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DEACON THE BEACON

Deacon Jones loves football. As a player, he loved the hitting and the sweat, the feeling of his helmet settling hard into the stomach of some poor quarterback.

Deacon Jones loves having been part of the Fearsome Foursome and the Los Angeles Rams.

For it was football that got Jones out of the sweaty fields of central Florida, away from the dead-end, segregated town of his childhood, away from poverty and hopelessness, away from despair and uselessness. Football is why Jones lives with Elizabeth, his wife, on a hilltop in Anaheim Hills, where he can look down on birds drifting lazily in the sky.

And it is football, and the money it paid Deacon Jones and the fame it gave Deacon Jones, that has allowed him to start the Deacon Jones Foundation.

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And it is because of the Deacon Jones Foundation that a couple of Inglewood High 10th-graders go to school every day, study hard every afternoon and sleep well every night knowing there will be a college scholarship for them and that there is nothing they can’t do or be.

The idea to help young men and women built momentum in Jones’ head, relentlessly, powerfully until it exploded into this work Jones says he wants to do for the rest of his life. Kind of the way it was when Jones aimed his body at a quarterback.

Jones knew what it was like to grow up poor and without goals. “If it wasn’t for football, I had no way out,” Jones says. He is sitting on the deck of his home, shoes off, eyes scanning the surrounding hills. “I know what it’s like to be a kid and to have no dreams. I didn’t know anything but football because that’s all there was for me to know.”

So Jones wants it to be different for kids now. “I want to do more than throw money at a problem,” he says. “I want to give more. My idea is to take kids and introduce them to the world of dreams. I want to take these 10th-graders and in seven years show them what they can be in the world.”

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Nancy Sanchez, shy and smart, the oldest of six children, whose family shares an old three-bedroom, one-bathroom house with another family of four children, and Gregg Taylor, engaging and smart, the oldest son of a single mother, are the foundation’s first scholarship recipients.

The foundation works like this: It finds companies willing to “adopt” a particular geographic region and fund two $100,000 scholarships. The scholarship winners get a computer, a $2,500 stake in the stock market and a trip to a Morgan Stanley Dean Witter office in Beverly Hills, where volunteer investment counselors teach them how to invest their money. They also will get job training and introductions to CEOs through internships.

And then, as they graduate from high school, assuming they have stayed out of trouble, away from drugs and gangs, have kept up their grades and their commitment to doing volunteer work in their community, Sanchez and Taylor will be given scholarships to the colleges of their choice.

Ultimately, Jones, who says he doesn’t receive a penny of foundation money, hopes Sanchez and Taylor will have dreams. Big dreams.

“The only way out for me,” Jones says, “was football. That’s because I didn’t know anything else. I want these kids to know about something else. I want them to be able to walk into the white-collar world and be able to get any job they want.”

Avid Technology, a Los Angeles company that provides audio and video tools for entertainment applications, sponsored Sanchez and Taylor.

Next spring, Gateway Inc., a computer manufacturer that has a sales outlet in Irvine, will “adopt” two Orange County students.

“I’ve know Deacon for a long time, since the 1980s,” says Van Andrews, senior vice president at Gateway. “I know what a good man he is. When Deacon walked into my office with this proposal, he told me ‘I don’t want only your money. I want your young employees to mentor these kids.’ He expects us to use these kids as interns, to teach them about Gateway. That’s what makes this a special project. This gives kids a foundation for the future.”

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Jones, who will be 61 in December, was known as the “Secretary of Defense” when he played defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams.

He was the prototype of a modern defensive lineman, a frightening package of size, speed and strength. His biography is titled “Headslap, the Life and Times of Deacon Jones.” Headslap? “I perfected the headslap,” Jones says. “And life gave me a few too.”

