video -- spliced together memories from a 13-year career. It's got nothing on the thrills of watching a player like that in an actual game, where a sack comes out of nowhere at just the right time.

Most of us are too young to have seen Jones do that in a game, but the sensation of it is the same whether it's Chris Long or Aldon Smith or one of the other players carrying on Jones' legacy. The excitement of watching a defensive end knock the stuffing out of a quarterback to stop a critical third down owes a big debt to Jones.

The death of a great player always generates a lot of hyperbole and heightened feelings about their place in the game. Deacon Jones wouldn't have it any other way.

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