Bert Jones, one of the two or three best quarterbacks in the National Football League during the mid-1970s, announced his retirement yesterday after doctors warned him that a blow to his neck could leave him permanently paralyzed.
"I think only the players really realize it," the Los Angeles Rams quarterback, who is 32, said, choking back tears at a press conference at Anaheim Stadium, "that when you play, you're always just one hit away from the end of your career."
Jones, who was traded by the Baltimore Colts to the Rams in 1982, led the Colts to three straight playoff appearances (1975-77) before suffering the first of a series of shoulder and arm injuries that hampered the rest of his career.
The latest injury occurred last November against Atlanta, when he ruptured a disk in his neck. He started the next week against Kansas City, but had to leave the game and never played again. In January, he had surgery to remove the disk and to fuse two vertebrae in his neck.
He said doctors told him just before the recent NFL draft that he could play no more.
"They didn't tell me I shouldn't play," Jones said at the press conference. "They told me I couldn't play." He said he was told that one blow in the wrong place could leave him permanently paralyzed.
"I love the game and my heart wanted me to stay in it," said Jones, who played nine years with Baltimore before being acquired by Los Angeles last spring. "But for the first time in 10 years, I'm worried about keeping my body the way it is now."
His retirement leaves the Rams with two veteran quarterbacks, Vince Ferragamo and Jeff Kemp. Kemp, who played his high school football at Potomac's Churchill, is the son of Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).
When he was healthy, Jones ranked as one of the league's most exciting players. "He was the best I've ever been around," said Ted Marchibroda, who was Jones' coach with Baltimore during the playoff years.
"Sonny Jurgensen might have been a better passer, but for all-around ability, such as being able to run and having leadership, Bert was No. 1."
Jones, a star at Louisiana State, was the Colts' No. 1 choice in 1973. He led the league in passing in 1977, when he threw for 2,686 yards and 17 touchdowns.
His best season, statistically, was 1976, when he threw for 3,104 yards and 24 touchdowns and was intercepted only nine times. During one stretch, the Colts were 30-7 with Jones at quarterback.
"Bert's best trait probably was his ability never to give up and to bring us from behind," Marchibroda said. "You figured that you were never out of it as long as he was in the game.
"Our first year in Baltimore, we were down, 28-7, to Buffalo and wound up winning, 42-35, thanks to him. That got our program under way."
Ironically, his final two seasons with the Colts were two of his most prolific. He passed for 3,134 yards in 1980 and 3,094 in 1981. By then, he wanted to leave the team, resulting in the trade with Los Angeles. The Colts received first- and second-round picks in exchange for Jones.
Jones is No. 8 all time among league quarterbacks in completion ratio, and was second behind Ken Anderson of the Cincinnati Bengals among active quarterbacks.