When Larry Holmes wanted to offer some heavyweight advice, Lendell Jones thought it wise to listen. In his heart, Holmes wanted his hometown buddy to attend Maryland, Jones believes. But he pulled that prejudicial punch, saying instead: "Be your own man . . . make your own decision, so that when you look back, whether it turns out to be the right or wrong one, at least you did it."
Looking back to Maryland's opening game two years ago, Jones can both cringe and smile. The decisions that night against Vanderbilt were not very good, his mind being slightly scrambled before anyone laid a forearm to him. But the moments an athlete wants most to forget are the ones he'd better remember. Especially if he burns to succeed at football's most vulnerable position, cornerback.
Jones is not as likely to be maimed at left cornerback as he would be in the ring against Holmes, with whom he has been friendly since the reputations of both were mostly confined to Easton, Pa. Still, no matter how hard they run, corners also cannot hide on their bad nights.
It takes a hill of skill and a mountain of nerve to man that often-lonely defensive outpost. "You only have to be a corner a little while to find that out," Jones said. Even so, he wanted to be a defender from the moment he arrived at Maryland four years ago. Jones knows the flip side of cornerback, that every time he grabs a football a whole lot of glory comes with it.
Not long before leaving for Vanderbilt again this morning, Jones could reflect on how life on the edge has gotten better since that earlier collision in Nashville. That night, Vanderbilt was celebrating a renovated, enlarged stadium and a renovated, pass-oriented offense.
Sophomore Jones, and two other defensive backs in their first college games, got nailed by both.
"Their fans went crazy," he said. "They're tough on opposition players. I had trouble just blocking out the noise. The players were kinda nasty, too. Forearms and late hits. And the offense passed from one end of the field to the other, on each side and up the middle."
In more of a surprise to casual fans than sophisticated insiders, Vandy won. And treated victory over downward-sliding Maryland as though it had been against the Four Horsemen, the Seven Blocks of Granite and Superman.
"We lost it in the fourth quarter," Jones said. "But it wasn't just the loss. It was the atmosphere. The Vanderbilt players even got brought back onto the field (after the 23-17 upset). It's a night I'll never forget.
"They say down there that game turned their program around.
"We got a chance now to bring it down."
Since Jones was reduced to grass-blade size that night, he has grown. He has lost some and won some against such past and future NFL early-round draftees as receivers Mike Quick, Perry Tuttle and Kenny Jackson and quarterbacks Todd Blackledge, Oliver Luck, Jeff Hostetler and Ben Bennett.
Later that sophomore season, Jones intercepted three passes. Last year, he intercepted Duke's Bennett four times. Only three players in the nation stole more passes than his seven in '82.
"He's worked himself into being a good defensive back," said Greg Williams, the secondary coach. "If he were faster, he'd be a great defensive back. He tackles with authority, gets rid of blockers with authority and covers with authority.
"Last year, there were certain situations where he had good confidence and certain situations where he wasn't confident. Now he seems confident nearly all the time. Everybody's throwing more, which puts even more pressure on defensive backs, no matter what scheme you run."
Vanderbilt's regular tight end has been declared ineligible and a flanker used to replace him. So Maryland is prepared to battle against three wide receivers.
For Jones, the same scene will feel so different. Two years ago, the Terrapin line was trying to overcome a green secondary; Saturday, Jones and an exceedingly deep backfield will be breaking in a largly inexperienced front. It's a team game, but Jones knows he'll be alone now and then, isolated against some burner with nothing but the game at stake.
"You're a little bit wide receiver and a little bit running back," he said of his job description. "You've got to be a good hitter, you've got to be strong and you've got to be quick. It takes a lot of athletic ability. Defensive backs are really hard to find."
By that he means ones who won't wilt after the first big-play reception or missed open-field tackle. Those who survive, and later thrive, as Jones has, can wipe the humility away as quickly as line chalk. The head soon snaps high, the mind assumes something good will happen very quickly.
"You can practice and practice," Jones said, "but there's still nothing like a game. Getting beat once in a while, not making the play sometimes, missing a tackle. You learn from things like that. That's how it is. Getting comfortable back there didn't come overnight. It came gradually.
"You're not gonna get better not playing."