TAMPA — Warren Sapp said he was looking forward to standing side-by-side in a yellow jacket at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August with the man who not only perfected the quarterback "sack," he actually coined the term.
Deacon Jones died of natural causes at his home in Southern California on Monday night. He was 74, and the widespread admiration for the Los Angeles Rams' heralded Fearsome Foursome lineman included the Bucs.
"I don't get to stand there with the dude who invented the whole essence of what I did, what I wanted to become and do in this league,'' said Sapp, an ex-Bucs defensive tackle. "He's gone. I felt empty this morning getting dressed.''
Sapp had a special affection for Mr. Jones, a Hall of Famer whom he first really spent time with in 1998. "It was like opening up a history book,'' Sapp said. "You're talking about somebody who never played against a white player until he got to the NFL.''
Mr. Jones' best years were with the Rams and coach George Allen, the father of former Bucs general manager Bruce Allen.
"Deacon Jones was one of the greatest players in NFL history. Off the field, he was a true giant," said Bruce Allen, now the Redskins GM. "His passion and spirit will continue to inspire those who knew him. He was a cherished member of the Allen family and I will always consider him my big brother."
The Allen family had Mr. Jones present George Allen for his Hall of Fame induction in 2002.
Mr. Jones led the Fearsome Foursome from 1961-71, retiring three years later. Rosie Grier, 80, is the only surviving member of the Foursome; Merlin Olsen died in 2010 and Lamar Lundy died in 2007.
After football, Mr. Jones' foundation helped inner-city youths. He also was a singer and actor, part of light-hearted Miller Lite commercials.
Mr. Jones, 6 feet 5 and 272 pounds, was quick and quotable, an obscure 14th-round draft choice from Mississippi Vocational College. "When I first came up, defensive linemen were dull as hell," he said in 1980. "Some were great performers, but nobody knew who they were. I set out to change that."
His signature move, a head slap that pulverized offensive linemen, was banned by the NFL.
"It was the greatest thing I ever did and when I left the game they outlawed it," he said in 2009. "I couldn't be more proud."
Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman said Mr. Jones, whose 1996 biography was called Headslap, could split an opponent's helmet with his hands.
"Deacon always said he didn't invent the helmet slap, he perfected it,'' Sapp said.
David Jones was born Dec. 9, 1938, in Eatonville, where his parents ran a barbecue stand. His determination to escape from segregationist Dixie was fueled when he was 12. An all-black congregation was mingling after church and white teenagers in a passing car heaved a watermelon.
"I chased that car until my breath ran out," Mr. Jones said in 1999. "Thank God I had the ability to play a violent game like football. It gave me an outlet for the anger in my heart."
Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen remembered late in a game that the Rams had wrapped up, Mr. Jones "comes in on a pass rush and fell down. He starts crawling on all fours trying to get to me. He's crawling in the dirt like it was the most important play in the world, and I look at him and said, 'Jeezz-us, Deacon, it ain't the Super Bowl.' "
Another Hall of Fame QB, Bart Starr, on facing Mr. Jones: "How did people feel about Attila the Hun?"
Mr. Jones played high school football but didn't get a scholarship offer until a year after his senior season, from South Carolina State in 1958. He played one season there, sitting out a year and then transferring to Mississippi Vocational College.
He called himself Deacon after joining the Rams because there were too many David Joneses in the phone book. "Football is a violent world and Deacon has a religious connotation," he said in 1980. "I thought a name like that would be remembered."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said: "He was an icon among the icons. Even with his fellow Hall of Famers, Deacon Jones held a special status. … Deacon Jones will be missed but always remembered.''
Information from Times wires was used in this report.