For the occasion of the only football-related task that ever gave him pause — emptying his heart while delivering acceptance speeches at shrines — Walter Jones inserted himself into a size XLVIII yellow blazer Saturday and went to work, looking like a million bucks.
Which is only fitting, because Jones’ life turned on those very words.
As a ninth grader in the rural Alabama town of Aliceville, Jones, unusually coordinated for somebody so big and strong, dreamed of following the path of NBA legend Charles Barkley, another wide-bodied athlete from rural Alabama.
Football? Football was a sport that had broken the leg of Jones’ older brother. “Big Walt” preferred to shatter backboards, until Aliceville High football coach Pierce McIntosh prodded him to give the game — and the lucrative career possibilities it presented — a chance.
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“You’re a million bucks walking around broke,” McIntosh told Jones.
Instead of gaining acclaim as the next Charles Barkley, the ninth grader went on to become the first Walter Jones.
“Coach, you saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Jones said during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech Saturday. “You pushed me and believed in me. You came along at a perfect time in my life. You taught me discipline and work ethic.
“Everything I learned from you in high school, I used in my pro career. I hope I made you proud.”
Jones pitch-perfect remarks made it abundantly evident he is family man in every sense. His son, Walterius, was chosen to present him to the lecturn, and he held up a towel posting the Instagram address of daughter Waleria.
Jones also identified his seven siblings in the audience, sharing an anecdote for each, and acknowledged the guiding light that has been mother, Earline.
“Mom made sure we had everything we needed,” he said. “With eight kids, that can be tough. Occasionally the power would go out or we might not have enough food in the morning. But understand something, we were never in the dark and never went to bed hungry.”
Steve Largent and Cortez Kennedy preceded Jones as Seahawks into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and it’s possible Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson will join him after they retire.
But Jones, who had no peers as an offensive tackle, also has no peers as a Seattle Seahawks icon. The consensus opinion that he’s the greatest player in the 39-year history of an NFL franchise is not remarkable.
What’s remarkable is, Jones acquired the distinction by such a wide margin, he left no room for argument.
How many other offensive linemen have singularly perched themselves atop the Mount Rushmore of their franchise? Anthony Munoz of the Cincinnati Bengals comes to mind, and a case can be made that Forrest Gregg belongs alone, on top of the heap, in Green Bay. Which brings us back to the point: It’s a case, worthy of debate.
The only debate about Jones is where he ranks on the all-time list of the NFL’s top 50 players. It’s a subjective exercise requiring context, and the supposition that some positions, such as offensive tackles, are more important than, say, guards or fullbacks.
In terms of value, a left tackle is outranked only by the player he is most responsible for protecting, the quarterback. Jones didn’t merely occupy the position. He mastered it during an era the NFL was transitioning from a running league to a passing league.
Statistics for offensive linemen remain primitive, dwelling on the negative (sacks allowed, holding penalties) to illuminate the positive. Still, the numbers illuminate: Jones blocked on 5,703 Seahawks pass attempts, and allowed 23 sacks, a success ratio of 248-1.
Meanwhile, he was called for nine holding penalties — as many trips as he made to the Pro Bowl.
None of these accomplishments were touted by Jones during a 17-minute speech that underscored a gregarious side to his personality rarely revealed to the public. The closest he came to braggadocio was a shout-out to former News Tribune football writer Mike Sando, the Hall of Fame committee member responsible for endorsing Jones’ credentials before the vote.
“Thank you Mike Sando for presenting me to the Hall of Fame,” Jones said, “though I didn’t need any help.”
He laughed, then added: “Seriously, to all of the news organizations for keeping me relevant, it’s been a great ride.”
Walter Jones always has been a gracious and cooperative interview subject, but he doesn’t need news organizations to keep him relevant. He’s been relevant since his Aliceville High coach goaded him into trying out for football in the ninth grade, and now Big Walt belongs to the most relevant athletic club in the world.