South Lakes' Ja'Juan Jones finds his place after a homeless odyssey

Ja'Juan Jones reads a passage from his sixth grade diary. Jones says his sixth grade teacher Buffy Nicolas was the first person he ever opened up to about his homeless odyssey. Nicolas gave Jones a diary and they wrote to each other. Nicolas, whom Jones said was one of the most influential people in his life, also reads from the diary.
By B.J. Koubaroulis
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 11:49 PM

The details are hazy. Some of the names and places are hard to conjure up, but Ja'Juan Jones does not want to forget all the twists and turns that got him here to this tidy three-bedroom apartment that overlooks a golf course in Reston.

As he tries to bring back the memories, Jones grips his brow so firmly that the inside of his index finger and thumb turn white. Most of what Jones can remember are the emotions: embarrassment, loneliness, anger, jealousy.

His homeless odyssey has given his play on the football field an angry edge, one that he hopes will land him a college scholarship. A senior running back and free safety at South Lakes High School, Jones has grown up sleeping on floors, couches and, at one point, spent a year living in a shelter.

"I've only ever told two people about this, ever," Jones said.

As he prepares to lead the Seahawks (7-3) into Friday's Virginia AAA Div. 5 playoff game against Mount Vernon (5-5), Jones has begun to accept that he has been through more than most 17-year-olds. He has learned things that weren't taught by the teachers in the five different elementary schools he attended or by the coaches on the youth football fields he dominated when he was younger.

Jones knows how to shop for apartments, how to sneak an extra free meal during school lunch, how to lie about why he was in the bathroom at school, rather than try to explain away the 10 minutes he spent locked in a stall crying. He knows how to pretend he has a home, entertain himself when the cable gets turned off, do laundry without detergent, how to add flavor to yet another Cup of Noodles soup. He makes a clear distinction between "dinner" and "food."

"You know," he says. "It's easier to force yourself to go to sleep when you're hungry rather than trying to wait for the meal to come."

A coach's project

Ja'Juan Jones is known at South Lakes High School as "Little Ellenberger." The nickname stuck after the 5-foot-10, 170-pound running back developed a close relationship with former South Lakes coach John Ellenberger, who left the program after last season.

"It goes all the way back to when he was in youth league," Ellenberger said. "At South Lakes, the youth teams, they practice on the same field. We were going to practice and I'm walking past [a youth league practice] and I look over and all of the sudden this kid comes up and knocks the heck out of this other kid. I'm asking some of my players, 'Who's that?' because, you know, you're always look for that next best kid, that next star player.'"

Jones became one of Ellenberger's projects when he got to the Reston high school. Three years later, Jones is still delivering those devastating hits. A powerful helmet-to-helmet smack during South Lakes's 42-36 victory over Langley last month gave Jones a concussion, but he is expected back for Friday's playoff game.

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