In his book, Jones speaks about growing up in Eatonville, Fla., a small town near Orlando comprising mostly poor, black farm workers. Jones tells a story of the day he was standing outside church when a group of teenagers drove through town, laughing and shouting, carrying on in a big convertible. The boys, who were white, threw a watermelon out of the car and hit an elderly black lady, a sweet woman dressed in her Sunday clothes, in the head. The woman died of her injuries several days later, but no one in Eatonville made much of an attempt to find the perpetrators.

What would be the point, Jones was told. The police wouldn’t care.

David Jones, as he was known then, remembered that incident. He grew up to be big and strong and smart enough to know his prodigious athletic talent was his ticket out of Eatonville.

David became Deacon when he became a Ram. David wanted a name that would be remembered. But for 14 ferocious years in the NFL, Deacon didn’t need a fancy name to be remembered. Players who were hit by Deacon Jones would always remember--eventually.

After his playing career, Jones became a radio announcer for the Rams. He settled in Anaheim Hills with Elizabeth. He was an excellent fund-raiser. Jones always could walk, with confidence and dignity, into the offices of CEOs and talk to them.

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Jones thinks that it was probably while he was sitting deep in somebody’s big, leather chair in a spacious office in some awesome high rise that the concept for the Deacon Jones Foundation formed.

“Kids like me, we don’t know there is this whole, big world out there with all kinds of options,” Jones says. “You know, it’s fine to throw money at problems, but the problems we have now, you need more than money. You need people and you need a way to teach. That’s what I decided I wanted the Deacon Jones Foundation to do.”

Sanchez, who attends St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood, and Taylor, who goes to St. Bernard in Playa del Rey, had never heard of Jones until scholarship applications were passed around their schools.

Sanchez’s mother, Martha, is a hotel maid. Her father, Abelino, is a construction worker. Her parents came to the United States from Mexico. “They want me to have the best education possible,” Sanchez says, “but I don’t know how I would ever go to college without this scholarship.”

On the scholarship application form, there are nine essay questions. One question asks the applicant to describe his or her community.

“Although Los Angeles sometimes seems very divided, I have met many people of different ethnic backgrounds here,” Sanchez wrote. “Living in such a uniquely diverse community has taught me a lot about different cultures and customs. Even though some parts of Inglewood are unsafe, the people are usually very friendly. Inglewood, California, is a great place to be a part of.”

Karen Moore, Taylor’s mother, is trying to start her own catering business while raising three sons by herself. Always, she says, Gregg has been an eager and talented student. “I stress education because I want Gregg to have things easier than I’ve had it,” Moore says, “but paying for college, I didn’t have a clue. It would be very difficult.”

On his application Taylor describes himself as “intelligent, competitive, considerate, conscientious, polite and, just, really . . . versatile.”

Sanchez and Taylor keep their grade-point averages over a B. Both are serious participants in community service and were doing that before they’d ever heard of the Deacon Jones Foundation.

“We want to empower kids like these,” Jones says. “There are some things that government and money can’t change. Some things we need to change ourselves by giving of ourselves.”

On Sunday and Monday, Sanchez and Taylor will be hosts at the Avid/Deacon Jones Hall of Fame Golf Classic at La Costa. Such football Hall of Famers as Johnny Unitas, Eric Dickerson, George Blanda, Merlin Olsen and Willie Wood will join such baseball Hall of Famers as Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson and Don Sutton.

This is what Jones means. Sanchez and Taylor will meet and greet, shake hands and talk to famous people. It is a learning experience, another foray into a different world. Plus, Sanchez and Taylor will each be paid $100. They get to keep $50 and must put $50 into their investment accounts.

“How can you not be enthusiastic about programs like this,” says Andrews, the Gateway executive. “For corporations to succeed, we need educated work forces in the communities where we are located. I think it’s important for corporations to make investments like this.”

Taylor plays basketball and likes to think he might be good enough to play in the NBA some day.

Jones rolls his eyes. “That’s what I mean,” he says. “I want Gregg to find out that he has so many more options than a basketball scholarship to get to college. That’s the point.”

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Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com


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