South Bend Tribune - There are moments now when the pain fades and the questions with no answers recede and TJ Jones can just be a goofy college sophomore. Not in long stretches yet, not normalcy by any standard. But the Notre Dame wide receiver is smiling again, sometimes, watching the TV show Glee regularly and, surprisingly admitting to it publicly. "Tommy Rees watches it too," Jones said, outing ND's starting quarterback Wednesday after football practice. "It was hard (at first). I got a little bit of tension for it, but they understand now. I'm proud to like Glee." This is what nudging forward in life looks like three months after a brain aneurysm claimed the life of Jones' father, Andre, at age 42. It's a muddled cocktail of emotions, a struggle to find balance in a life with so much promise and suddenly so much responsibility. It's tears. It's friendships. It's candles at the Grotto. It's getting scorched by Irish coach Brian Kelly on the sidelines with the NBC cameras capturing every syllable. "I think people reacted to that more than what it was," Jones said of the Sept. 3 flare-up in his first media interview since his father's passing. "In the heat of the moment, I got his coaching. I got the message he was sending. It was other people who just saw him yelling at me. They misunderstood what he was saying. "I looked at it as, 'Put the play behind you and get ready for the next play.' " Jones' mother, Michele, was in Notre Dame Stadium that day, along with Jones' five siblings, and had a totally different reaction than either her son or most fans. "She thought it was kind of funny," he said. There are solemn moments, too, though, for all of them. Moments like the pregame ceremony Sept. 3 that honored Andre Jones, a former standout linebacker for the Irish, and others from the Notre Dame football family who had lost loved ones in the past year. "It was hard, seeing my mom out there for the first time in six weeks," Jones said. "And she was crying, so it made me more emotional. And it definitely just hit home that he wasn't going to be there standing in the tunnel when I came out this year." So now Jones plays for both of them - and for his younger siblings for whom he so ardently wants to set an example. "He pushed on, because I think he needed to push on," Kelly said. "His mom needed his help, and he needed to be really a rock for his family." He's been a rock for the Irish, too. Through three games, Jones's 12 receptions (for 126 yards and 2 TDs) are tied for the second-most on the team with tight end Tyler Eifert and behind only senior Michael Floyd's Xbox-ish total (31). And Jones is already more than halfway to surpassing last year's total of 23 receptions. "As a player, I think he's really stepped up, is a lot more accountable," Kelly said. "He's not a freshman anymore. Last year there were times when he would just act like a freshman. He's a lot more mature in the way he handles himself. "I think the biggest thing is he plays pretty fast now. He's a pretty tough matchup guy. So he's elevated his game." The list is long of people who made sure that happened, including Jones' godfather, former Irish All-American Rocket Ismail.
"I talk to him more for spiritual advice and just staying strong through this time," Jones said. There was director of football strength and conditioning Paul Longo in the summer, teenage brother Malachi on Thursday nights, a seemingly endless stream of teammates who feel like family now. The voice that resonates the loudest and the deepest, though, is that of receivers coach Tony Alford, who lost his own father - Robert Alford Sr. - to cancer a year and two weeks before Andre Jones died. Alford was the one who broke the news to Jones on June 21 that Andre had been hospitalized and was there when the miracle failed to materialize in the hours that followed. "He's that father figure on campus, so I'm able to talk to him about anything," Jones said. "Just being around him, I feel close to my dad sometimes, because they have some similar mannerisms. "I was (here when Alford's dad died), and during that period (Alford) and my dad's relationship grew, because my dad was there for him, helping him through that spiritually and mentally." Then this past week, it was Jones' turn to help. Teammate Prince Shembo's father, Maurice, in town last weekend from Charlotte, N.C., for the Michigan State game, suffered an apparent brain aneurysm Friday night. Shembo missed the game Saturday to be with his father, but returned to campus Sunday when his father began to make a dramatic recovery. The younger Shembo has been practicing all week with the team in preparation for Saturday's road game at Pitt. "I was happy for him," Jones said of Shembo. "And then basically I said, 'it's a crazy world. You just don't know what's going to happen.' " Jones coaxes himself bravely forward, turning the pain into strength and reframing the memories. "I'm very grateful," Jones said when asked how it felt to know his father did get to see him play last season. "I know a lot of times it would make him tear up or cry running out the tunnel. And I never understood it until I ran out the tunnel for the first time knowing he wasn't there." Then again, he is there. In every dream, in every quiet moment, in every hope. "With everything that happens, it puts everything in perspective for me," Jones said. "A lot of little things that used to get to me, I realize, this year, they don't matter. I've seen the bigger picture and that's what I focus on now."