Hall of Fame football player David "Deacon" Jones, one of the Los Angeles Rams' heralded Fearsome Foursome whose outspoken persona and relentless pursuit of quarterbacks helped turn defensive linemen into stars, died Monday of natural causes at his home in Anaheim Hills. He was 74.
His death was confirmed late Monday by his stepson Greg Pinto.
Jones, who played for the Rams from 1961 to '71 and later for the San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins, was the league's top defensive player in 1967 and '68 and was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times. He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980.
He was "without doubt the greatest defensive end to play in modern day football," George Allen, coach during many of his best seasons with the Rams, said during Jones' 1975 news conference announcing his retirement.
Jones, 6 feet 5 and 272 pounds, was quick and quotable, an obscure 14th-round draft choice from Mississippi Vocational College who did not stay obscure for long. "When I first came up, defensive linemen were dull as hell," he told The Times in 1980. "Some were great performers, but nobody knew who they were. I set out to change that."
He not only took great pleasure in tackling quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage, he came up with the name "sack" to better describe it. Times columnist Jim Murray once said Jones "eats quarterbacks for a living."
And his signature move, a head slap that pulverized offensive linemen who tried to keep him from the quarterback, was so dangerous it was banned by the NFL.
"It was the greatest thing I ever did and when I left the game they outlawed it," he told The Times in 2009. "I couldn't be more proud."
He said he gave himself the nickname Deacon after joining the Rams because there were too many David Joneses in the local phone book. "Football is a violent world and Deacon has a religious connotation," he told The Times in 1980. "I thought a name like that would be remembered."
Merlin Olsen, another member of the Rams' Fearsome Foursome who died in 2010, once said of his longtime teammate: "There has never been a better football player than Deacon Jones."
David Jones was born Dec. 9, 1938, in Eatonville, Fla., where his parents ran a barbecue stand. He played high school football but didn't get a scholarship offer until a year after his senior season when he and two other high school teammates heard from South Carolina State in 1958.
"I had unusual ability, and I knew that," Jones told the Palm Beach Post in 2007. "I knew I could play the game, I knew I had the speed, the quickness. I just needed the training."
He played only one season at South Carolina State, sitting out a year and then transferring to Mississippi Vocational College.
"I left some problems in South Carolina," he told The Times in 1985. "I was mixed up in lunch-counter demonstrations then.... I had the water treatment and the dogs and all that stuff and even spent some time in jail."
A scout for the Rams looking at a running back spotted Jones and he became the 186th player taken in the 1961 draft.
Jones played right away on a dreadful Rams team that finished 4-10. They won only one game in 1962, but their defense was starting to take shape with Olsen joining the team as a rookie. Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy were the other defensive linemen who formed the Fearsome Foursome.
The Rams didn't start to win consistently until 1966, when the defensive-minded Allen became coach. By 1967, they were 11-1-2 and began qualifying regularly for the playoffs.
Their success was built on a ferocious defense led by Jones, who was by then famous enough to be known as the "Secretary of Defense."
"He was fantastic coming off the ball," Bob Windsor, a tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, told Investor's Business Daily in 2007. "He had the greatest head slap anyone could have. Our right tackle Cas Banaszek had ice bags on his head after every game against the Rams.… Deacon hit him so hard."
Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman said Jones — whose 1996 biography was called "Headslap" — could split an opponent's helmet with his hands.
The man who invented the sack told the Associated Press in 2002 that he had more than 20 sacks in more than one season. But the NFL didn't chart them as an official statistic during Jones' career.
Jones' celebrity extended beyond the football field. He was a singer and acted in movies and television, and he was one of several former athletes featured in a series of light-hearted commercials for Miller Lite beer.
"When I looked at the things I was doing it wasn't like a job. It was all [an extension] of my football career," he told The Times in 2009.
The Rams traded him and two other players to San Diego in January 1972 in exchange for three draft choices and a player. He played two seasons there before finishing his career with Allen, his old Rams coach, Allen, in Washington in 1974.
Among Jones' post-football activities was a foundation that helped inner-city youths.
"Some people see players as heroes, and that's ridiculous," he told the Lincoln, Neb., Journal Star in 2007. "I played in a brutal game, but it was a business." In addition to his stepson, he was survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and a grandson.
Thursby is a former Times staff writer.