Before his career at the University of Texas began, and before he had become the NFL's first $2 million man, Johnny "Lam" Jones was a track star whose speed had won him a gold medal in Montreal and made him a prep legend in Texas.
Legendary Longhorns coach Darrell Royal gave him the nickname "Lam" because he was from Lampasas, Texas, and because the team had another Johnny Jones on the roster (nicknamed "Ham" because he hailed from Hamlin, Texas).
Lam and Ham were stationed in the backfield in Royal's final season; later Lam Jones was moved to the wide receiver spot where he set a number of Longhorns records and earned All-Southwest Conference recognition.
His speed was legendary — 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash — and was enough to entice the New York Jets to send the 49ers two first-round picks in the 1980 NFL draft in exchange for the No. 2 overall selection. After Detroit nabbed Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims, the Jets grabbed 5-11, 180-pound Lam Jones.
"They had Wesley Walker at the time and I guess they just envisioned frightening defenses with two guys with Olympic speed," said Rich Cimini, who has covered the Jets for more than two decades, first with Newsday and now for the New York Daily News. "I know they felt teams were starting to shade toward Wesley and they wanted to put another guy on the field to help him."
Five years ago, Cimini profiled Lam Jones for the 25th anniversary of the selection. It's not a happy memory for Jets fans, but then again, when it comes to past draft selections, the team's animated (and dedicated) followers tend to dwell on the negative picks more than the ones that produced. Of all of the Jets' past busts, Lam Jones ranks near the top of the list with guys like Blair Thomas and Johnny Mitchell.
"When you say the word 'Lam' — you don't even have to say 'Jones' — it's like a kick to the solar plexus," Cimini explained. "It just brings up bad memories. Even the average Jets fan now, who may not have even seen Lam Jones play, knows that it was a horrendous pick."
Only one other wide receiver was among the 28 picked in Round One: Syracuse's Art Monk, who went to Washington at pick No. 18. And, the fact that 11-time Pro Bowl OT Anthony Munoz was taken one spot after Jones is even more reason for Jets fans to continue to grumble about the selection today.
But, as Cimini points out, it was unlikely the team really considered the USC tackle much, if at all.
"The urban myth is that the Jets flunked Munoz on his physical. It's been a myth that the Jets had several flunks back then — Dan Marino, Ronnie Lott — and Munoz was always on that list. Plus, they had recently drafted Marvin Powell and Chris Ward, so they probably thought they had their bookends in place." Both tackles were selected with the fourth overall pick in the draft (Powell in 1977, Ward a year later).
On the field Jones performed well in his rookie campaign; he caught 25 passes for an average of 19.3 yards per reception and scored touchdowns in three of the season's final five games. But over the next two seasons, injuries limited Jones to just 23 games and he caught just 38 passes. In 1983, at the age of 25, Jones' NFL career peaked with a 43-catch, 734-yard season. In a game against Pittsburgh in Week 15 of that season Jones recorded the best performance of his brief career (seven catches for 146 yards and a touchdown). After 1984 he tried to hang on to his career but injuries and substance abuse kept pulling him back down.
His speed was always special, but Lam Jones' hands dropped more passes than New York fans care to remember. According to Cimini, not long after Jones entered camp his rookie year the team discovered he had poor hand-eye coordination and had his vision checked out. "Lam Jones, for a myriad of reasons, just didn't pan out," Cimini said.
Jones will always be viewed as one of the NFL's great draft busts, although thanks to players like Charles Rogers, Tony Mandarich and Ryan Leaf he is by no means the biggest bust ever to land at the No. 2 spot.
In life, though, Lam Jones' story has been far more tragic.
Said Cimini, "He's had a pretty hard life. He was homeless, penniless, he went through legal issues and was just starting to get his life back in order when he was stricken with cancer."
Before he had reached the age of 50, Jones was diagnosed with stage-four multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma in his bone marrow. University of Texas fans showed tremendous support, and Royal and Ham Jones both paid him a visit in the Austin hospital where he was staying.
"They say there's no cure, but they're constantly doing research and making improvements," Jones told a reporter in a 2008 interview. "From what I hear, from statistics, 50 percent of people live a little bit longer than three years; 50 percent less. But you have your exceptions to the rule. Hopefully, we throw statistics out the window."