Johnny “Lam” Jones, a former Olympic gold medal sprinter whose electrifying speed and receiving ability prompted the Jets to make a blockbuster move to take him second overall in the 1980 draft, died Friday after a long battle with myeloma cancer. He was 60.
Jones wound up as an NFL disappointment in an injury-plagued five-year career in which he caught just 138 passes and scored 13 touchdowns. The Jets had pinned their hopes on the former Texas star receiver, sending their 13th and 20th overall picks to the 49ers in exchange for the second choice. But Jones, part of the United States’ 4x100-meter relay team that won the gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, never lived up to his expectations and became a symbol for much of the Jets’ draft-related frustrations.
The Jets had been targeting USC offensive tackle Anthony Munoz with the second pick but were concerned about a knee injury and took Jones instead. While Jones went on to have a poor NFL career, Munoz developed into a Hall of Fame tackle for the Bengals.
“WILL MISS MY BROTHER JOHNNY “LAM” JONES!!” former Jets star receiver Wesley Walker, one of Jones’ teammates, wrote on his Facebook page Friday. “JOHNNY WAS THE BEST IVE EVER SEEN!! RIP,” Walker added.
Jones was one of the most celebrated Texas athletes ever, as his football and track exploits earned him a scholarship at the University of Texas in 1976. Before enrolling at the school, he became the youngest athlete from Texas to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic track and field team. Running the second leg of the relay, Jones helped the Americans to a world record time of 38.33 seconds.
Jones was a star at Texas, first playing running back and then switching to receiver in coach Fred Akers’ run-oriented offense. Akers nicknamed Jones “Lam” because he was from Lampasas, Texas, to avoid confusion with another Johnny Jones, a former running back from Hamlin, Texas whom Akers called “Ham” Jones.
"Lam" Jones led the Longhorns in receiving in his junior and senior seasons before entering the 1980 NFL Draft. Jones never played a full season and was slowed by collarbone and finger injuries. He was traded to the 49ers in 1987 but didn’t make the team and joined the Cowboys’ replacement team that year but didn’t appear any of the three games during an NFL players’ strike.
In addition to Jones’ struggles on the field, he had problems off it, too. He dealt with drug and alcohol addiction and served a month in jail in 1988 after pleading guilty to indecency with a child, a 12-year-old girl. Jones said in a 2005 interview with the Daily News that was the turning point of his life and prompted him to seek treatment for his substance abuse problems. Jones went on to become a motivational speaker for high school athletes to try and steer them away from the problems he experienced.
Jones, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, said in an interview posted Friday on the University of Texas sports website that he had no regrets about his life.
“I wouldn’t change anything, not for a minute, not for a second,” he said. “A person couldn’t ask for a better roller coaster ride than what I’ve been on.”