Although Bert suffered from a bone abnormality for two years, and wore braces until he was four years old, he has always had a strong arm. "Best dang rock thrower in Lincoln County," says his daddy, "and if you can flang a rock real good, you can flang anything." On Dec. 15, 1974, Baby Bert flang good enough to join Dub in the record book as he completed 17 consecutive passes against the New York Jets.
During Bert's days at Ruston High, his archrival for all-state quarterback honors was Joe Ferguson, then of Shreveport's Woodlawn High School and now of the Buffalo Bills. "Fergy beat me out for all-state first string," said Bert, "but we're still good friends. He knows I'm a Tootsie Roll freak, and when we went up there to play Buffalo last year, he come out to meet me on the field, all deadpan like, and stuck out his hand for a shake. It was full of Tootsie Rolls." He wagged his head in the waning darkness of the truck cab. "Darn sorry Fergy got hurt like that last week."
Bert himself was hurt badly enough in the second of last season's Colts-Bills games to keep most quarterbacks out of action. As he scrambled, a Bills helmet speared him in the side, leading to three ribs cracked in 11 different places, but he didn't miss a game.
"That taught me to be a leetle care-fuller about running with the ball," he said, laughing. "I like to run, but it's really not worth the risk most times. Do it when you have to, really have to, but otherwise...I couldn't take a deep breath until March without the lesson coming back again."
In the playoffs against Pittsburgh, Jones was racked up once more, this time by a hit on the triceps muscle of his throwing arm. "It was real scary," he recalled. "My arm went black, kind of slow like, from the shoulder to the fingertips. Black blood from contusions. There was just one white spot left, in the palm of my hand. My elbow was all stiff from the dead blood in there, and it wasn't till the fourth quarter that I could throw again." With Jones injured, the Steelers ended the Colt season with a 28-10 victory.
Courage in the face of pain is a basic requirement of a professional athlete, but courage in the face of owners and general managers is not part of the contract. Thus, Jones' actions early this season, just before the opening game, were particularly laudable. When Colts Owner Robert Irsay, panicky after a poor Baltimore preseason (2-4), forced Coach Ted Marchibroda to resign, and General Manager Joe Thomas backed up Irsay, Jones took a bold stand. He threatened to leave the team at the end of the season if Marchibroda wasn't reinstated, and read a lesson in maturity to his elders. Irsay, calmed by Jones' cold threat, relented. The family squabble that could have destroyed the Colts' spirit ended, and Marchibroda returned. "I like to look at the bright side of things," said Bert, "and I think that what happened was an underlying blessing because it re-established team unity. You know, it takes three mules pulling in the same direction to have a winning football team."
Marchibroda was instrumental in shaping Jones into a standout. A former quarterback at St. Bonaventure and with the Steelers, and later offensive coordinator for Los Angeles and Washington, Marchibroda took over the Colts in 1975 after the team had suffered through three disastrous seasons under four coaches and a 1974 record of 2-12, the worst in Colt history. Jones, who had been Baltimore's first draft pick in 1973 after an All-America career at LSU, had plenty of physical talent but had not yet mastered the fine art of reading defenses. Marchibroda left his family at home in Virginia, and spent his nights tinkering with Bert's brain. "He's the carpenter," Jones said. "You can't throw a load of lumber on a lot and expect a house to go up by itself. It has to be built, and Ted did our building."
In addition to learning how to scan defenses and come up with the right ploys to subvert them, Jones also got a solid offensive line to protect him. "There they are," Jones said suddenly, honking his horn and blinking the Ford's taillights as he passed a Mercedes sedan. "That's most of my offensive line in that car. George Kunz, Robert Pratt and Elmer Collett. Our left tackle, David Taylor, was supposed to be along but he got the flu last night. They're going hunting with us." He tapped the horn again and stood on the throttle. "It's a great line—'unsung,' as they say. Robert's my roommate and the left guard. We run most of our ground game over the right side, behind George and Elmer, just like we did last night against the Oilers. They move people out of there in a hurry."
From the top of the bridge that spans Chesapeake Bay between Annapolis and the Eastern Shore, the dawn of a cloudless day spread layers of rusty light on the waterfowl flats of Maryland. Jones pointed out a string of Canada geese moving in a wavy sprawl across the tableland. A million geese—the majority of the birds on the Atlantic Flyway—winter along the Delmarva Peninsula, and on a good day it is possible to see half of them in the air at dawn and dusk. This day, though, didn't look too good for goose hunting, a sport that thrives on dark, wet, overcast weather. What's more, a three-quarter moon had shone most of the night.
"Yep," said Bert, "they could of been feeding all through the night, but this place I'm taking you to, the rule don't apply. It's a bluebird kind of day, but there'll be birds there, birds aplenty. I'll show you a hundred thousand Canadian geese this morning."