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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hall of Fame football great David "Deacon" Jones, considered one of the best defensive players the game has seen and an innovator at his position, has died at the age of 74, his former team the Washington Redskins said.
Jones, who played for the Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers and Redskins during a stellar 13-year National Football League career, died of natural causes at his home in Southern California on Monday, the team said in a statement on its website.
"Deacon Jones was one of the greatest players in NFL history. Off the field, he was a true giant. His passion and spirit will continue to inspire those who knew him," Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen said in the statement.
"He was a cherished member of the Allen family and I will always consider him my big brother," Allen said of Jones, who was nicknamed the "Secretary of Defense" for his prowess as a defensive end.
"He was an icon among the icons," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "Even with his fellow Hall of Famers, Deacon Jones held a special status.
"He is warmly regarded by his peers not only as one of the greatest players in NFL history but also for his tremendous influence and sense of humor."
Jones, who was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility in 1980, was credited with inventing the term "sack" to describe tackling the quarterback for a loss.
It was a maneuver he did better than any other player of his time, making him an intimidating force on the football field.
"Deacon Jones was one of the rare players who changed the way the game was played," current St. Louis Rams executive vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff said. "In this day and age, the term 'great' is often overused, but it only begins to describe Deacon Jones as a player and person."
Former team mate and fellow Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood said: "Deacon Jones has been the most inspirational person in my football career."
His innovative play drew praise from current and past players.
"You paved the way for guys like myself, played the game like it should have been played and told it like it was," said three times Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman, who played with the Chargers and Buffalo Bills.
Philadelphia Eagles running back Felix Jones said the NFL had lost a true legend.
"He truly changed the culture and way the games played," Jones said on Twitter.
Fellow Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood said "Deacon Jones has been the most inspirational person in my football career,"
Jones, who was born in Florida in 1938, played football at South Carolina State University and Mississippi Valley State University before he was drafted by the Rams in the 14th round in 1961.
He joined Larry Lundy, Rosey Grier and Merlin Olsen to form what became known as the Fearsome Foursome, still remembered as one of the top defensive lines in the history of the game, and played under head coach George Allen.
Jones was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1972, becoming a defensive leader of that team before reuniting with Allen on the Redskins for a final year in 1974.
He was a first-team All-Pro selection for five seasons running, from 1965 through 1969, earned Pro Bowl honors eight times, and was named the game's defensive player of the year in 1967 and 1968.
Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by Pravin Char