Thursday, the greatest player in Seattle Seahawks history -- and the last tie to the amazing tackle classes of the late 1990s -- retired from the game. Walter Jones, the nine-time Pro Bowler and four-time First-Team All-Pro announced that he can no longer play the game he's graced since 1997. Various injuries prevented Jones from playing at all in the 2009 season, and with the selection of Oklahoma State tackle Russell Okung with the sixth overall pick, there was also the quick draft weekend announcement from Seattle GM John Schneider that a statement would be made in the following days about Jones' future. Now, we know what we previously suspected.
Having watched Jones since his early days, when he came to the NFL about the same time as Orlando Pace and Jonathan Ogden, I'll remember him as the player who forged my interest in offensive line play. I will especially remember his week-to-week play in the Seahawks' 2005 season, when he nearly guided his formerly moribund team to a Lombardi Trophy with a series of superhuman performances. If you can find a video clip of Jones taking Carolina Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker and riding him back about 15 yards on a Shaun Alexander run in the NFC Championship game at the same speed Alexander was running ... well, it was the damnedest play I'd ever seen. (Update: In this official tribute video released by the Seahawks, the Rucker block is three minutes in). In my opinion, Alexander was a miscast MVP that season -- Jones was by far the best player in the NFL in 2005, and the award should have been his. As perhaps the one 9,000-plus-yard rusher more dependent on great line play than any other, Alexander would certainly agree.
But the unheralded nature of his position suited Walter Jones -- he's always been a gentle giant who laughed at pain (a kidney condition prevents him from taking any painkiller stronger than Tylenol) and shrugged off the conga line of defenders who wanted to make their bones by taking the big man down. I'll never forget what he did to Falcons end Patrick Kerney in the second game of the 2005 season. Kerney was a Pro Bowler coming off a 13-sack season, one of the most dynamic pass rushers in the game. By the second quarter of his "battle" against Big Walt, Kerney was a spent, wheezing mess. He was one of many elite defenders to receive a lesson in advanced protection concepts from this graceful and humble technician.
Perhaps former Seahawks and current Colts line coach Howard Mudd, who pushed for Jones to be drafted by Seattle with the sixth overall pick in 1997, said it best when he reflected on Jones' legacy:
"He had this phenomenal athleticism. Walt is the kind of guy who does things so easily, it almost looks like he's playing at 75 or 80 percent. Like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, he never really struggles to get his job done, even when he's playing against the top NFL players. I don't think he ever lined up in a game where he thought he was closely matched, athletically, to the guy across from him."
Once the announcement is made, and he says a few perfunctory words, Jones will probably go back to his hometown of Aliceville, Alabama, where he used to push Escalades as a form of off-season conditioning and start the countdown to Canton. But the city of Seattle will always remember him.
It was once said of Jim Brown that there are many superstars but only one Superman. It was my good fortune to watch Walter Jones ply his trade for over a decade -- and to understand, for a time, what Superman actually looked like.