Football is like calculus," says Bert Jones. "Someone has to show you how to do it, but once you've got 'er figgered, why, she's easy."
Yessiree. Last Sunday the Baltimore Colts' young quarterback worked his own brand of mathematical wizardry on the San Diego Chargers, and the solution was Baltimore 37, San Diego 21. Jones hit 18 of 25 passes for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Einstein of the AFC's Eastern Division multiplied his own sharp passing game by a factor of four—the legs of AFC rushing leader Lydell Mitchell, who pounded out 91 yards, and the hands of Wide Receiver Roger Carr, who caught three passes for 43 yards and two touchdowns—as Baltimore fattened its record to 8-1.
In the process Jones maintained his status as the AFC's top passer: he now has completed 136 of 223 (61%) for 2,067 yards and 15 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. So the 25-year-old, snuff-dipping country boy from Ruston, La. seems to have it all. A strong right arm that can whip the ball out of sight in a flat trajectory, and an eye that does credit to a frontier squirrel marksman. A resilient 6'3"-by-210-pound frame that can withstand the impact of massive tacklers. Long, strong legs that cover the 40 in 4.7 seconds and have already carried him to two touchdowns and 137 yards. A head that can sort defensive sets and shifts with the speed of a computer. And most of all, a driving, demanding quality of leadership that one normally associates with much older quarterbacks—men like Billy Kilmer or Fran Tarkenton or Roger Staubach—coupled with that rarest of graces in an NFL field general: a sparkling, joy-to-be-with personality.
The leadership was strong in his voice one black, cold morning on the outskirts of Baltimore early last week. A phone rang in a motel room and the party who answered heard these words in a firm, Deep South drawl: "Listen now. It's 4:30 in the mornin'. I'll be out in front of the lobby entrance at five o'clock on the button. You better be there." Click.
November 15, 1976
At precisely 5 a.m. a red and white Ford travelall wheeled up to the motel entrance. Stars blinked frostily in the Maryland night as Bertram Hays Jones stepped from the truck, resplendent in Levi's, a blue wool shirt and red-and-white suspenders, to one of which was pinned his hunting license. A green felt slouch hat topped the long, boyish face, and Bert flashed his huge, white grin. Shades of Davy Crockett grinning a raccoon out of the trees. The customary quid of "snoose"—Copenhagen snuff, of course—bulged in his lower lip, and he loosed a stream 10 feet across the driveway.
"Let's go goozin'," he said, throwing his passenger's camouflage hunting gear into the back of the truck, where boxes of ammunition and cased shotguns lay amidst a melange of empty snuff tins, expended shell cases and game-bird feathers. "It's an hour and change to the Eastern Shore where we're huntin'," he said, "and I'm afraid it'll be light when we get there. All them geese will be out and flyin'." He swung up into the cab and hit the accelerator. Country music whined from the FM radio—Dropkick Me, Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)—and Jones added his tremulous vocalizations to the cacophony as he drove.
It was hard to realize that just 24 hours earlier, this jolly young man was as sick as a gut-shot hound dog, and only five hours earlier he had run off the field at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium after whupping the Houston Oilers 38-14. "I came down with the bug on Friday," he said, "and I couldn't eat all weekend. Drank orange juice, mainly, and tried to rest. I upchucked just before the game, and again on the sidelines during the first quarter. But the fever broke about halftime, and I felt just great—a little hollow, maybe, but clear and quick." Yes indeed, clear and quick enough to complete 19 of 28 passes for 197 yards. Clear and quick enough to adapt his signal-calling to a weakness on the left side of the Oiler rush line, thus exploding Lydell Mitchell for 136 yards. Clear and quick enough, when Houston Cornerback Zeke Moore caught him running for the sidelines after finding his receivers covered, to hurdle clean over the would-be tackler's dive and avoid getting hit precisely at the knees. "That was a cheap shot, wasn't it?" he mused, recalling the episode. "OP Zeke was goin' for bone. I had to get over the top of him."
A Loosiana leadfoot from 'way back, Jones drove fast and loose down the Beltway, steering with one hand, now and then rolling down the window to wet the median strip with snuff juice, and free-associating on his life, past and present. (Never the future, not if you're a quarterback.) "If I had my Beechcraft Bonanza up here, we could of been out to the geese in 15 minutes," he lamented, "but I've got her down home in Ruston. I took up flying about a year and half ago out of necessity. The only Interstates in Louisiana run east and west, the rest is all two-lane blacktop. My girl, Danni Dupuis, lives up in Opelousas, and it used to take me five hours to drive her home. Now I do it in an hour flat. My brother Schump is a fighter pilot in the Air Force—graduated first in his class from flight school—and I always looked up to him. We're all pretty much of a sporting family. Ben, who's younger than me, was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals last year but got cut. It was the last cut, mind you. He's back at school studying mechanical engineering. Bill's a lawyer over to Houston with John Connally's firm, but he was a good college player at Louisiana Tech. Tom—he's the youngest, only 16—stands 6'3" and plays quarterback for Ruston High just like I did. He's the best of us, athletically. You watch out for him in years to come."
