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‘I can do it, I will do it and I should do it’

Undeterred by racism and poverty, Deacon Jones now offers a helping hand to inner-city youth

By Ron Pollack, Editor-in-chief
Nov. 20, 2000

Deacon Jones
Deacon Jones
as Hall of Fame player

Deacon Jones is looking for one more sack.

During his playing days in the NFL from 1961 to ’74 with the Rams, Chargers and Redskins, Jones was one of the most ferocious pass rushers to ever play the game. He sacked opposing quarterbacks with a vengeance rarely seen before his day, during his day or since his day.

Retirement has taken Jones off the football field. No longer does he employ his punishing headslap to devastate offensive linemen. No longer does he dominate in the way that led him to eight Pro Bowls and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. No longer is his job, as he used to like to say, "to kill quarterbacks."

These days, Jones is still out to kill the opposition. Quarterbacks can breathe a deep sigh of relief, though, because they are no longer his target.

Jones still spits fire, but these days he’s trying to sack the woes faced by inner-city kids who need a helping hand. He does so through his Deacon Jones Foundation, whose mission is to provide inner-city youth the tools and the educational opportunities they need to succeed.

"I came out of a hellhole and I intend to cover that up before I die," Jones says. "Coming from a poor inner city myself, I have an intimate knowledge of all the problems people face there."

Simply put, Jones is out to sack inner-city misery through a scholarship program designed to also provide long-term life lessons, training and opportunity.

Jones is taking his vaunted headslap and trying to go upside the head of inner-city despair. He is facing an opponent more diabolical than any quarterback he ever tried to annihilate.

A child’s enemy is his enemy. And he reads all about it in the essays kids fill out when applying for a scholarship from the Deacon Jones Foundation.

"You should read some of these stories," Jones says. "Some of them will break your heart. The kid tells you that there are times at night when he’s got to fall on the floor when he’s trying to study. He’s got to study under the bed … because he lives in a neighborhood where guns are going off all the time. So he’s got to cover up the light. And his momma tells him to get on the floor and study. These kids are under so much pressure it will drive you nuts."

His wife, Elizabeth, who is the chief operating and financial officer of the Deacon Jones Foundation, says, "How these kids are as successful as they are under the circumstances under which they live, with gunshots and graffiti and gangs and drugs, it’s amazing. It’s really amazing."

Wrote a teenager in the essay section of her application to the Deacon Jones Foundation Scholars Program: "The greatest challenges in my community are violence and drugs. I think that the violence is a challenge in my community because there are a lot of gangs in my neighborhood and are very hard to control. These gangs beat each other senseless and could hurt anyone who looks at them the wrong way. It’s frightening just to cross them on the same street, not knowing what will happen. I also think drugs are a challenge in my community because people never stop to think of the consequences, and people are always being pressured to use them. Although I counted these things separately, they always seem to go hand in hand."

Jones has identified the problem. He wants to be the solution. And when Deacon Jones sets his mind to something, he knows only one way to go about it. Full speed ahead. Attack, attack, attack.

"When he made this commitment to help inner-city kids, it simply wasn’t a halfway commitment," says Merlin Olsen, a former teammate of Jones with the Rams. "It was a full-blown commitment for Deacon."

Elizabeth Jones says, "He spends every waking moment that he’s not doing something else at least thinking about it. And I think he probably thinks about it 24 hours a day truthfully. It’s so important to him. It’s gotten a life of its own."

Attack, attack, attack. Just as was the case when he was a football hero, Jones seems bigger than life in his latest starring role.

He is like a four-star general leading his army into battle.

"I have the nucleus — the power," Jones says. "I have cooperation, I have the people, I have the resources to do this job. And I like doing big things that nobody else wants to touch."

He is like a minister giving an inspirational Sunday sermon, his voice rising to the occasion, as he preaches, "I can do it. I’m doing it. And that’s my whole motivation. My whole motivation is that I can do it, I will do it and I should do it."

His voice now more calm, but his resolve made of steel, Jones is like a street-wise, bigger-than-life, nail-spitting, baby-kissing man of the people out to rid the world of injustice as he says, "Deacon’s on the case."

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A poverty-filled childhood

The Deacon Jones Foundation is providing that which young Deacon never had.

Money. Or at least enough money.

Growing up, Deacon became all too well-acquainted with poverty.

His family of 10 was squeezed into too little space, a mere four rooms, when he was growing up in Eatonville, Fla. Young Deacon took on the kind of jobs reserved for kids with strong backs and weak bank accounts. In the heat of summers he would work in the fields. The worst memories are of picking watermelons.

"That is the hardest work ever," Deacon says.

