Oct. 18, 2013
By Todd Burlage
You have also given me the shield of your salvation; Your right hand has held me up, Your greatness has made me great. You enlarged my path under me, so my feet did not slip - Psalm 18:32
Time is supposed to heal all wounds, but for TJ Jones, the days that pass barely dull the permanent pain.
A little more than two years have gone by since Jones was abruptly pulled from a routine football practice and rushed to the airport because his father, Andre, had fallen ill back home in Atlanta.
Cruelly and unthinkably, the man that TJ called his inspiration, mentor, confidant, friend, and simply dad was gone at age 42 - a life taken too soon after Andre suffered a brain aneurism, leaving behind a wife and six children, all but one under the age of 20 at the time of his passing.
The above scripture passage was one of Andre's favorites; one he sometimes shared with his children for inspiration. The words may not have meant much at the time. They are overpowering now.
"It doesn't get any easier dealing with the loss of my father, it never will," says TJ, the second oldest of the six siblings. "It can still be overwhelming; it kind of messes with your emotions sometimes. You get frustrated, angry. But with time and maturity, I have learned how to handle it much better. But the actual loss of my father hasn't gotten any easier to deal with."
But TJ is handling it, day by day, more and more, slowly and surely - huge progress from June 22, 2011, when life delivered a hit harder than any linebacker ever had or ever will.
Home with his mother, brothers and sisters through the mourning process, TJ wanted to shut down, pull away, help his family, and never return to Notre Dame again. The grief was too fresh and the reminders too painful.
Staying away from Notre Dame was far easier than coming back.
See, TJ and his father shared so much in common they almost lived parallel lives.
Andre was a standout linebacker for the Irish and a member of the 1988 National Championship team. TJ is the current team's best wide receiver, a tri-captain, and a cornerstone this season both in terms of production and leadership, so the father-son heritage at Notre Dame is forever linked.
TJ even chose the No. 7 jersey number and claimed his father's old locker space to celebrate a family legacy shared both on the football field and through the dedication it takes to become a Notre Dame man.
"Dad had been through it so he knew about the grind and he knew exactly what I was going through," TJ says. "He always knew what to say. He knew how to make me laugh and get me out of a rut."
When asked to share stories about his father, TJ celebrates the quieter moments, the ones that sealed this father-son bond through a shared love of music, movies, football, and all things Notre Dame.
"Just the car rides, just the random talks we had. We had very similar personalities," TJ says, when asked what he misses most about his father. "Just kind of having that bond with someone that had been there before." No man can ever fill the emptiness that TJ feels after losing his father. But between family, friends, and family-friends, TJ has a strong support network for advice about football, life and everything in between.
TJ's godfather is legendary Irish receiver Raghib "Rocket" Ismail. Former Notre Dame stars Pat Terrell, Reggie Brooks and Tony Rice all played with Andre on the 1988 national championship team, and they are all just a phone call away if TJ ever needs dinner, advice, an ear, or a shoulder.
READY OR NOT
TJ Jones wasn't much different than any other hotshot freshman football recruit when he arrived at Notre Dame.
Freedom, attention, status were all part of the collegiate recipe, and why not?
The college experience offered TJ a chance to enjoy life on his terms, not on his parents' or anybody else's. Scholarship had its privileges, and TJ savored the benefits.
"It was all about TJ," he says. "It was all about how I felt and what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I was an eager kid, 17, first time really out of the house, ready to live college just enjoying my time here."
But out of tragedy and loss often come perspective and maturity, and the passing of his father immediately changed TJ's lifestyle and outlook. If TJ was going to do right for his family, he needed to do right for himself first.
"It was a wake-up call that tomorrow is never promised," TJ says of the untimely death of his father. "Losing my father really kind of boosted the maturation process. The day he passed, it changed my outlook completely."
One unthinkable moment transformed TJ Jones from an entitled Notre Dame college kid into the rock of his family and the self-proclaimed "man of the house."
Raising six children is neither easy nor cheap, and the Jones family has faced its share of financial struggles and emotional battles since losing Andre. Wise beyond his years, TJ dedicates every day to improving himself as a player and a person so that someday he can improve his family.
"It's no longer about me. It's no longer about TJ, it's all about my family now," TJ says. "So if I were ever not to succeed in the way I need to, I would not only be letting myself down, I would be letting them down as well, and I can't have that."
That's an enormous amount of pressure for one young man to absorb, but Jones said he's willing and able to handle it wherever life leads him.
"My family is dependent on me in a way to be able to support them whether it's with an NFL career or using my Notre Dame degree in a job where I can help them financially, at least until all of my siblings get through college," Jones explains. "I need to work for my family. The social life and enjoying college life is all fine and well, but I'm here to get a degree and support my family in whatever way I can once I graduate, and that takes priority now."
The obvious first career choice is as a starting NFL wide receiver. And with the shiftiness, speed and strength that Jones plays the game, he is a sure-bet for the 2014 NFL Draft in April. Scott Wright of NFLDraftCountdown.com rates Jones as the No. 7 wide receiver in the senior draft class. Andre Jones was a seventh-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1991 NFL Draft.
"My father believed in me and I believe in myself that I have NFL talent," Jones says about his draftability. "So now it is just the hard work, the preparation of making sure I cover everything while I'm here at Notre Dame to show I can be a great leader, a great teammate and a great receiver."
At 5-11 and 195 pounds, Jones worked non-stop in the off-season to improve his speed, the determining factor for a receiver's draft worth. Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in the preseason that Jones would be the next in line behind Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd to become a first-round draft pick. Only time will tell if Jones can fulfill that lofty projection, but he's working toward it every day.
"TJ clearly wants to be the best," Kelly says. "And, I think, leave a legacy here at Notre Dame."
An NFL roster is the likely landing spot for Jones after his graduation this spring. But life after football is where his career aspirations become most interesting.
Jones spent two days this summer job-shadowing at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, where he got up close and personal with marine life inside a tank of sharks, turtles, eels, fish and aquatic creatures of all kinds. The experience fueled a passion that Jones has held since a family trip to SeaWorld as a 10-year-old.
Swimming with 300-pound sharks isn't the idea of fun for most college football players, but having the chance to work with aquatic life in some capacity is an endeavor Jones pursues whenever possible. Other than football, Jones can't think of a career more satisfying than training and working with marine animals.
"It's not your typical job," Jones says in the understatement of the century. "It is something different, it requires a different kind of mentality and focus. Every time I get a chance to watch the trainers work with the animals, I am just kind of in awe at how committed they are to what they do."