Bert's daddy, William A. Jones, owner and proprietor of the Ruston Lumber & Supply Co., wears the nickname of "Dub." On Nov. 25, 1951, when Bert was still in diapers, Dub Jones scored six touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns against the Chicago Bears—the high point of his 10-year career as a pro halfback and a mark that still stands in the record book. During his eight years under Paul Brown, Dub helped Cleveland win six straight conference titles and three world championships, teaming with such golden oldies as Mac Speedie, Dante Lavelli, Lou Groza, Marion Motley and Otto Graham.
"I grew up around the Browns," said Bert, "and when I was in high school, I was ball boy for four years at their camp there at Hiram College. Apart from shagging kicks for Lou Groza, lugging ice, cleaning shoes and washing uniforms, I got to warm up Frank Ryan and Jim Ninowski before games. They taught me the finer points of passing a football."
Although Bert suffered from a bone abnormality for two years, and wore braces until he was four years old, he has always had a strong arm. "Best dang rock thrower in Lincoln County," says his daddy, "and if you can flang a rock real good, you can flang anything." On Dec. 15, 1974, Baby Bert flang good enough to join Dub in the record book as he completed 17 consecutive passes against the New York Jets.
During Bert's days at Ruston High, his archrival for all-state quarterback honors was Joe Ferguson, then of Shreveport's Woodlawn High School and now of the Buffalo Bills. "Fergy beat me out for all-state first string," said Bert, "but we're still good friends. He knows I'm a Tootsie Roll freak, and when we went up there to play Buffalo last year, he come out to meet me on the field, all deadpan like, and stuck out his hand for a shake. It was full of Tootsie Rolls." He wagged his head in the waning darkness of the truck cab. "Darn sorry Fergy got hurt like that last week."
Bert himself was hurt badly enough in the second of last season's Colts-Bills games to keep most quarterbacks out of action. As he scrambled, a Bills helmet speared him in the side, leading to three ribs cracked in 11 different places, but he didn't miss a game.
"That taught me to be a leetle care-fuller about running with the ball," he said, laughing. "I like to run, but it's really not worth the risk most times. Do it when you have to, really have to, but otherwise...I couldn't take a deep breath until March without the lesson coming back again."
In the playoffs against Pittsburgh, Jones was racked up once more, this time by a hit on the triceps muscle of his throwing arm. "It was real scary," he recalled. "My arm went black, kind of slow like, from the shoulder to the fingertips. Black blood from contusions. There was just one white spot left, in the palm of my hand. My elbow was all stiff from the dead blood in there, and it wasn't till the fourth quarter that I could throw again." With Jones injured, the Steelers ended the Colt season with a 28-10 victory.
Courage in the face of pain is a basic requirement of a professional athlete, but courage in the face of owners and general managers is not part of the contract. Thus, Jones' actions early this season, just before the opening game, were particularly laudable. When Colts Owner Robert Irsay, panicky after a poor Baltimore preseason (2-4), forced Coach Ted Marchibroda to resign, and General Manager Joe Thomas backed up Irsay, Jones took a bold stand. He threatened to leave the team at the end of the season if Marchibroda wasn't reinstated, and read a lesson in maturity to his elders. Irsay, calmed by Jones' cold threat, relented. The family squabble that could have destroyed the Colts' spirit ended, and Marchibroda returned. "I like to look at the bright side of things," said Bert, "and I think that what happened was an underlying blessing because it re-established team unity. You know, it takes three mules pulling in the same direction to have a winning football team."
Marchibroda was instrumental in shaping Jones into a standout. A former quarterback at St. Bonaventure and with the Steelers, and later offensive coordinator for Los Angeles and Washington, Marchibroda took over the Colts in 1975 after the team had suffered through three disastrous seasons under four coaches and a 1974 record of 2-12, the worst in Colt history. Jones, who had been Baltimore's first draft pick in 1973 after an All-America career at LSU, had plenty of physical talent but had not yet mastered the fine art of reading defenses. Marchibroda left his family at home in Virginia, and spent his nights tinkering with Bert's brain. "He's the carpenter," Jones said. "You can't throw a load of lumber on a lot and expect a house to go up by itself. It has to be built, and Ted did our building."
In addition to learning how to scan defenses and come up with the right ploys to subvert them, Jones also got a solid offensive line to protect him. "There they are," Jones said suddenly, honking his horn and blinking the Ford's taillights as he passed a Mercedes sedan. "That's most of my offensive line in that car. George Kunz, Robert Pratt and Elmer Collett. Our left tackle, David Taylor, was supposed to be along but he got the flu last night. They're going hunting with us." He tapped the horn again and stood on the throttle. "It's a great line—'unsung,' as they say. Robert's my roommate and the left guard. We run most of our ground game over the right side, behind George and Elmer, just like we did last night against the Oilers. They move people out of there in a hurry."
