Brothers Are Tied to Home, No Matter Where They Run
November 21, 2007
By GREG BISHOP
BIG STONE GAP, Va., Nov. 16 — The story of the brothers Jones, who once shared a bunk bed and now share a job title, starts in this sliver of southwest Virginia in the heart of coal country.
Both are starting N.F.L. running backs who will play on Thanksgiving Day against each other, for the second time, when the Jets meet the Cowboys in Irving, Tex.
What binds them is their big, close family in this mining town of fewer than 6,000 residents. But their work-related obligations have forced them to give thanks with their parents and five sisters a day earlier than usual. So they will gather Wednesday in Dallas for all the favorites.
Thomas Jones, the 29-year-old Jets running back, always requests caramel cake. Julius Jones, the 26-year-old Cowboys running back, begs his mother for sweet potato pie.
These days, as opposed to the times when money was tight, there is plenty to go around.
There were Christmases when the boys received no presents. They wore patched jeans and hand-me-downs, and their parents somehow made six pork chops feed nine mouths. Nineteen years separate the oldest Jones child from the youngest, but each still sprinkles sentences with “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am.”
“Your bond with your family got you through those times,” said Thomas A. Jones, the father whom everyone calls Big Thomas. “Nobody goes to Wal-Mart and buys a cup of happiness. That’s how two children can come from where they came from, go to where they are and hold on to what they have.”
Some brothers, like quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, seem to have been born into professional football. Others, like the twins Ronde and Tiki Barber, made their mark with quick feet and photogenic smiles. What stands out for the Jones brothers is the speck of a town they grew up in and emerged from, nourished at all times by family.
Thomas Q. Jones, the son whom everyone calls Little Thomas, said the brothers always had to prove themselves. “Constantly,” he said. “Over and over again.”
Race was a factor at times, particularly away from home during their high school football and basketball careers. They were two African-Americans at a predominantly white school in an overwhelmingly white town. Those from opposing schools sometimes waved rebel flags, and there was the occasional taunt at road games.
It was all familiar to Betty and Big Thomas, who had lived through integration in 1965. Later, Betty became the first black cheerleader at Appalachia High School. They settled in Appalachia, Va., a few miles down the road. Big Thomas always told his children, “It’s not the color of the grocery bag, it’s what’s inside.”
In high school, during one of his long talks with his father, Little Thomas asked, “Do you think anybody will ever know anything about me?”
Those doubting days of their old life seem as far away as the N.F.L. dreams used to be.
The family lives in Big Stone Gap now, in the house Little Thomas purchased with a rookie signing bonus in the millions. It has a swimming pool and a sprawling view of the mountains.
On a two-day tour of the area in mid-November, Big Thomas and Betty returned to their old home and saw its peeling pink paint.
The boys used to sleep in the basement with cracked floorboards visible through the window. Each Sunday, they would take two trips to a nearby church, half the family at a time, in a 1975 Pontiac with bucket seats. The house remains on the market, listed for $36,000.
“Family,” said Thomas A. Jones, the father whom everyone calls Big Thomas. “Family is all we know, all we’ve ever been.”
Big Stone Gap has six traffic lights, along with a Wal-Mart, a few fast-food restaurants and a $4.99 breakfast platter at the Huddle House, featuring eggs, hash browns, grits, toast and bacon.
Down the road, in the Powell Valley schools, which at least one Jones child attended for each of the 30 years before this one, they never tire of talking about the family.
This includes the sisters: Gwen, 37; Beatrice, 34; Julius’s twin, Knetris, 26; Knetta, 23; and Katrice, 18. Their parents required them to get A’s and B’s in school, and all seven attended or are attending college.
“They put us on the map,” said David Dowdy, the principal at the middle school. “In my whole career, those are the best kids I’ve ever seen.”
Little Thomas used to hide out in the basement of their house, lining up G.I. Joes into football formations. He was all pigskin, all energy, all the time. He once gained 462 yards in a game.
Younger, faster and so quiet that coaches said they rarely heard him speak, Julius followed next. During Julius’s senior season, the Powell Valley defense allowed one play longer than 10 yards — an achievement Coach Phil Robbins attributed to Julius, who played safety and earned the nickname the Eraser.
Each morning, the brothers ran up and down their hill some 20 times, performed push-ups until their arms burned and situps until their stomachs ached.
Robbins still watches the highlight tape from Little Thomas’s senior season so often that current players grumble as he pops it in. “Well,” he said, “those boys are as good as it gets.”
Each brother won two state championships. They also drew national attention and scores of recruiters to Big Stone Gap. Thomas went to the Virginia; Julius went to Notre Dame. Julius missed a semester because of academic difficulties, and he went to live with Little Thomas, who was playing in the N.F.L. with Arizona.
The family’s roots here run deeper than the coal mines driven into the mountains. Big Thomas and Betty met in a mining camp, after their parents had migrated from southern Alabama to find work.
Big Thomas started the family running back tradition. Married for 34 years now, they followed their parents underground.
On her first day in the mines, Betty realized why so few women worked there. Conditions were dirty and dark and dangerous. She said she resolved to quit but ended up staying 19 years, operating the shovel car. She made $10 an hour back in the late 1970s, good money that kept her coming back.
“The Jones family is known for hard work and high standards,” said Joan Short, who taught all seven children in various subjects. “When you’ve got a mother who’s pregnant, crawling around in the bottom of a coal mine to support her children, what more do you need to say?”
Big Thomas recalls two fatalities during the year he spent in the mine, two friends who went underground when the shift started and never came out alive. After he was laid off, he later held a variety of jobs: disc jockey, television reporter, minority recruiter at the University of Tennessee and counselor at the nearby prison.
When she returned to the Exeter Mining Corporation, Betty could see the path she took, the tunnels that mark her past and paved her children’s future. She worked from midnight to 8 a.m., and her children prayed each day for a safe return. Betty described the injuries as inevitable: crushed arms and legs, and broken ribs.
“Those miners are in my boys,” Betty said, gesturing toward her former office. “It’s what they’ve seen. It’s what they’ve been taught.”
The town established a Thomas and Julius Jones day in July 2006.
“They elevated what people here think is possible,” said Travis Kern, an algebra teacher who played basketball with both brothers. “They had this charisma that made you want to follow.”
On Thursday, the family will commemorate the big game by wearing white jerseys with logos for both teams and “T Jones” and “J Jones” ironed on the back.
Julius will become a father for the first time in December, when the family will add another member, a boy.
“It just humbles me more and more,” Big Thomas said about the game and the grandson and the story of his family. “It draws right back to that question: Do you think anybody will ever know anything about me?”
Plenty of people know these Joneses now.
Much in their lives has changed, evidenced by the luxury cars in the garage and the segments for a reality TV show the brothers want to pitch to networks. But Little Thomas said the brothers got more than they gave.
Last spring, the family returned here for Katrice’s graduation. Little Thomas delivered the keynote address. And as the seventh sibling walked across the stage, the family members stole glances at one another, their eyes welling with tears.
“There is a purpose to this story,” Big Thomas said. “It’s about so much more than our family. It’s about family, period.”
mercredi, novembre 21, 2007
A feel-good story about family and football would normally turn me off. But this one hit all the right notes.