The best player in Seahawks history boasts biceps the size of footballs and legs as large as pony kegs. He moves with the grace of a ballerina...
The best player in Seahawks history boasts biceps the size of footballs and legs as large as pony kegs. He moves with the grace of a ballerina. He dances like no one is watching.
He sings in the shower, cackles like a teenager and never once engaged in fisticuffs. He laughs after breaking his finger, throws 300-pound men around like Frisbees and sometimes apologizes to defenders after knocking them on their backs.
He hails from Alabama, the largest and second youngest of eight children. And yes, Walter Jones is a bear of man. Part teddy. Part grizzly.
He’s also the cornerstone behind the best stretch in team history, the four consecutive playoff appearances, the Super Bowl run on the massive back of a left tackle entering his second decade in a Seahawks uniform.
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“Truthfully, I rarely notice him,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck says, “which is probably the highest compliment I can give. The word excellence comes to mind.”
The sixth overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft arrived in Seattle with a big body and little fanfare. He did not know a single Seahawk. Teammates joke that two years passed before he spoke.
Walter Jones did not play in the Seahawks’ first exhibition game that season. And after the offense completed a long drive, center Kevin Mawae jogged by and shouted, “See what you’re missing, Walt?”
“And,” Jones says, “I’ve been playing ever since.”
Ten years. A decade worth of dominance that elevates Jones into conversations of elite. He ranks among the best left tackles to ever play, retired stars like Anthony Munoz and Jackie Slater and contemporaries like Orlando Pace and Jonathan Ogden.
Along the way, Jones built a résumé worthy of the Hall of Fame: seven Pro Bowls, four times All-Pro and one season, that magical 2005 Super Bowl run, when scouts ranked Jones the best player in football, period.
Since Jones laughs off the attention with his trademark cackle, teammates and coaches are left to decipher what, exactly, all that means.
Offensive line coach Bill Laveroni calls Jones the best lineman he has seen in 35 years of coaching. Former line coach Tom Lovat says Jones is “by far the best lineman to play in Seattle.” Running back Shaun Alexander takes it one step further, calling Jones, without hesitation, the best player in Seahawks history.
“What happens to people here is they forget about him,” offensive coordinator Gil Haskell says. “Because no one ever breaks through and hits the quarterback. So they think everybody’s left tackle is like this.”
“And they’re not.”
On those few occasions when Walter Jones allows a sack — “literally,” Hasselbeck says, “a couple of occasions” — teammates say the man is human.
Verifying that statement can be difficult. That’s because Jones, 33, boasts a rare skill-set for a human being his size. He’s the high end of Sir Isaac Newton’s physics — force equals mass times acceleration — in the flesh.
And speaking of mass, Jones weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces at birth. He grew into his current size, a full 6 feet 5, 325 pounds of solid bulk. The power extends past his arms and legs to his forearms, wrists, hands, ankles, feet. All evident in the NFC Championship Game two years ago, when Jones drove Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker — a 275-pound man — 15 yards downfield, then dropped him on his back.
“He’s one of those super freaks that comes along once in a while,” fellow tackle Sean Locklear says. “It’s his time, his era.”
The premier tackle cannot survive on mass alone. Jones uses acceleration just as much. He reportedly once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds, an unheard of time for a lineman.
The speed starts with the nimble feet of a dancer. At every team Christmas party, Jones and his wife are among the first two people on the dance floor. Teammates say he does a mean Macarena. Apparently, they are serious.
“He’s so light on his feet,” Laveroni says, “that he could run right behind you, at full speed, and you wouldn’t even hear him go past you.”
Jones definitely can be gentle, too. A defensive end once approached Hasselbeck at the Pro Bowl. He can’t remember who it was, but remembers him saying, “The most demoralizing thing about playing against Walt is you almost, you almost, have one positive play, and he’ll say, ‘Good job.’ Psychologically, it demoralizes you. He manhandles you, but he thought that was the best that you could do.”
