Deacon driven by rage, racism; no regrets

ORLANDO, Fla. — At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, Deacon Jones always commanded respect in a room. Then he kicked it up a few octaves by raising his voice, throwing in a few curse words and just like that, his presence became overwhelming.

In a good way, usually.

Jones, who died at his home late Monday night, had a lot to say in the 74 years he lived on this earth.

Much of it was the usual smack talk in the trenches, where offensive linemen always seemed a step too slow to stop the rampaging charge of the most dominant defensive end in pro football history.

He loved those rules of engagement, a madman playing one of the most violent sports on the planet, a punch to the helmet the soundtrack of his life. It's all chronicled in a book he co-authored with John Klawitter in 1996, aptly titled "Headslap."

"What was it like to play against Deacon Jones?" former Green Bay great Bart Starr once said. "How did people feel about Attila the Hun?"

But it was a different kind of charge that brings greater respect as we honor the passing of Eatonville, Fla.'s Greatest Son.

His greatness was etched in the pain of hatred of those who tried to silence him. It resonated in the voice of a racist policeman screaming: "Now don't you (expletives) never come back to Mississippi again, y'all hear?"

It burned from the adrenaline rush of fleeing from policemen in South Carolina, chasing him with German shepherds on long leashes, pinning him to a chain link fence with blasts from a water hose.

It festered in the memory of white teenagers throwing a watermelon from a car in Eatonville, and Deacon, then 12, running after them as they laughed, "What you gonna do, little black boy?"

Imagine bottling all that hate and animosity up, and using it as fuel in your chosen professional.

Those poor offensive lineman never had a chance.

"My hate for denial," Jones once told me in his living room of his home in California's Anaheim Hills. "My hate for a lack of respect. I saw 5-, 7-, 8-year-old white kids call my father and mother by their first names. White kids were taught not to respect old black people. All that built up, but it kept a perspective on my life. I knew that the only way to defeat it was through violence. If I had lost in the pro ranks, I was ready to go to violence. I was ready to die. Because I had been up against the death thing in Mississippi, so it couldn't get no worse."

The rage inspired him to greatness. This was a kid everyone knew as "David" who attended Hungerford High School in Eatonville, wasn't much of a standout football player and was cut from his basketball team during his junior year.

Jones attended South Carolina State, got bounced out of there after participating in a downtown march for racial equality and went to school in Mississippi before getting booted out of there, too, in a frightening convoy of three police cars just because of the color of his skin.

He was fortunate enough that NFL scouts took notice during his brief run at Mississippi Vocational. Jones was drafted in the 14th round by the Los Angeles Rams in 1961.

"He turned out to be a masterpiece," Charlie Miller, the man who cut Jones from the high school basketball team, said Tuesday.

A masterpiece with flaws. Jones had dealt with lung cancer and heart problems through the last few years, no doubt compounded by his love for vodka on the rocks and menthol cigarettes.

The scars of his youth also never went away, the rage subsiding but always festering inside. He never went back to Mississippi after he was driven out of there.

Jones never tried to sugarcoat his life, or use a PR agency to smooth away the rough edges. He was a violent man playing a violent game. No excuses necessary.

"I love the game of football," Jones said during our visit. "I love the hitting. I love the punishment. I love the pain. I love inflicting it on people. It's what I was born to do."

And what he will be remembered for in death, eternally.

May you finally rest in peace, my friend.

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