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Jaguar Jon

Former NFL and collegiate legend makes home in Lake Oswego and is working to raise money to help out his former peers on gridiron
by: Vern Uyetake, 
Lake Oswego resident Jon Arnett poses with a picture from his NFL playing days.

They called him 'Jaguar Jon.'

At 5-11 and 195 pounds, he was the complete package as a halfback in the 1950s, making All-American at the University of Southern California and later All-Pro with the Los Angeles Rams.

He had great speed, elusiveness and a highly unusual acrobatic ability honed by his years as a gymnast. He had an incredible talent for making defenders zag while he zigged.

Most of all he had a body that didn't break down despite 10 years in the NFL of taking the best shots that the likes of Night Train Lane could dish out.

And now Jon Arnett makes Lake Oswego his home, even though for almost his entire life he was the quintessential Southern California glamour football player.

'I went to grammar school, junior high school, high school, USC and the Rams, all within a 5 mile radius,' Arnett said. 'I was really a Southern California person.

'Now you couldn't get me to go back there.'

It was having to do things like drive 35 miles to get to a freeway or take nearly two hours to get out of the parking lot after a USC football game that finally made an Oregonian out of Jon Arnett.

As for being in Lake Oswego, 'I love it!' he said. Arnett even has a 16-year-old daughter who is a student at Lake Oswego High School, and he is a fervent fan of Laker football.

'I went to every game this season,' Arnett said. 'Steve Coury is an excellent coach. His teams are so well disciplined. They hardly ever make any mistakes.'

Are there any temptations to regale the current Laker gridders with tales of his past exploits? Absolutely none.

'I'm really the average fan,' Arnett said. 'I just love to watch the game.'

Yet there is so much Arnett could tell them. He was one of the generation of players that transformed the NFL into the awesomely powerful $7 billion juggernaut it is today.

Arnett was the top selection in the 1957 NFL draft, widely considered the best in league history - the number six pick was a guy named Jim Brown. Other first round choices were Paul Hornung, John Brodie, Len Dawson, Del Shofner, and Jim Parker. Other picks included Tommy McDonald, Sonny Jurgenson, Don Maynard and Gene Hickerson. They didn't go in the first round, but they did make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Arnett's reward for being the number one choice was a one-year contract for a magnificent $15,000. The most he ever made in a season was $37,000.

Which brings up an interesting question: How much would Arnett be paid if he were the number one selection in the NFL draft of 2008.

'I do think about it sometimes,' Arnett admitted. 'I would put my contract in the range of $60 to $70 million.'

While unblessed by big bucks, Arnett also played with the Los Angeles Rams of the late 1950s and early 1960s, definitely one of the NFL's flakier organizations of that era.

The Rams were epitomized by a trade that sent 11 players (in a day of 35 players on a roster) for running back Ollie Matson of the Chicago Cardinals. The result was the Rams spiraled from being a game away from the Western Conference championship in 1958 to the bottom of the NFL in 1959.

The general manager who engineered that fiasco managed to escape being fired only by finding a job he could find success at: commissioner of the NFL. His name was Pete Rozelle.

Arnett still shakes his head when he thinks of those days.

'Everything was 'next year' with those Rams,' he said.

Still, Arnett was undaunted by a front office that left the Rams struggling. He made the Pro Bowl five straight seasons, and in his greatest year of 1958 the versatile Arnett racked up 1,731 yards by running, receiving and returning kicks. Jim Brown, who also had his greatest season that year, had 1,739 total yards; but Arnett had 70 fewer touches of the ball.

Arnett was most famous for his spectacular runs, including a 105-yard touchdown on a kickoff return.

However, the play he is perhaps best known for was a tackle that put him flat on his back and nearly knocked his lights out. In a game against the Detroit Lions in 1960, Arnett came out of the backfield for a swing pass where he suddenly encountered Dick 'Night Train' Lane, an all-time great defensive back and one of the hardest hitters of all time.

Lane hooked Arnett right under the chin with one of his patented 'Necktie' tackles, giving sports writers across the country writing fodder for months.

'He didn't knock me out,' Arnett said. 'But I did see some stars I had never seen before.'

But the most unusual thing about Jon Arnett is not his remarkable football career, or even his subsequent highly successful business career marketing frozen food, with such huge customers as Costco and Wal-Mart.

It is what he is doing now to help his fellow players, the ones who laid the foundation for the NFL.

'Fury' would not be too strong a word to describe how Arnett feels about the current 32 NFL owners, who have steadily refused to provide the medical treatment that many of those players badly need.

'It would just take $1 million to $1.5 a million a year to take care of this situation,' he said. 'That's pocket change for owners. That's the average salary of one player.'

But Arnett is not just getting mad, he is doing something. He and his wife Jane have just formed the Retired Professional Athlete Association.

Ironically enough, it all started when Jane Arnett saw the notice of the death of Dick Lane. Night Train was not in good shape at the end of his life, and many other former NFL stars are in similar circumstances.

'Those guys are very proud,' Arnett said. 'So Jane contacted their wives. It's hard to identify these guys because they're so proud. We're trying to shake them out.

'To see how some of them walk or can't get out of bed or can't afford medication - some of these guys are really hurting.'

As upset as they are with NFL owners, the Arnetts are not going to war against them ('They've got too much money.'). Instead, in order to fund the RPAA they are lining up corporations and 'very substantial' individuals who are long-time football fans.

The new organization will have a giant kickoff event in July at the Newport Sports Museum, and with all the football greats on hand it promises to be sheer heaven for old sports fans.

'This is payback,' Arnett said. 'I was fortunate enough playing pro and at USC that it afforded me great things. I'm in the process of paying it back.'