It was as though the watermelons were filled with cannonballs. What is a refreshing fruit treat to most was 40 to 75 pounds apiece of lifting agony to Deacon. The sun would not yet have been nudged from a night of slumber when Deacon would start his workday. The sun would already have punched out for the day when Deacon would finally stop lifting. In the watermelon game, there is a pitcher and a catcher. The pitcher is down on the ground. The catcher is up on the truck. Together they move through the field, one backbreaking watermelon at a time.

"If you’re the pitcher, you’ve got a problem," Deacon says with the kind of laughter that is more incredulous than full of good humor. "After about four hours of that, it was like you were picking up the Empire State Building and throwing it up on the truck."

When Deacon graduated from high school, he left the fields of Florida for the promise of work in New York.

"I’d lost my zest for education," Deacon says. "I figured I could make my money in the street."

His mother told him he was going to go to school. Deacon said he was going to go to New York. Youthful bullheadedness won out. Or lost, as it would turn out.

Deacon went to New York on the back of a truck. He practically starved to death once he was there when the job he had been promised didn’t materialize. He was out of his element. Out of money. Out of luck.

Out of options, he called home for help. His mother borrowed some money and was all set to send it to Deacon via Western Union when she heard a voice that said, "Don’t send it."

She didn’t. Deacon had to work his way back to Florida.

"When I got back home, she didn’t have to convince me about going to school," Deacon says.

A childhood of not enough money and a lesson learned the hard way about education. Call these the early seeds that were planted for a life that would someday harvest the Deacon Jones Foundation.

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Death, taxes and racism

deaconmackey.jpg (10474 bytes)

Fellow Hall of Famer
John Mackey (left)
with Jones at '99 gala

The Deacon Jones Foundation is providing that which young Deacon never had.

Opportunity.

If you were a young black man growing up in the South when Deacon Jones did, the most plentiful opportunities were the opportunities to be treated as a second-class citizen. Death, taxes and racism were the only givens.

There was no Deacon Jones Foundation to help out a young black man. Back then, society wasn’t doing anything to give Deacon a helping hand. Society seemed more inclined to give him and those around him a hard time. Racism was everywhere.

Everywhere Deacon looked, it seemed as though there was an uphill climb. If there was anything like a Deacon Jones Foundation to level the playing field, he sure didn’t see it.

What he saw was intolerance. What he saw was a world in which hatred was skin-deep. What he saw was that the color of his skin, and the color of the skin of the people in his community, was like a magnet for ignorant behavior by white America.

And he saw it at a young age.

Deacon, not even a teenager yet, was standing outside of church after Sunday services. Everyone was talking, mingling and in no rush to get anywhere when a car full of older white kids came driving by, full of bad intent. A watermelon, obviously intended to mock the black crowd with a racial stereotype, came flying out of the car. It hit an old black woman who had no chance to get out of the way.

The car never even slowed down. Deacon took off, chasing after the car on foot.

"My first reaction was to try and get my hands on them," Deacon says. "Here I’m trying to catch a car. That had to be the stupidest thing in the world. But you react to things. … I was so pissed off, I tried to catch them."

He felt something hit him in the head. He would be all right. The old woman would not. She passed away a few days later.

The night of the incident, young Deacon went to a local pool hall to try to get the wheels of justice moving. His uncle was a police officer. Deacon wanted to know if the incident was going to be reported. The older men at the pool hall took a much more nonchalant attitude than Deacon, realizing that their anger wasn’t going to change anything.

"(My uncle) ran the police force in Eatonville, but he couldn’t do nothing about it," Deacon says. "A black man couldn’t arrest a white guy. So he would have to go to Orlando and report to the county sheriff. … So we knew that would be just a wasted trip downtown."

When Deacon was growing up, he had to drink from blacks-only water fountains. He had to use blacks-only restrooms. He had to sit in blacks-only sections of restaurants. He had to sit in the back of the bus. When he was playing college ball at Mississippi Vocational, he and his black teammates had to sleep in cots in the opposing team’s gym because motels wouldn’t take them.

At a young age, somewhere between 12 and 14 by his recollection, Deacon and some of his friends went to Tinker Field in Orlando, Fla., to see the great black hope, Jackie Robinson, play baseball. During the game, Robinson slid into second base, and the white second baseman for the opposing team intentionally ground his cleats into Robinson’s hand, smiled at what he had done and then got away with it when the white umpire chose to do nothing about it.

Deacon and half a dozen friends, sitting in the blacks-only section in the outfield of the segregated ballpark, watched in anger. After the game, Deacon, a brash kid even then, went up to Robinson near the dressing room.

