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Boxing has always been No. 1 for "Too Tall" Jones

Ed “Too Tall” Jones remains a household name in the NFL.

Unfortunately, that same moniker followed him into the ring in 1979 when he chose to leave the Cowboys to pursue a boxing career.

His sharpest critics predicted — even prayed — that he would fall flat on his face. Too Tall ... Too Easy to hit. Timberrrrrrrrrrr!

“I got a lot of what I would now call ‘unfair bashing’ but I didn’t lose any sleep over it,” said the 6-foot-8 Jones, who turns 57 on Saturday.

“Too Tall” played 15 seasons for the Cowboys — five before boxing, 10 after his return to the team in 1980.

In ’79, he was 28 years old, full of resolve, fully in the prime of his NFL career. He was a No. 1 overall draft pick who actually played like one.

“Boxing has always been my No. 1 sport,” Jones said. “It was something I always wanted to do.”

To him, this wasn’t a whim, or an experiment, or a leave of absence as it turned out to be.

“My intentions were never to play football again,” Jones said. “I gave the Cowboys a year’s notice. This was not a contract ploy.”

In fact, Jones was no longer under contract after the ’78 Cowboys season that ended with a Super Bowl XIII loss to the Steelers.

“I assumed [the Cowboys] believed me,” Jones said. “They drafted Larry Bethea [defensive end, Michigan State, first round of ’78]. I really tried to make sure I did everything right.”

Jones fulfilled his original contract, which he signed out of Tennessee State in 1974. He even played out his ’78 option year.

“My mom told me: ‘Ed, I honor and respect you for doing what you really want to do. But burn no bridges,’ " Jones recalled. “I was ready to quit after my third year [1976].

“But I listened to my mom. I didn’t want to burn a bridge.”

Jones had Larry Holmes in his corner — literally — as the then-heavyweight champion of the world sat shoulder-to-shoulder next to him at an Italian restaurant in New York City where the announcement was made.

At one point, Holmes told reporters, “Whenever this man is ready to fight for the title, I will give him the opportunity.”

Jones began training six days a week at the legendary Times Square Gym. He hired Murphy Griffith, uncle of former welterweight champ Emile Griffith, to be his trainer.

“It was the hardest thing I ever did — the training part,” Jones said. “The fights themselves were easy.”

Jones made it clear to everyone that he was now an ex-football player with a boxing management team and a two-year fight plan.

Jones elected to be hands-on and adamant about the picking of his opponents.

“I’m not going to fight bus drivers,” he told his handlers. “I want to fight guys with winning records. And I want to fight contenders after two years.”

In ’79, Jones wasn’t ready — and he knew it — to go up against heavyweight contenders.

Muhammad Ali pondered coming out of retirement about that same time. On July 14, 1979, he fought an eight-round exhibition against Lyle Alzado of the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium.

(Note: No winner was declared but Alzado took a round, maybe two, from Ali, according to ringside accounts.)

There was talk about an Ali-Jones bout, but it never came close to happening.

Years later, at a Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns fight outside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Ali was told by his body guard to turn around ... Ed “Too Tall” Jones was in the crowd.

“Hey, Too Tall! Show me your jab,” squealed Ali, holding up his hands. “Show me your jab.”

Jones needed to be coaxed, then flicked a stiff jab — all 79 inches of it — in Ali’s direction.

Ali feigned being startled, or at least he seemed to feign it.

Then, both men laughed. What an introduction to “The Greatest.”

“I still have a lot of friends in boxing,” Jones said. “The sport was something I always knew I was good at.”

His first Golden Gloves fight came during his senior year in high school.

“I knocked a guy out in 36 seconds,” Jones said. “That still may be a record in the state of Tennessee.”

But his Jackson, Tenn., high school coach gave him an ultimatum: Give up boxing ... or give up team sports.

“What was I going to do?” Jones said. “People would run me and my parents out of Tennessee, if I gave up basketball and baseball.”

Until his senior year, Jones’ high school didn’t have a football program. It was his brother-in-law, James “Big Red” Matthews, who convinced Jones that he was born to play football.

“Big Red” — an ex-football player with bad knees — drove young Ed to Nashville for a Tennessee State football game, and even arranged a meeting with the coaching staff.

Jones can still see the look on the football coach’s face when they were introduced.

“He nearly swallowed his cigar,” Jones recalled.

That day, a three-time Pro Bowl career (1981-83) was born.

“[But] if my high school coach had let me continue with Golden Gloves ... who knows where that would’ve led me?”

Jones can’t help but wonder. For years, he played football and craved boxing. That changed in 1979.

“Only then was it was behind me,” said Jones. “I came back to the Cowboys totally refocused and 100 percent committed.”

Upon his return to Thousand Oaks, Calif., in the summer of ’80, Jones was totally unencumbered; the Cowboys, totally ecstatic.

While he was boxing, he randomly received packages of sweatsuits and T-shirts from the Cowboys.

Enclosed was always a note that read: “Work hard. If there is anything we can do, let us know.” (Signed) The Dallas Cowboys.

Was it Tom Landry? Was it Tex Schramm? Jones still doesn’t know.

As a professional prizefighter, “Too Tall” climbed into the ring six times in 1979. The records of his opponents are sketchy, but he won all six fights — five by knockout — each against a more experience fighter with a winning record, according to Jones.

Jimmy Wallace, whom he knocked out in his only Dallas appearance at the Convention Center (with Cowboys teammates in attendance), was a veteran of nearly 30 fights. Wallace was a second-round KO.

Rocky Gonzales was a former Mexican heavyweight champion and Yaqui Meneses was 19-6 with another 30 fights in Mexico City.

The fact that published records show mostly lightly-fought opponents makes Jones mad, because it’s not true.

Nor did he appreciate the fact that a sportswriter in Philadelphia (as Jones remembers it) once quoted him as saying that boxing people were “scumbags.”

Said Jones: “That word isn’t even in my vocabulary.”

And just like that, Jones’ two-year plan became a one-year reality.

“It was something I had no control of,” said Jones, who chooses not to elaborate. But his boxing efforts spawned so much negativity that it was time to return to pro football.

It was a sudden ending to a great experience.

“I look back on it now, and even though we went to three Super Bowls my first five years, something was always still missing — boxing,” Jones said.

The Sweet Science. Mano a mano with a pair of 10-ounce gloves.

“Only until I got an opportunity to box in 1979 was it really behind me,” he added.

Jones learned boxing at the knee of his father, Jack, who would listen to fights on radio from their home in rural Tennessee. The elder Jones would provide his son with blow-by-blow commentary of the crackly broadcast.

“My dad (who died when Ed was 17) was a huge fight fan,” Jones said. “I remember being a kid and sitting on his lap, and watching the expression on his face.

“That’s what got me interested in boxing.”

His one year away from the Cowboys was worthwhile.

In some ways almost necessary.

And that 15-year NFL career worked out OK, too.