Earl Jackson Gregory, Jr. was born in Okolona, Miss. His father, Jack Gregory, Sr., played for the then-Cleveland Rams in 1941. He was a standout athlete in high school, excelling in football track, and basketball.
The 6’5” Gregory, affectionately known as Big Jack, played collegiately at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (where he was an Honorable Mention All-American at tight end) and Delta State University (where he set a school with 557 receiving yards).
Gregory was selected by the Buffalo Bills with the ninth overall pick in the 1966 AFL Redshirt Draft, a futures draft of players who still had collegiate availability. Instead of playing for the Bills, he elected to transfer to Delta State. He was also selected by the Cleveland Browns with the 139th pick in the NFL Draft.
Gregory was one of the most dominant defensive players of his day, excelling at both the defensive end and defensive tackle positions. He made Pro Bowl appearance in 1969 and 1972.
The Cleveland Plain-Dealer described Gregory as having “exceptional speed for his position”. It was also noted “he could overpower opponents…the combination would make him one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers for a decade. He also played tough against the run.”
Gregory was unofficially credited with 103 career sacks (sacks didn’t become an official stat until 1982). His most famous sack was of New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath on Sept. 21, 1970, the very first telecast of ABC’s Monday Night Football.
After starting 51 of 70 games for the Browns, Gregory was traded to the Giants in 1972. Head coach Alex Webster built his defense around him. He was known as the rover—the player tasked with stopping the offense’s best player.
“I like our system because it gives me a better chance not to be double teamed,” Gregory said. “The other team doesn’t know where I’m going to be.”
Gregory was all over the field. He preferred beginning his pass rush from the left side because most teams lined up their tight end on his left. However, he wasn’t averse to rushing from the right side.
In 1972, Gregory had his best season with the Giants. He unofficially recorded 21 sacks and finished behind the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Mean” Joe Greene in NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting. If Gregory’s sacks were official, he would’ve been the Giants’ single-season leader until Michael Strahan’s 22.5 in 2001.
Unfortunately, Gregory’s presence didn’t translate into wins for the Giants. The Giants only had one winning season (1972) and finished a combined 31-68 during the seven seasons he was on the team. He was unofficially credited with 75.5 sacks during his time with the Giants, good enough for fifth in franchise history. He finished his NFL career with the Browns in 1979.
After his retirement from the NFL, Gregory returned to his native Mississippi where he was a noted philanthropist, farmer, and businessman. He also worked as a scout for the Denver Broncos. He was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.
He is survived by his wife Susan; son Earl III; daughter Madison; two stepchildren; five grandchildren; and brother Judge John Andrew Gregory. He was predeceased by his first wife, Gwen.