Stripped to its basics, football is basically a kids’ game. Even at the NFL level. Even for a player who will end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
So leave it to Walter Jones’ kids to help him realize just how well he played the game for the Seahawks.
Jones’ moment of revelation came last Dec. 5, during a ceremony at CenturyLink Field when his already retired number 71 was added to the rafters next to those of Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent (80) and the team’s fans (12). Standing next to Jones were his children – paternal twins Walterius and Waleria.
“My kids had watched me play ball,” Jones said last week. “But once they saw the 12th Man’s reaction that day, my daughter really realized what was happening. She was like, ‘Gosh, dad, you were really good and the fans really like you.’
“Once my number was uncovered up there, my son said, ‘They put your number up there with Steve Largent?’ I think it was kind of special for him.
“So for them to say those things, it was really special for me.”
When it came time to select the franchise’s 35th Anniversary team, the readers of Seahawks.com needed no prompts for either Walterius or Waleria to put their father at his rightful place: Left tackle, where Jones was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and six-time All-Pro pick during his 13-year career (1997-2009).
“It’s good,” Jones said when asked about his obvious selection to the team. “Any time you can get on something like that once you’re done playing ball it’s still good. The fans still recognize the stuff that you did when you were playing ball.”
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The Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team, as selected by the readers of Seahawks.com:
Recognize? Jones stuck out like Mount Rainier on a sunny day. He garnered 4,065 votes – 3,083 more than the other tackle on the team, Howard Ballard (982); and 602 more than the other 10 tackles on the ballot combined. Only Largent (5,004) and defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy (4,172) generated more votes than Jones.
It’s a fitting tribute to a player who stepped in and played at the highest level from his first game as a rookie in 1997, the year the Seahawks traded up to the sixth spot in the NFL Draft to select the athletic tackle from Florida State.
“When I first came to Seattle, I was like, ‘Man, I’m going all the way out here,’ ” Jones said. “But I took advantage of it and I wanted to come out here and show the fans I was worthy of the pick that the Seahawks made.”
Done, and done. And then some. In any discussion of the greatest player in franchise history, Jones is the only one who can give Largent even a run – and Kennedy is likely the next Seahawk to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It’s usually difficult to compile statistics to support such claims for any offensive lineman. But then Jones wasn’t just any offensive lineman. In 2006, The Sporting News ranked Jones as the No. 1 player in the NFL – not the top tackle, or even lineman; but the best player.
In addition to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro berths – both franchise records – Jones also was selected to the NFL team of the decade for the 2000s. His 180 career starts rank second in club history behind only Largent (197).
But wait, there’s more. In his 12 seasons (he spent 2009 on injured reserve) and 180 starts, Jones was penalized for holding nine times. And in 5,703 pass plays, Jones allowed 23 sacks – or one every 248 attempts.
“Walter is the best lineman I ever coached,” said Howard Mudd, Jones’ line coach in his rookie season and an admirer from afar for the rest of his career. “And that’s saying something.”
Yes it is, because Mudd was a Pro Bowl guard for the San Francisco 49ers during his playing career, and in 35 seasons as an assistant in the NFL has coached and seen a lot of talented left tackles. His best-ever list also includes Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, Jim Parker and Russ Washington.
Another saw-a-lot-but-no-one-better coach who crossed paths with Jones was Tom Lovat, the Seahawks’ line coach from 1999-2003. He also coached Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf, Luis Sharpe and Chris Hinton during his 24-year NFL career, but Jones was the only one who ever graded out perfect in a game.
“This kid is in that class, and better,” Lovat said of Jones.
Lovat and Mudd will get no argument from Jones’ former teammates. The best thing about playing on the same team with him? “The fact that we get to say we played with a Hall of Famer,” said Lofa Tatupu, the middle linebacker on the 35th Anniversary team and Jones’ teammate from 2005-09.
Jones is not in the Hall of Fame, yet. But his first-ballot selection in 2015 is considered a formality. Jones will also be added to the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor – alongside Largent, Kennedy and three other members of the 35th Anniversary team, Dave Brown, Jacob Green and Kenny Easley; as well as Jim Zorn, Pete Gross, Curt Warner, Dave Krieg and Chuck Knox.
“We definitely believe Walter is the best to ever play his position,” Tatupu said, casting a quick glance at the corner of the locker room where Jones’ cubicle used to be. “We’re a little biased, of course. But just some of the things he could do on the field with so little effort.
“Or maybe there was effort applied and we just didn’t see it. But he didn’t look like he was trying all that hard, and that’s the true mark of athleticism – to be able to do the task, no matter how difficult, and make it look as easy as possible. And that’s what Walt did.”
Tatupu then laughed as he added, “There wasn’t anything out there he couldn’t do. I’m not sure there wasn’t a position out there he couldn’t have played. Maybe cornerback was probably the one he couldn’t play. But then again, try to get away from his press coverage.”
Robbie Tobeck is the center on the 35th Anniversary team, and anchored the line that was so pivotal – not to mention powerful – in the Seahawks’ run of five consecutive playoff berths and four NFC West titles in a row during the mid-2000s. You won’t find him laughing at Tatupu’s assessment that Jones could have given new meaning to the term “shutdown corner.”
“I tell people, the two greatest athletes I ever played with were Deion Sanders and Walter Jones,” said Tobeck, who played with Sanders when both were with the Atlanta Falcons.
Let that sink in for a moment. Sanders was a flash-and-dash cornerback/kick returner who also played baseball for the Atlanta Braves as well as football for the Falcons – once in the same day. An eight-time Pro Bowl selection, Sanders also played for the 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens.
“You don’t think of Walter being such a phenomenal athlete,” Tobeck said. “But when you look at the body size and makeup – and what he could do in the weight room, and what he could do on the field – it’s obvious.
“With Walter, you would say he’s one of the top athletes who probably ever played in the NFL.”
Jones is now transitioning to life away from the NFL. He splits his time between the Seattle area, where his kids are still in school; and Alabama, which he still considers home.
“I’m just relaxing now and just enjoying the kids,” he said. “I’m just trying to get away from the game. A lot of people are saying, ‘Are you going to coach?’ Or, ‘Are you going to do this or that?’ I don’t want to get into something and six months later be like, ‘I don’t think I want to do this.’
“So I just want to make sure what I really want to do, and then put forth the effort that I put forth on the football field.”
Which was good enough to make Walter Jones not only one of the best players in Seahawks history, but the history of the NFL. Just ask his kids.