Deacon wanted to know if Robinson, whose hand was bandaged, was angry.

"He didn’t have any animosity in his heart," Deacon says. "Or he didn’t show any. I know he had to be pissed off. I know I would have been."

Robinson’s words may have been spoken quietly, but don’t confuse that with acceptance of the situation.

Deacon said to Robinson, "I guess you get used to it."

Robinson responded, "No, son, you don’t ever get used to it."

The behavior that Deacon himself would never get used to was far from over.

When he was in high school, a lump developed on his thigh. He would later learn that it was a tumor. He went to a segregated hospital in Orlando. Black patients had to go to the basement.

"The black wing" is how Deacon refers to it.

The hospital personnel insulted Deacon’s mother and family.

"The way they talked to you, you didn’t want them to put you under," Deacon says.

Not that he had that option anyway that day. Since it didn’t appear that Deacon’s problem was life-threatening at that moment, he was sent away. He had to wait 10 days to be seen in the "black wing."

This despite the fact that the white section of the hospital had empty beds all over the place.

"If they had a hundred beds open in the white wing, you could be dying and you weren’t going to be put in the white wing," Deacon says.

Ultimately he had the surgery that resolved his problem, but that hardly puts the hospital’s admittance standards in any better light.

When Deacon was in college at South Carolina State, there was an incident in the Orangeburg, S.C., bus station. The bus station had a fairly decent cafeteria for white students and a dingy area in the back for the black students. During Thanksgiving break, school was out, and the bus station was full of only black students. With no white students around, the black students were using the entire bus station, getting service without any of the usual problems being raised.

"There wasn’t no other white people in the place, so what money does, they call money the root of all evil," Deacon says, chuckling. "So as long as they was taking in the cash, it was cool, you know, and no white people there."

That changed when a bus full of white passengers pulled into the station.

"The white people get off, and now we’re all in violation," Deacon says. "And management called the police."

Management told the black students to get out and go to the blacks-only window in the back. This met with resistance, prompting the call to the police.

The police came in force. Fully armed.

"Southern cops is always armed," Deacon says.

The black students dispersed.

Without violence. That day.

Not all incidents ended so calmly during the civil-rights movement taking place while Deacon was growing up.

Deacon took part in the Lunch Counter March during his college days at South Carolina State. The demonstration was sparked by the fact that some black kids were arrested for trying to eat at a lunch counter. About a thousand protesters went downtown in groups of 50. The marchers were met halfway downtown by the police and fire trucks.

Stop, said the police.

Turn around, said the police.

Go back to the college, said the police.

No, no and no, said the demonstrators. The march continued toward the downtown area.

That was when the high-powered water hoses were turned on them. That was when the German shepherds were turned loose on them. That was when they were rounded up and put in a pen behind the jail.

When the water hoses were turned on the protesters, Deacon took off.

"I broke and ran," he says. "I ran right up into that alley. Had no out to it. And they turned the hose loose right up in that alley on me, pinned me up against the wall, and it ripped the back of my (suit), right down the back. I almost drowned, man. I almost drowned, and I was a well-conditioned athlete. I couldn’t move a muscle. It had me pinned up against that wall, and I couldn’t move."

After that experience, Deacon decided that the way to make his point was to be successful on the football field. He was afraid of what he might do if he continued taking part in demonstrations.

"Yep, because I was going to hurt somebody," he says. "I wasn’t going to take that. … See, I went through some of the training that we had during that period. You know, for demonstrations and knowing how to handle yourself on the line. People spit on you, somebody hits you, you’ve got to take that s---. And I saw right then and there I’d be a problem with the movement if I stayed out there.

"Deacon ain’t going to take this."

The Lunch Counter March led to Deacon’s scholarship being revoked at South Carolina State. One of the assistant football coaches at South Carolina State was moving on to Mississippi Vocational and told Deacon and some of the other black players who were in the same boat that he could get them scholarships at the new school. Off went Deacon. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

"One of the worst moves I ever made," Deacon says. "Ohhhhhh, man, to leave South Carolina, which is the mecca of bigotry, to go to Mississippi, that’s the pits."

So the bigotry was even worse in Mississippi?

"Ohh, ohhhhhh. I didn’t know people could be treated that bad," Deacon says.

On their way to Mississippi Vocational, Deacon and friends had a flat tire in Alabama. They stopped at a gas station, where an elderly white man fixed the tire. They asked if he had a restroom, and he said yes. There was only one bathroom, and it had no sign that said "colored" or "white" as was often the case. There was one water fountain. Again, no signs that said "colored" or "white."

So, as the elderly white man changed the tire, the half-dozen-or-so black football players started to use the restroom and water fountain.

