Deacon’s ‘D’ Helped Lift Barriers

By Andrew Abramson
Updated: January 1, 2008

PALM BEACH, Fla. – It’s a long way from Eatonville to Los Angeles, and David “Deacon” Jones almost didn’t make it.

Jones, who coined the word “sack” while punishing quarterbacks for 14 NFL seasons, realizes his contributions to football history. He also understands how fortunate he was to rise from a tiny, segregated Florida town to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I think about it every day I walk through my house – see the awards, the honors – and I’m still trying to understand,” Jones said from his Los Angeles home. “I had all that talent sitting there, and it was almost missed.”

A half century ago, in the predominately black town of Eatonville outside of Orlando, Jones seemed like anything but a future legendary defensive end with the Los Angeles Rams.

Florida had never produced a true star football player, and Jones was an unlikely candidate to put the state on the NFL’s map.

Jones was considered an above-average athlete at Hungerford High School, which had built a tradition of winning football, including a 1940 team that finished 8-0 without surrendering a point.

In 1956, Jones helped lead Hungerford to an 8-2 record, including a win against rival power Jones High, a much larger school for Orlando’s black students.

Still, few outside of the local black community knew about Hungerford’s accomplishments. A few days after every game, an English teacher at the school would write up a recap and send it to the Orlando Sentinel. More than a week later, the newspaper would include game information on an orange-colored page inserted for delivery to black neighborhoods.

“For David to pull out of the situation he was in and come from such a small town, where no one ever recognized him, no one knew him, no one acknowledged him, was just amazing,” said Charles E. Miller, 77, who was an assistant football coach when Jones played at Hungerford.

Second best … on his own team

Jones grew up only three blocks from Hungerford. His parents owned a barbecue stand in Eatonville, and in the summer he would earn money by working in the orange groves.

“That was tough work,” said Jones, who turned 69 back on December 2nd. “There were all these orange groves for miles and miles and miles. All these beautiful roads, very few people.”

There was little for a kid in Eatonville to do other than work and play sports.

Jones, a defensive tackle, was a good player. But his teammate, offensive and defensive tackle Roosevelt King, was the star player at Hungerford.

“Dave in high school wasn’t the greatest player,” teammate Lester Seays said. “He always had the size and arms, but he needed to put on the weight.

“All the girls liked him when he played football, so he played football. If you’re up in the bleachers, you’re not going to get the girls.”

Jones, like most of the boys, went out for every sport. Miller, also the head basketball coach, said that Jones never made the basketball team, though Jones’ recollection is a bit different.

“If you read his (autobiography), he’ll say he did,” Miller said. “He also said he was on the track team, but we didn’t have a track team. I don’t know who wrote the book.”

Jones, like most of the black high school stars in the South, never imagined a career in the NFL. Most coveted a football scholarship from Florida A&M, but Jones didn’t get an offer.

“I had unusual ability, and I knew that,” he said. “I just didn’t know how to get the maximum out of that ability, and I had to learn that the hard way. I knew I could play the game, I knew had the speed, the quickness. I just needed the training.”

Jones’ senior team had 18 players, so scrimmaging was rare. Hungerford had no weight room and a slim playbook. Most of its players came not from youth leagues, but street football.

“The games were violent, they were rough,” Jones said. “You might run into a pothole and break your ankle. Guys were hitting each other in the gravel street. I never got as many scratches in pro football as I got playing in the gravel pits.”

Working his way to the top

After graduating from high school, Jones stuck around and worked the orange groves. But he wanted to continue his football career, so he decided to get back into shape.

Early in the morning, he would head to the segregated area of Cocoa Beach, strap on a pair of combat boots, attach 10-pound weights to each of his ankles, and run two miles in the sand.

“That allowed me to walk out of this game without an injury to my knees at any point,” Jones said.

In 1958, he finally received a scholarship, along with King and Seays, to South Carolina State.

It was a turbulent time in the early days of the civil rights movement, and Jones refused to stay on the sideline. He joined several teammates in a sit-in on campus, a demonstration that ended with students being sprayed with water hoses and arrested.

Still, Jones was dedicated to football – so much so that he eventually flunked out of school.

Jones sat out another year before transferring with some friends to Mississippi Vocational College in Itta Bena. He played one season before a scout for the Rams arrived to check out a running back on the team.

Jones caught the scout’s attention, and Los Angeles selected him in the 14th round with the 186th overall pick in the 1961 NFL Draft.

Jones knew that few black players made it out of NFL training camps, but he was determined to beat the odds and bust out of Eatonville for good.

“The man handed me that thick playbook – I’d never seen anything like it,” Jones said. “That frightened me a little bit.

“I was quick and I was fast, and I had to take that speed and quickness and make the NFL look at me in the right direction. I just started hitting people, started running, chasing everything.”

The rest of the story is NFL lore.

Jones made the team, earned a spot in the starting lineup as a defensive tackle in the season opener, and went on to make eight Pro Bowl teams for the Rams and San Diego Chargers. In 1999, 19 years after Jones became the first Florida high school graduate to reach Canton, Sports Illustrated named him the “Defensive End of the Century.”

Jones also became a star of sorts off the field in Southern California, making several cameo appearances in television sitcoms and commercials.

Looking back, Jones is grateful for overcoming the racial divide that held back many of his peers.

“The most ridiculous chapter in our history interfered with a lot of great football,” he said. “It pushed some good, talented people into one environment that wasn’t allowed to grow.

“I got that one opportunity and I jumped, and it worked. It was more pressure than I care to ever remember.”