By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Big Thomas and Betty say they also learned a valuable lesson from Edd's decision to attend Purdue. Because Betty's parents knew little about the recruiting process, they allowed Edd's football coaches to steer him toward West Lafayette.
"Even before Thomas was born, we said to each other that if we ever had a boy and he wanted to pursue football, we'd make sure he would do it the right way, and not be influenced by anyone but us," Big Thomas said. "When it came down to our two boys, we wanted them to make sure that academics was the first priority. It was never about the ball for these two. It was always about the books."
Big Thomas had gone from high school to a six-year stretch in the Air Force. When he got out, he went to a broadcasting school in Ohio and eventually landed a job as a disc jockey and news director for a local radio station here. He and Betty married in 1972 and six years later, they had three children. Betty held down an office job, but they were having a hard time making ends meet. When a nearby coal company announced in 1978 that it was hiring miners, both Big Thomas and Betty applied, thinking they'd only work for a few years while building up a nest egg.
But Betty stayed on the job for 19 years, working the third shift from midnight to 8 a.m. so she'd have time during the day and evening to be a part of her children's lives. She finally stopped in 1998. Big Thomas was one of 200 men laid off by the coal company after a year, but he found work as a TV reporter and anchor, followed by stretches as a minority recruiter for the University of Tennessee and a corrections officer in a nearby state prison.
Both are now retired and live in a handsome, modern house Thomas helped build for them with some of his signing bonus as a first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2000. They live two miles from town, with a stunning view of the mountains, and run their own business selling mail-order music CDs to inmates through a catalogue distributed in all 47 Virginia state prisons.
They've been in this area all their lives, but they are also delighted their adult children, all college graduates, have moved away. Only 17-year-old Katrice is still around, in her junior year and a star volleyball player for Powell Valley.
Big Thomas and Betty do not expect their kids to come back to a town that still seems straight out of the 1950s, despite the Wal-Mart and McDonald's just off Highway 23. Most of the mines have closed in recent years, though several nearby prisons have taken up some of the employment slack. Churches, mostly Baptist, seem to be on every corner. The four-block downtown includes a Chinese restaurant, a Christian teen center and businesses such as Sue's Hallmark and Judy's Hodge Podge. And at the back of the Mutual drugstore on Wood Avenue, the main street, breakfast and lunch are served cafeteria-style, with an order of spaghetti and meat sauce, apple cobbler and a large Coke still bringing change from a $5 bill.
Powell Valley High, the "Home of the Vikings," is a sturdy red-brick building located on the outskirts of town. Hall lockers of all the current football players are easily discernable because cutouts of their jersey numbers are taped on the front, along with messages of good luck. Color pictures of Thomas and Julius are prominently displayed in packed trophy cases down by the gym, along with much of the hardware the two helped collect, including state championships in 1994-95 during Thomas's last two years, and two more in Julius's final two seasons (1997-98) before he went off to Notre Dame. Both played on teams that went 28-0 in their last two years.
Still, there is no mention of their exploits down at Bullitt Park, Powell Valley's home field at the base of Stone Mountain, where standing-room crowds of 7,500 were not unusual when the Jones brothers played. The Jones family lived in a rented house a few blocks away when the boys were growing up. They wore out the swings and seesaws in a park named after a long-gone coal magnate, Joshua Taggart Bullitt. They also played pee wee football in the park under the tutelage of Bob Herron, who has coached many of the town's 8-12-year-olds for 38 years.
"I think Thomas was 7 when I got him, and he was like a gazelle out there, floating all over the field," Herron said. "Julius was more of a slasher, maybe had a little more speed. It's easy to say now, but I always had it in my mind they had a chance to be special. They both worked hard at it from the first day I got them, and the parents were always there, always supporting them, doing whatever they could. They've got a bunch of great kids, and you have to give the parents all the credit you can."
Never was the importance of family more obvious than during one of the rare hiccups in Julius's career at Notre Dame. In what should have been his senior season, he was ruled academically ineligible. Julius and the family decided it would be best if he joined Thomas, then playing for the Arizona Cardinals, and enrolled at Arizona State.
"It was devastating to him and to us as a family," Big Thomas said. "Betty and I went to South Bend, and at least they left a window open for him to get it fixed. This was the first time we as a family had faced this kind of adversity, and we rallied behind him. All of us."
Julius and Thomas lived and trained together for the year, and Notre Dame eventually accepted Julius's ASU work and reinstated him to full eligibility for 2003. Julius made the most of it, gaining more than 1,200 yards, scoring 10 touchdowns and setting a school record by running for more than 200 yards in three games. In April 2004, the Cowboys took him in the second round (43rd overall) of the draft. And he graduated from Notre Dame.
Julius's first year with the Cowboys was another test of his character. Coach Bill Parcells lit into him in preseason when he felt Jones stayed down too long after being hit -- and suffering a bruised rib -- in a game against Tennessee. When Jones fractured the scapula in his shoulder in the second game of the regular season, the team decided not to put him on injured reserve. When he got healthy, Jones started the final seven games, gained 819 rushing yards and scored seven touchdowns, all on the ground, providing great hope for a re-built Dallas offense.
Restoring the Cowboys' glory is a lofty dream, but dreaming is something Julius learned to do in Big Stone Gap.
"My parents worked hard and I know the sacrifices they made for all of us," he said. "I think growing up there was a good thing, too. There was never a whole lot of trouble you could really ever get into. Other than my dad, Thomas and I were the only boys in the house, so we had to stick together, us against the five girls. We did everything together. Even though Thomas was older, he let me hang around with him and his friends. And we always dreamed about playing in the NFL, both of us. We talked about it all the time. Now, we're just living the dream."
Staff writer Eli Saslow contributed to this report.