No problems. No cross words.

Then the old white man took their money. Once the money was put away, everything changed.

One of the black players was at the water fountain, and the old man let loose with the "N" word and continued, "Get away from that water fountain. You all get the hell out of here."

Whatever tolerance that existed while money was still to be earned got tossed aside like three-day-old garbage once the money had been pocketed.

"Caught us by surprise," Deacon says. "We figured we was spending money with this guy. (We figured) he ain’t gonna mind us getting no water and going to the bathroom. And man, he just went off. So we all hopped in the car and got the hell out of there, because we didn’t really want no trouble."

Things went from bad to worse in Mississippi.

"They used (the ‘N’ word) down there like it’s your first name," Deacon says.

One time he and a buddy were driving through a tiny Mississippi town in a broken-down station wagon. Just a couple of college students trying to meet up with a couple of girls. They got lost, and the next thing they knew, they were being pulled over by a white, Southern police officer.

"He saw two brothers in the car and pulled us over," Deacon says.

The police officer asked for Deacon’s driver’s license. Deacon turned it over, and the officer took a look at it and then asked, "Where are you boys from?"

Deacon told him they were from the nearby college.

The white police officer then spit out the "N" word, before saying, "Get back up to that college, and don’t you ever let me catch you down here no more."

Deacon and his buddy drove off, but being young men in pursuit of their lady friends, they turned around to continue their search.

"I thought about that afterward and how dumb and stupid that was," Deacon says. "Because you know if he’d have caught us down there, something bad would have happened to us."

Something bad eventually did happen, although not that day and not for anything to do with the young ladies. Nonetheless, it seemed inevitable that racism would result in Deacon and the Mississippi police butting heads again.

In this instance, the police were in cahoots with the college. It was the Thanksgiving holiday, meaning most of the students and faculty had gone home. Deacon and the other football players who had arrived from South Carolina State that were originally from Florida stayed on campus because they lacked the funds to return home. It was pretty much a ghost town on campus with the exception of Deacon and his Florida friends.

It was just after dinner time, and Deacon & Co. were sitting in the student union building, playing cards.

Boom!

Bursting through a door came the local police.

"Scared the hell out of me," Deacon says.

The white police officers identified the black players from Florida and told them they had an hour to pack their belongings.

"What the hell is going on?" Deacon asked at the time.

A police officer responded, "Shut up and get your s--- packed."

No explanation was given. The officers left with the promise to return soon. Deacon and his friends huddled. What should they do? They had clothes at the cleaners. They had a car elsewhere on campus. They didn’t have the time to get any of these things. A debate broke out over what to do.

Deacon ended the discussion when he said, "I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going in here and pack our stuff and be ready when that man gets back. These are Mississippi cops. You don’t give them no static."

Deacon had bigger concerns than retrieving the laundry or the car. Anticipating the return of the police, Deacon told his cohorts, "Everybody has got to be alert here. If they take us out in the woods, every man for himself. OK, we ain’t going to just sit here and let them hang us or put a bullet in my head. I’m going to go down fighting."

One of the players cut up pieces of rope, which all of the players put in their pockets.

Recalling their thought process, Deacon says, "What we were going to do, if (the police officer) pulled his car off the road, just take this little rope and put it around his god damn neck and strangle the s--- out of him. … This was Mississippi and if you are in a dark area, man, and you’re with the police, you’ve got a problem."

The incident ended without violence. It turns out the college had gotten ahold of the players’ records from South Carolina State and learned of their involvement with the civil-rights movement. The Lunch Counter March was not viewed positively by their new school’s administration. They were being run off campus, but they didn’t know why the police were giving them a hard time at that moment.

Eventually the police returned. Deacon and some of his teammates were put in the backseat of a squad car. Fortunately, the car never pulled over in the woods. It kept going to the bus station.

The police officers led Deacon and the players out of the car, gave them bus tickets and made a threat that started with the "N" word and finished with "Don’t you ever let me catch you back in Mississippi."

As Deacon sat on the bus after it took off, a thought crossed his mind: "Suppose one of them cops would have had to pee? We were out in the country. And he stops and pulls off on the side. You know, a lot of innocent people would have died. Because we were going to react."

As for the police officer’s admonition that Deacon never return to Mississippi, there would be no argument then or now.

"To this day, this hour that I’m talking to you, I have never been back, I never will go back and I have turned down big dollars down in Mississippi," Deacon says. "I’ve got a good buddy that’s from down there, and he has this big function down there every year. And I refuse to go, because I will never go back there again as long as I live. I told my publisher that I wanted my book banned in Mississippi. I didn’t even want that sold down there."

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