Coal Miners' Sons
Friday, September 16, 2005
BIG STONE GAP, Va. There were times when Julius Jones and his big brother, Thomas, had difficulty falling asleep in the small bedroom they shared as young boys. They often lay wondering if their mother, Betty, would make it out into the sunshine from the dark and dangerous coal mine where she worked for so many years, whether she would be there when they came home from school and football practice. They worried about cave-ins, fires, all the accidents they had heard about growing up in this tiny southwestern Virginia town nestled deep in the Appalachian Mountains.
"It was tough knowing that your mom could be down there miles under the ground and something bad could happen," Julius Jones said. "She'd go down there wearing that light on her helmet, pads on her knees and her elbows. She did what everyone else did in the mine. It was hard work. We knew what she did. We knew what sacrifices both our parents made for all of us."
Now, at 24, it's payback time for Julius Jones, the running back on whom the Dallas Cowboys are pinning their hopes for the future. And for Thomas, 27, who is the starting running back for the Chicago Bears. The two huddled earlier in the week to scout the Washington Redskins, Julius's opponent Monday night and Thomas's last weekend. That's nothing new, though. Thomas has been there for Julius virtually at every step since leaving Big Stone Gap (population 5,900).
"It's pretty crazy that both of us made it all the way here when you think about it," said Thomas, who was a running back at the University of Virginia. "That feeling never wears off. I'm still kind of amazed that we both made it to the NFL, because this is what we always dreamed about. I don't think it's so much a coincidence that we both got there, because we helped each other make it here. We run pretty much the same way. We've trained together. We talk after games. It's like having two people go through the same thing, and that's always stronger than just one."
But more than just two people are behind their success. Both acknowledge the sacrifices their father, Thomas A. Jones -- known as Big Thomas -- and Betty, his wife of 33 years, have made over the years. The brothers also have five sisters, including Julius's twin, Knetris, as well as an extended family of friends, teachers and coaches who helped nurture them.
Diane Bruner, their seventh-grade civics and American history teacher, described them as being "a lot more focused than many seventh-grade boys I've ever been around. It's a success story small towns like ours rarely see, and give all the credit to their parents. They monitored everything those children did. They have a family closeness that is unreal."
Barry Jones, no relation to the family, taught Thomas and Julius as kindergartners in gym class, then coached them at Powell Valley High School as an assistant in football and track. Thomas, he recalled, was always more talkative than Julius, but he could tell almost from the first time he saw them play simple children's games that both had a chance to be special.
"I can remember Thomas in the fourth or fifth grade saying, 'I'm going to play in the NFL some day,' " Barry Jones said. "They were both straight-A students. They were focused, worked hard in school and worked hard to get where they are today. It's just a great story."
It's also a story with deep roots in the once-thriving coal business that first put this town on the map during an early boom in the 1870s, when, according to the Southwest Virginia Museum, some northern businessmen thought Big Stone Gap might even become the Pittsburgh of the South.
"It's embedded in the people of this area," Big Thomas said. "For a long time, it was the heartbeat of the community."
Both Big Thomas's and Betty's parents came north from Alabama in the 1940s looking for a better way of life. They found it in the mines, settling in a tiny coal camp known as Stonega. Big Thomas's father spent 47 years in the mines, Betty's dad 35 years.
Big Thomas and Betty's late brother, Edd Clark, played in the same backfield at Appalachia High. Edd held the Virginia Class A state record for rushing yards in a game until his nephew Thomas gained 462 yards one night in 1994. Edd was known as the "Stonega Stallion" in the late 1960s, and went to Purdue on a football scholarship. He lasted only a year and eventually came back home to drive a coal truck. In 1986, on vacation in South Florida, he drowned in an ocean undertow while trying to rescue two children. He got one of them out of the water, but died trying to save the second.