The creaking noise cutting through the predawn silence had to be coming from the steps. It grew louder, finally rousing Patrick Ramsey and his best friend, Tram Jones, who were eager to go hunting with Tram's father, Bert. But long after Bert Jones crossed the top step, on his way to wake the boys up, the squeaking intensified. It was the man's knees making such a commotion, a manifestation of years of pounding from playing quarterback in high school, college and the NFL.
That sound would become familiar to Ramsey, the Washington Redskins' starting quarterback, as familiar as the welcoming cadence of Bert Jones's voice, with the aspiring passer and the onetime Baltimore Colts star growing close over the years. Ramsey spent day after day at Jones's house in high school, becoming inseparable from his buddy Tram, and all the while gaining a unique first-hand perspective on his future career as well.
Ramsey, 25, and Bert Jones, 53, have much in common -- both are bright, strapping, outdoor-loving, cannon-armed quarterbacks from Ruston, La., who were first-round draft picks -- yet football is just a small part of their bond. Their friendship extends well beyond their shared profession. Rarely do they engage in long discussions about the sport, but throughout Ramsey's development as a person and as a quarterback he has relied on Jones, the NFL most valuable player in 1976, for guidance and advice.
"Here's the thing about Bert, well, I call him Mr. Bert, just to let you know," Ramsey said. "He would much rather talk to me about hunting or fishing or something else, maybe even instruct me in those more so than football." Jones is a distinguished sportsman who has hosted numerous television shows on the topic.
"He's been a great friend for me and a great resource for me as well," Ramsey continued. "He's always been there for me if I needed him, but most of the time we have so many other things to talk about. . . . I respect what he's done and I hope to be able to do what he did in the NFL at some point, but at the same time it's like talking to my uncle. That's just the way it is with us."
Ramsey was just 3 when Jones's career came to a close in 1982 -- cut short by a chronic back condition -- so he never saw his mentor play other than on old NFL Films tapes. Remnants of his accomplishments were scattered through the Jones house, like the MVP trophy and scores of game balls. Jones, a star at Louisiana State University, was drafted second overall by the Colts in 1973 to replace departed Hall of Fame passer Johnny Unitas.
But early on Ramsey determined that football was not simply about glory, as he watched Jones cope with the abuse the game heaps upon a body.
"Just seeing some of the stuff around the house and the game balls and everything like that made it more tangible for me," Ramsey said. "It made me want to work that hard to get to that level, and seeing Bert kind of made me know about the NFL. Lying in bed and hearing his knees creak and crack coming up the stairs, it was kind of an inside education on football. Everyone knows about the glamorous stuff, but I got to see the other side, too."
Jones, nicknamed "the Ruston Rifle," immediately took a liking to Ramsey, who became a fixture at his house as a freshman in high school. Ramsey figures he was there five to seven days a week. He and Tram were always together, hunting or fishing before and after school, with one set of parents or the other commuting them the 10 or so miles between their homes. Ruston, a community of about 40,000 people, is located about 70 miles east of Shreveport.
Ramsey, the top high school javelin thrower in the nation in 1997, also starred at Ruston High School at quarterback, as did Jones, and the local legend became one of Ramsey's biggest fans. Jones, who played at 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds, could see himself in Ramsey (6-3, 223), with that same quiet confidence, toughness in the pocket, natural leadership ability and the explosiveness with which he threw the football. There was no doubt in his mind that Ramsey had the mental and physical makeup to play in the NFL.
"The way Patrick carries himself is a mirror image of the way he was brought up," Jones said from his home in Louisiana. "He has two terrific parents and they raised a terrific young man. I always thought Patrick was a great kid and a great quarterback. He has a strong arm, he's strong and smart and he has the kind of demeanor you need to be able to play that position in the NFL. I always thought he was a very good player and I was extremely confident that he would ultimately be a player in this league."
Jones did whatever he could to ensure that prophecy would come true. Ramsey's parents were out of town one weekend in high school, and he hurt his elbow in a game; Jones took him back to his house and taught Ramsey the proper way to ice down and care for his throwing arm. In Ramsey's junior and senior years, Jones helped him evaluate college programs and helped steer him to Tulane, where Ramsey went on to set school records. Many NFL scouting reports compared Ramsey to Jones because of their arm strength, velocity and quick release.
"As I view it now looking back," said Danny Graham, Ramsey's father-in-law who is a lifelong friend of Jones, "I think Patrick, as a kid looking at Bert's career, saw him as a guy who had a lot of drive to be successful and had a lot of talent. Obviously, at this level it's a talent deal, and they both have a very natural ability to throw the football. I think that inspired Patrick. Obviously, any kid who wanted to play in the NFL would be inspired by someone like that, and I think that drives Patrick to try to reach those goals, too."
When Ramsey's college career was winding down he began focusing on the draft and gave Jones a list of prospective agents to investigate, calling on his lingering ties to the league. Jones came back with a name Ramsey had not thought of before, Memphis-based Jimmy Sexton, who has since formed a tight bond with Ramsey as his representative.