Typically these were preseason games, but I didn't care. I just loved going.
Every time I was invited, I would break out my favorite T-shirt, the one adorned with a cartoon version of Jack Youngblood with the words "Jack the Ripper" on it. My neighbor always would scoff at the shirt. But it wasn't because it seemed like an inappropriate shirt for an 8-year-old to be wearing to a football game.
"The best defensive player of all-time," he would tell me, "was David 'Deacon' Jones."
And while I never witnessed Deacon play a game in person or on television, there is no doubt he was the most iconic player in Los Angeles Rams history.
My neighbor always would talk about Deacon at great length on the 23-minute drive from Corona, Calif., to Anaheim Stadium. He'd even point to Anaheim Hills on the drive down the freeway and say, "The best player who ever lived has a house right up there."
Anaheim Stadium wasn't really steeped in Rams tradition. There weren't retired numbers ringing the upper deck or anything. So instead, I learned by hearing those great stories about how dominant Deacon was.
When I signed on as an intern at NFL Properties while an undergrad at Cal State Fullerton, I started to immerse myself in everything Deacon. I read books and watched the grainy NFL Films footage of him. It's cliché to say Deacon was a man among boys, but it truly fit.
Deacon towered over players with his 6-foot-5 frame, giving him the size to bully opponents, but it was his hands that truly set him apart. Deacon perfected the "head slap," a jarring jolt delivered to the side of an offensive lineman's head. He delivered it with the grace of an artist's stroke, but it packed the devastation of a bomb.
The NFL eventually banned the maneuver. That was a point of pride for Deacon.
I remember my neighbor telling me a story about how an opposing offensive lineman once sharpened his helmet buckles to slow down Deacon. "Did it?" I naively asked.
"Nothing stopped David 'Deacon' Jones," my neighbor said.
And nothing seemed to stop Deacon at all. He coined the term "sack." He said it was akin to sticking an opponent in a burlap sack and beating him into submission. Sacks didn't become an official NFL statistic until 1982, but it seemed as Deacon would have retired as the all-time leader with 173 1/2.
I remember the first time I ran into Deacon. Even at 60-something, he still cut an imposing figure. He looked fierce performing a magic trick at a charity function. I can't imagine being a quarterback and looking across the line of scrimmage from him.
I nervously made my way over, and Deacon stuck out his giant hand. It enveloped mine the way a normal hand fits around a ping-pong ball. Those hands told the story. Deacon confirmed the story about the lineman and the helmet buckles. He still had the scars to prove it. He even playfully gave me a light head slap. And I will contend to this day that it's what knocked the hair off my head.