One thing that makes sports so attractive is the constant debate on certain subjects. Who had the best team? Who made the best play? What was the most important moment of a season? At USC, one debate that comes to mind is, who was the greatest back in Trojan history. OJ Simpson? Marcus Allen? Was it Charles White or Mike Garrett? Possibly Anthony Davis or Reggie Bush. To SC fans growing up in the 1950’s the answer is simple. Jon Arnett would have to be considered close to if not top of this list. Jaguar Jon, as he was aptly nicknamed was a tremendous all around player and will always be assured of his place in the hierarchy of Trojan folklore.
Jon Arnett is a three-year letterman (1954-55-56) at USC. He was All-American in 1955 and played in the 1955 Rose Bowl. He was Captain of the USC football team in 1956. He won the prestigious Voit Award, given to the top player on the west coast in 1955 and 1956. Jon was elected into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1994 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
When I asked Jon if he was aware that there are still legions of fans who consider him the greatest Trojan of them all even 50 years after he played he humbly said, “That’s always nice to hear.”
Arnett’s style was apparent to anyone who had the privilege of seeing him play. Incredible balance, breakaway speed, uncanny elusiveness was some of the trait Arnett credits to natural talent. “My talents were God given. I remember as a boy when I played football in the streets with my older brother and his friends, I was always the first person picked. Nobody could ever catch me when I had the ball.”
Arnett talents were naturally appreciated by others and if didn’t that long for Jaguar Jon to emerge to prominence. ”My senior year ay Manual Arts High School, I was chosen as Player of the year in LA. Honors in those days didn’t carry quite the same weight as they do now. I remember my father told me, you must be pretty good, I'll have to come see one of your games.”
USC was a natural choice for Arnett to continue his football playing exploits.”All I wanted to do was make the team behind Aramis Dandoy.” Jon said. “All I wanted to do was play a little and get Dandoy’s autograph”.
It didn’t take long for the autograph seekers to start lining up for Mr. Arnett’s signature. Jon began his career in scintillating fashion, only to suffer a life altering injury during his sophomore season.
“I started off with some success, I had scored 7 or 8 touchdowns and the papers were mentioning me as an All-American Candidate. The coaches were talking with me, praising me. Then I sprained my knee (against California). It was scary. At one point it looked like I might not play again. After that, I realized how important education was. I hit the books.” Jon also came up with a system to prevent any potential serious knee problems. “I taped my ankles early in my career at USC and originally with the Rams. However, when I realized I would welcome my ankles to be sprained or damaged but not my knees, I quit taping my ankles and thus (maybe just luck) never had a twisted or torn knee in 10 years of pro football. Just check your own joints...your ankles are much more supple than your knees. Knees are not made for football.”
Returning as a junior, Jon developed in what was then known as a triple threat man. He ran the ball, caught the ball, and even passed the ball with great effectiveness. Arnett’s duties for the Trojans also require he play on the defensive side of the ball. “The game has changed so much since I played. Scoring is about the same but specialization has opened the game up so much. I think today there is a higher quality of play. I always preferred offense because on offense, You’re the STAR."
Arnett’s junior year, 1955, was magnificent. He scored 15 touchdowns and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. All-American honors were bestowed on Jon and serious talk of the 1956 Heisman began. It was not to be however as Jon's senior year proved both triumph and tragedy.
A scandal involving under the table payments to athletes at SC, UCLA, California, and Washington broke. Arnett was found to be one of the players receiving money and was suspended for half the season. I asked Jon if the suspension cost him the 1956 Heisman Trophy.
“Lots of people think so. I had been All-American the year before. I had gained more yards as a senior in those five games I played. I had gotten my picture taken for all the magazines in the pre-season. I think it was a forgone conclusion. Paul Hornung ended up winning it. I think Notre Dame had a 2-9 record that year. I think if USC had had any kind of record I would have had a chance”.
“Hornung and I got to be pretty good friends. We were scheduled to play in the North-South all-star game. They said they would pay us $250.00 dollars for playing. I then talked to the Hula Bowl officials. The Hula Bowl was played between the college all-stars and the Pro all -star at that time. They offered me $1000 so I called Hornung, and we ended up in Honolulu. The Pros had Hugh McElhenny, Crazy Legs Hirsch, and Norm Van Brocklin. We practiced but there wasn’t a whole lot of concentration. It was fun though”.
Jon went on to an outstanding career in the NFL with the Los Angles Rams and Chicago Bears. Although the beginning of his career was a little ostentatious, one day at a restaurant in LA he met Keith Quinlan, who was an All-Pro Guard for the Rams. He told him that the Rams would like to draft him and Jon asked, “What’s that mean?”
I asked Jon about being a number one draft choice. He was selected with the overall number two pick by the Rams, ahead of Jim Brown.
“It was the greatest draft of all time for the NFL. I think 40 guys drafted that year made All-Pro at one time during their careers (eight ended up in the Hall of Fame).”
Arnett’s had a great career with the Rams from 1957-1963. He was selected to play in the Pro-Bowl five straight years 1957-61. I asked him about the lack of professional football in Los Angeles.
“LA deserves a team just because of the sheer number of people. But LA fans are very fickle. I think the NFL should get a team here and I think it should play in the Coliseum. The Coliseum has easy access and is such a historical venue. I’ve seen some of the sketches of the modernized version of the Coliseum, and I think they look great”
Jon left LA in 1964 to play in the Windy City. His tenure there lasted only three years, but it was enough for “Papa Bear” George Halas to make the comment that Arnett was the greatest back he ever had. Jon responded, “I think he had a short memory. I caught him late in his career and the game had gone by him a little bit. We didn’t win many games. Coach Halas was a fun guy. He liked me, and we got along great, but we really didn’t have a head coach while I was in Chicago. I loved it there. The fans were so much more appreciative“.
I was curious about Jon wearing #21 with the Bears after being so closely identified with # 26 for his college and professional career. “I wore #30 in high school then was issued 26 at USC. When I got to Chicago, a defensive back had #26. He asked me if I wanted it, and I said,”not necessary.”
Jon’s later years have proven just as successful as his football days. He runs a distribution service and supplies frozen foods to Costco, Sam’s Club, and Wal-Mart. After living for many years in Palos Verdes, the Arnett’s recently moved to Oregon. “I’m not happy to leave, but LA has become such a difficult place to live. I leave with great memories. I went to high school, college, and played professional football within a five mile radius of where I was born.”
One aspect of moving to the Pacific Northwest will be leaving his beloved Trojans behind. “I feel very close to the university. You know what they say; You’re a Trojan for life. And you are. Being a Trojan has helped me so much in business. Going there was the best thing I ever did. I follow the team. I mostly go to the home games. I attend some pre-game parties and watch the first half. I leave at half time and with some luck, usually only miss about 2 or 3 minutes of the second half and watch the rest of the game from home. I’m a huge fan of both the team and Pete Carroll. I’m going to have to get to the Oregon game this fall.”
I think the true measure of a man is how he is perceived in later years. I regret that the only images I have of Jon are on tape of him playing for SC and the Rams. But, the people, who I have spoken to that did see him play, have only one word to describe him.
There is no debating that.