Johnny (Lam) Jones, a former Olympic gold medal sprinter and a swift-footed football star at the University of Texas but a noted bust as a football professional with the Jets, died on Friday. He was 60.
His death was announced by the university, which said it came “after a lengthy battle with cancer.” Texas news organizations said he died in a hospital in Round Rock, Tex., north of Austin.
Jones learned that he had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, in 2005. Because he did not have health insurance, former Texas teammates raised money for his medical costs.
Jones was phenomenon at his central Texas high school, in the city of Lampasas, running world-class times of 9.21 seconds for 100 yards and 10.14 for 100 meters.
After graduating, he competed that summer in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, finishing sixth in the 100 meters and winning a gold medal running the second leg of the United States 4×100-meter relay team.
He then enrolled at Texas, where his speed landed him on both the track and football teams. He would go on to become a record-setting All-American sprinter for the university.
In his freshman year he ran in the same backfield as another Johnny Jones. To distinguish the two, Coach Darrell Royal gave one the nickname Lam, for Jones’s hometown, and the other the nickname Ham, because that Jones came from Hamlin, Tex.
Lam Jones, at 5 feet 11 and 190 pounds, was a wide receiver in his last three years as a Longhorn, 1977-79, and an All-American in his senior year. He scored eight touchdowns of 45 yards or more at Texas and was chosen the team’s most valuable player in 1978.
In the 1980 National Football League draft, the Jets traded two first-round picks to be able to move up and make Jones their first pick (and the draft’s second choice overall). He signed for $2.1 million over six years (the equivalent of $6.8 million today); it was pro football’s first million-dollar contract.
But his pro career was an injury-ridden disappointment. In his first season in New York, he caught 25 passes but dropped 18. In his second season, his main job was to run in plays from the Jets’ offensive coordinator, Joe Walton, to the quarterback, Richard Todd. The New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson called him “the Jets’ millionaire messenger.”
There were a few highlights for Jones that season, however, including catching a 47-yard touchdown pass from Todd in a playoff-clinching 28-3 victory over the Green Bay Packers at Shea Stadium in New York. (The Jets, in the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, went on to lose to the Buffalo Bills in a wild-card game the next week.)
In five seasons (1980-84) with the Jets, Jones suffered a broken collarbone, a pulled hamstring and a torn finger tendon. He spent 1985 and 1986 on the Jets’ injured reserve list. The next year, the Jets traded him to the San Francisco 49ers.
“I know how they remember me in New York: I’m the guy they blew the draft pick on,” Jones told The Daily News in 2005. “That’s O.K. I didn’t live up to their expectations, but I didn’t live up to my own expectations, either.”
He did worse in San Francisco: The 49ers promptly waived him in training camp. He then joined the Dallas Cowboys, who dropped him after he missed a morning meeting because, the team said, he had been drinking and had overslept.
Indeed, he told The News that he had struggled with alcohol and cocaine addictions both during his playing days and afterward.
As a pro, Jones caught 138 passes for 2,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. His best season was in 1983, with 43 catches, 734 yards and four touchdowns.
“Games and challenges never scared Johnny,” Bill Little, an assistant athletic director at Texas, recalled on a Texas football website in 2004. “People did. Folks thought he was just extremely shy and sometimes rude. Years later, they would diagnose the condition he had as social anxiety disorder.”
In 1988, his playing days over and living again in Texas, Jones served a month in jail after pleading guilty to indecency with a child, a 12-year-old girl. The episode was a turning point, he later said, compelling him to seek treatment for his addictions.
“I needed to get my personal life in order,” he was quoted as saying. “I came back to live in the real world.”
He sold cars and running tracks, made motivational speeches to high school athletes and was active with the Texas Special Olympics.
In 1979, Jones donated his Olympic gold medal to the Special Olympics. Years later, he explained why: “I’d never seen anyone stop in a race and help someone who had fallen get up.”
John Wesley Jones II was born on April 4, 1958, in Lawton, Okla., to John W. Jones and Mary Jones Dillon. His father was an Army sergeant who was later transferred to Texas.
Lam Jones was married and divorced three times. There was no immediate information available about survivors.
Jones was philosophical about the up-and-down course his life had taken. He was quoted by Bill Little on the Texas website: “I got to run in the Olympics, got a great education and played for the University of Texas and played for the New York Jets.”
“I learned a lot,” he added, “and I had some tough lessons.”