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Too much, too fast, too big

Too much, too fast, too big
Too much, too fast, too big

When we think of the NFL greats of the 1980s, certain names immediately spring to mind: Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Lawrence Taylor. But there’s one name that should be at the top of that list but is often overlooked: 6’10” defensive lineman Ed “Too Tall” Jones. His career was notable not only for its longevity and accomplishments, but also because it challenged our expectations of a football player.


Jones played 15 seasons for the Dallas Cowboys, from 1974 to 1978 and again from 1980 to 1989. That alone is an impressive feat in a sport known for short careers. But what makes Jones fascinating is how he spent that off year in 1979: He became a professional boxer.


Imagine if Tom Brady had taken a year off in his prime to try professional baseball, like NBA Goat Michael Jordan did in 1994. That’s basically what Jones did, and he was better at hitting people than Jordan was at smashing balls. He went 6-0 with five knockouts as a heavyweight. This wasn’t just a publicity stunt; Jones had a certain amount of boxing skill. He had fought in Golden Gloves as a teenager and knocked out an opponent in under a minute.


But let’s take a step back. How does someone become so athletically gifted that they can excel at the highest level in two brutally demanding sports? Jones’ path to the NFL was anything but conventional. He played just three high school football games. Three. Most NFL players have been playing since they were children. The tall Jones was primarily a basketball player, good enough to earn All-America honors and Division I scholarship offers.


Jones didn’t switch to football until college, and even then he was hesitant at first. His coach at Tennessee State University had to convince him to try out. But once he did, it was clear they had found something special. Jones was twice named an All-American defensive lineman.


The Dallas Cowboys recognized his potential and selected him first in the 1974 NFL Draft. That was historic in itself—Jones was the first player from a historically black college to be drafted first. But the Cowboys didn’t just draft him high, they built their Doomsday Defense around him.


Jones’ impact on the field was immense, even if it wasn’t always captured in official statistics. The NFL didn’t start tracking sacks as an official stat until 1982, midway through Jones’ career. According to the Cowboys’ unofficial records, Jones collected 106 sacks during his career. That’s the third-most in team history, trailing only DeMarcus Ware and “Manster” Randy White.


But sacks don’t tell the whole story. Jones was 6’1″ even by today’s NFL standards. He used that size not only to pressure quarterbacks, but also to block passes at the line of scrimmage. He was so effective at doing so that the NFL began tracking passes blocked as an official statistic. Think about that for a moment. Jones didn’t just excel in one area; he got them to create a new statistic to capture his excellence.


After his boxing hiatus, Jones returned to the Cowboys in 1980 and somehow played even better than before (he claimed boxing training improved his conditioning, but who can really say?). From 1981 to 1983, he was named All-Pro and Pro Bowl three times. In 1985, at age 34, he recorded a career-high 13 sacks. Most defensive ends are past their prime by that age. Jones set personal records.


So why is Jones not celebrated more? Part of it could be timing. He played in an era dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” defense. Players like “Mean” Joe Greene got more attention, even though Jones was their equal in every way. The Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense” was fearsome, but it didn’t have the catchy nickname or the 1970s Super Bowl dynasty that spanned the steroid-fueled Steelers.


Another factor could be Jones’ versatility. He was so good at so many things that he was never equated with any one skill. He wasn’t just a pass rusher or just a run stopper. He did everything reasonably well. Paradoxically, sometimes being great at everything can be less memorable than being the absolute best at one thing.


Additionally, Jones left football in his prime. That year in boxing, while impressive, probably cost him his reputation in football; he wasn’t in it for the long haul, although he did last 15 years and hit 200 career appearances in his final season in 1989. One wonders what his numbers would have been if he had played that season in 1979.


But I think there’s something else at play here, something more fundamental about how we view athletes. We just like our sports stories. Player X was great because he did Y better than anyone else. Jones doesn’t quite fit that kind of story. He was great because he could do a little bit of everything, because he was an athlete in the purest sense of the word.


Think back to his high school years. He excelled in basketball, baseball and boxing. He took up football almost casually and became one of the greatest players of all time. Then, in the midst of a Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career, he completed a side hustle as an undefeated professional boxer. This goes beyond being a great football player. Jones was a great athlete, period.


In some ways, Jones was almost too gifted for football. The sport couldn’t contain his massive frame. It’s telling that he called boxing his favorite sport and said his time in the ring made him a superior football player. For Jones, football wasn’t an all-consuming passion; it was just a way to express his incredible athletic talents.


This brings us to a more general point about talent and recognition. Sometimes being too versatile can be detrimental. We often celebrate specialists more than generalists, even when the generalist might be more impressive overall. It’s easier to understand “best quarterback” or “best pass rusher” than “best all-around athlete who happens to play football.”


At the end of the day, Ed “Too Tall” Jones was just that: too big, too talented, too versatile to be pigeonholed into any one category. He was a football player who could box brilliantly, a basketball player who dominated football, a pass rusher who changed the way we measure the effectiveness of a defense. He was an “ath-uh-lete” in every sense of the word.


As we look back on Jones’ career, we should remember him not only as a great football player, but also as an example of what is possible when exceptional athletic talent meets opportunity. He showed us that the boundaries between sports remain more permeable than we often assume, at least for demigods, and that true athleticism can take many forms.


In an era of increasing specialization, where athletes are often pushed to focus on one sport from a young age, Jones’ career is a testament to the value of diverse sporting experiences. Perhaps in overlooking Jones, we have also missed an important lesson about athletic development and the nature of talent itself: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows only one big thing.”


So the next time you’re talking about NFL greats, give Ed “Too Tall” Jones a second (or first) thought. Remember the player who was so good and so versatile that he couldn’t be easily pigeonholed. Remember the athlete who was, in many ways, too much himself for just one sport. In doing so, we might expand our understanding of what a phrase like “generational talent” really means.

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