From the top of the bridge that spans Chesapeake Bay between Annapolis and the Eastern Shore, the dawn of a cloudless day spread layers of rusty light on the waterfowl flats of Maryland. Jones pointed out a string of Canada geese moving in a wavy sprawl across the tableland. A million geese—the majority of the birds on the Atlantic Flyway—winter along the Delmarva Peninsula, and on a good day it is possible to see half of them in the air at dawn and dusk. This day, though, didn't look too good for goose hunting, a sport that thrives on dark, wet, overcast weather. What's more, a three-quarter moon had shone most of the night.
"Yep," said Bert, "they could of been feeding all through the night, but this place I'm taking you to, the rule don't apply. It's a bluebird kind of day, but there'll be birds there, birds aplenty. I'll show you a hundred thousand Canadian geese this morning."
Wheeling through the back country, one had the feeling that the clock had rolled back a full century. Stately, if somewhat shabby, pillared mansions stood in the midst of sere fields. White oaks, thick around as water towers, reared their red heads in the dawn light, and frost lay thick on the mowed fields. Everywhere geese were on the move, their yelping, beaglelike voices echoing down through the icy morning air. It would have come as no surprise to see J.E.B. Stuart leading a troop of cavalry in butternut uniforms, sabers glinting in the dawn, up one of the metaled roads.
Jones turned the truck down an oak-lined lane and braked to a stop in front of a white clapboard farmhouse. Two men in camouflage hunting clothes waited, grinning at the arriving hero. "That's Ed and Howard," said Jones. "They're the best goozin' guides in this neck of the peninsula. The Colts have been coming here for years, and they take good care of us."
"Well, you done 'er," said Ed as Jones dismounted. "Put a real slick on them Oilers." Geese barked overhead, and dogs—mainly Labrador retrievers—answered them from the kennels behind the house as the guides debriefed Bert on the Houston game.
"Let's get a move on," said Howard as the Mercedes pulled up, chockablock with bulging linemen. Collett and Pratt went off with Howard, while Kunz and Jones teamed up with the bespectacled, affable Ed. Jumbo, a bright-eyed black Lab pulsating with eagerness, joined the crew in Ed's pickup.
The blind was tight, a narrow slot camouflaged with cornstalks and pine limbs in the midst of a stubble field. Kunz and Jones placed the decoys as geese whirled overhead, seemingly only waiting for the dekes to be set before flying to the guns. Back in the blind, Bert loaded his "pride and joy," a field-scarred Winchester Model 12 pump gun in 12 gauge. No sooner had he slipped the last of three high-brass shells full of No. 2 shot into the magazine than a horrendous racket rose from the west.
"Look at that," said Jones, peering out of the blind. From the river not a half mile away rose an air force of geese, blotting out the sky for fully the width of the horizon. "I told you I'd show you some birds."
"Get ready," warned Ed from his post at the head of the blind. "We don't want to shoot at any groups of six or more, but we'll get some pairs and threes and fours passing over. We'll let the Jones boy shoot first, then you other guys can wipe his eye." He cackled mock-nastily with the rough jocosity of the hunting blind, and crouched back into cover.
A lone goose swept up the line of small pines that masked the blind. Jones rose and slammed the shotgun butt to his shoulder, firing in the same instant. The bird folded, dead in midair, and thumped to the ground in a spume of breast and neck down.
Now it was George Kunz's turn. At 6'6" and 266 pounds, Kunz filled nearly half of the blind with his bulk. A pair of birds veered away from the main flight and whistled over the decoy set, looking it over in preparation for a landing.
"I'll take the lead bird," said Kunz. He stood up—a blond mountain armed with a toothpick of a shotgun—and fired, while another gunner took the trailing bird. Both fell.
"You dropped him like a bad habit," said Bert. "But I think the rest of 'em saw you and spooked off. Why don't you get littler, George?"
"You better watch it, Jonesy," said Kunz, "or I'll let one of them mean old defensive tackles in on you next Sunday."
Within the hour the party had killed its limit of three geese apiece, with Bert dropping a nifty double on the last pass. Clearly his eye was as good with a shotgun as it is with a football. What was it his favorite receiver, Roger Carr, had said? "Hey, this guy can unload one 70 yards anytime he likes and hit a dime." It was no exaggeration.
Walking back to the farmhouse, and a breakfast of sausage, biscuits, citron preserves and hot, welcome coffee (except for Bert, who drinks iced tea summer and winter), Kunz let Jones get ahead and then said, "Just look at him go. He was so sick last night that I thought he'd fall down if an Oiler so much as breathed on him. But he played another great game. He's heady, he's tough, he's wild. It kind of rubs off on the rest of us."
Kunz smiled and shook his head. "And you know what? I've been around this league for eight years, six with Atlanta and then here, and I've never met a nicer guy at any position. That's why we take care of him."
Up ahead, romping through the frosty stubble with a goose over each shoulder and Jumbo the Lab leaping at his heels, Bert Jones gave forth a wild, yodeling rebel yell. It was a paean to life—the calculus of victory.