Last season, Jones played through constant injury. He cackles again when asked for details: ankles, shoulders, toes, everything hurt — “Last year took a toll on me,” he says. Teammates say they can tell when Jones is hurting, because he’s laughing on the field, holding high a broken finger or icing a mangled ankle.
That pain threshold is all the more remarkable considering Jones can’t take anything stronger than Tylenol, no prescription pain medication or anti-inflammatories, because of a kidney condition doctors discovered during his rookie season. Jones’ kidneys filter slower than normal, so “I just have to take Tylenol and deal with it.”
Then there’s his technique. Over the years, Jones refined his ability to almost always pick the right angle, allowing him to slide wide and stop a spin move or stay put to thwart a bull rush. He studies tape of Pace and other tackles. And he uses leverage better than anyone Haskell has ever seen, the large man low to the ground, in perfect balance.
“I’ve tried to watch him since I got here and emulate what he does,” Locklear says. “You can’t. It’s not textbook. It’s just Walter.”
For all the skills and all the accolades, Jones remains relatively anonymous. When Hasselbeck came to the Seahawks in 2001, “I had never heard of him,” he says. “He was out here in the witness protection program.”
It didn’t take long for the quarterback to recognize the importance of his left tackle. During his first start, against Cleveland, Jones went down with an injury. Hasselbeck remembers everyone “flipping out, like the sky was falling.”
Jones soon became a fixture in the Pro Bowl. The Seahawks took over the NFC West, recently winning three straight division titles. And still, under the radar. Someone actually asked him this offseason if Alexander bought Jones’ Alabama mansion as a show of gratitude. Never mind the $52.5 million contract.
Anonymity is inherent in his job description. The better he plays, the less the casual fan notices. This increases the difficulty in comparing him to other franchise stars.
He didn’t win the MVP award like Alexander in 2005, even though he opened the holes that led to the NFL touchdown record. He never won a defensive Player of the Year award like Cortez Kennedy. He won’t score even one touchdown, while Steve Largent scored 100 en route to the Hall of Fame. He never smacked a receiver silly the way Kenny Easley seemed to every other play.
But Jones’ impact on a game, while less noticeable, might be more important. Take Alexander’s rushing totals. Or Hasselbeck’s contract extension, signed — not coincidentally, the quarterback says — a few days after Jones, for the same number of years.
Or the security of one man standing in the same position for 10 years, yielding so few sacks you could probably count them on two hands, allowing time for seven-step drops and shutting down the best opposing rusher every game.
“The left tackle is more important than the receiver,” Hasselbeck says. “Without the left tackle, there is no receiver.”
Jones celebrated his first decade in the NFL with the permanent ink of fresh tattoos. One says “Only God can judge me.” Others indicate the names of his twins (Walterius and Waleria), their date of birth (Nov. 29, 1999) and his zodiac sign (Capricorn). It’s worth noting that Capricorns are thought to be ambitious and disciplined, patient and careful, humorous and reserved.
That’s Jones. The same guy who waited until age 24 to pierce his ears, who wants to be the best Seahawk in team history but isn’t in any hurry, who’s funny once he gets around to talking.
“I accomplished a lot,” he says. “It’s time for me to celebrate.”
First, there is business to take care of. Jones injured his ankle in the opener last season. He was never the same.
“It took a toll,” he says. “It probably won’t be the last time I have to fight through injuries. I’m getting older. That’s the reality of it. I’m not going to be as good as I was when I was 27. I know that. The team knows that.”
Jones wants to at least play out the five years remaining on his contract and eventually move back to Alabama and wait for the inevitable Seahawks’ Ring of Honor and NFL Hall of Fame honors. Typically, he doesn’t want to give a speech if/when inducted. He has one remaining goal: to win the Super Bowl.
Sitting on a bench at the Seahawks’ headquarters in Kirkland, Jones looks out over the manicured practice fields and considers his place in the history of his team.
“I’m a simple man,” Jones says. “I play football.”
And with that, the least likely and least celebrated candidate for best player in Seahawks history leans back and unleashes an unusually high-pitched cackle. Maybe it’s the last laugh.
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org