Wild tales still preach to Deacon

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

NFL star and college cutup now helps kids get their degrees

SC State celebrates 100 years of Bulldog Football, Nov. 9 The stories about David “Deacon” Jones during his brief but memorable stay at South Carolina State might not endear him to the Deacon Jones of today.

Willie Jeffries, who played with the future NFL Hall of Fame defensive end in 1958 and 1959 at S.C. State, remembers the tall, strapping athlete from Eatonville, Fla., as a “great guy, but immature. He loved to have fun. He’d drink that ol’ bootleg whiskey out of an iced-tea glass and cut up with the best.”

Among Jones’ more legendary exploits, non-football variety:

He liked to wander the halls of his dormitory naked, embarrassing visitors and the occasional housemother.

He and several teammates once overturned a professor’s Volkswagen (then returned it to the upright position).

Alex Gardner Jr., another former teammate, recalls an art teacher who required ties in her class. “One day, Deac wore a tie with a T-shirt,” Gardner said.

Jeffries also says “Deac” once complained someone had stolen his books. “We said, ‘Great, he’s studying,’ but turned out the book they stole was Captain Marvel.”

Believe that tale at your own risk. Not in question, though, were Jones’ academics. “He flunked out (after two seasons). He didn’t have any books,” Jeffries said.

That did not harm his NFL future. Jones, who moved on to Mississippi Vocational College (now Mississippi Valley State), later became a 14-year terror for the Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers, anchoring the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” while earning the nickname “Secretary of Defense.”

His career included five All-Pro selections, seven Pro Bowls and (he claimed) a career total of 173.5 sacks, which would be third all-time, including 26 in 1967. Alas, official sacks were not recorded until 1982.

But age and perhaps wisdom eventually caught up with Jones. California’s inner-city youths might say that isn’t a bad thing.

Now 69 — but full of youthful swagger during a May visit to Florence to play in fellow Hall of Famer Harry Carson’s golf tournament — Jones in 1997 began the L.A.-based Deacon Jones Foundation. Its goal, through a “Seven Steps for Seven Years” program, is to help ghetto youngsters escape the cycle of poverty, crime and despair.

“Coming from a poor, inner-city neighborhood myself, I have an intimate knowledge of all the problems people face there,” Jones, who did not return calls for this story, writes on his Web site, deaconjones.com. “It’s not just the inability to afford a good education ... Inner-city kids have to be prepared for college in every sense.”

Jones’ foundation offers a seven-year program that includes four-year college scholarships. In return, youngsters participate in mentoring programs, work as summer volunteers and write annual essays on how to better their communities.

At Saturday’s ceremony in Orangeburg to honor S.C. State’s 100 top players as part of its football centennial, Jones’ teammates likely will tell more stories from “the day.”

Gardner says his own NFL prospects were hurt when scouts focused on Jones. “Deac was a real aggressive player,” he said. “He liked to win, and he backed up what he said. He kept us all at our best. And when he tackled someone ... nothing dirty, but he let them know he was there.”

Jeffries says against Florida A&M, coach Roy D. Moore designed a tackle-eligible player for Jones. “The quarterback popped it to him, and Deac went 70 yards. No one could catch him,” Jeffries said. “With those long legs, he could fly.”

In his NFL heyday, Jones once told an interviewer: “I’m probably the toughest (expletive) here. ... I’ve got to be the baddest dude I know of.”

For inner-city youth, that’s not a bad thing at all.

By BOB GILLESPIE (bgillespie@thestate.com). Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.