Saturday at Byrd Stadium, Maryland and Virginia will meet in a game featuring two of the nation's top running backs--the Cavaliers' Thomas Jones, who leads the nation's Division I-A teams in rushing, and the Terrapins' LaMont Jordan, who is sixth. In the second of two stories, The Washington Post today profiles Jones.
Thomas Jones, the nation's leading rusher but not even a certain finalist for the Heisman Trophy, fends off critics like linemen, and he's baffled a lot of both since his record-setting high school days in this mountain town in southwestern Virginia.
At various times, Jones has been labeled too small-town, too slow, too small, too plain to be considered among the nation's best college football players. But with one regular season game left in his career, Saturday at Maryland, the Virginia senior has established himself as by far the most prolific running back in school history and is a handful of yards from the best rushing season in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
In addition, he graduated in May, having earned a psychology degree in three years. His achievements prompted one of the more unusual late-season pleas for Heisman Trophy consideration--an e-mail to writers and broadcasters across the nation from Virginia Athletic Director Terry Holland.
It begins: "During my forty years in intercollegiate athletics as a scholarship athlete, coach, and athletic director at two outstanding educational institutions (Davidson College and the University of Virginia), I have been fortunate to coach, coach 'against,' and observe firsthand some truly outstanding young people. There is no individual during all that time who epitomizes the term student-athlete as well as UVa football player Thomas Jones."
Jones has persevered mainly by outworking his opponents; becoming bigger, stronger and faster until their tackles just roll off his back. He remained humble because of his upbringing. He remained driven because he has wanted a chance to play in the NFL since he was in kindergarten and regularly got in trouble for playing football games with his crayons at his desk.
At 9 years old, he started analyzing tapes of pro games he had his father make. The next year, he asked for a set of weights because he felt he needed to get stronger for peanut football season in the fall. Until he began high school, he often gathered his sisters in the living room and made them run plays--with full contact--until their parents got home.
"I just love football," Jones said. "The only reason I would make my bed was to make it smooth, like a football field. I would put all the good G.I. Joes on one team, and all the bad ones on the other. I would make my brother leave the room we shared. He would joke, 'You're in sixth grade and you're playing with G.I. Joes.' . . . He was in third grade, so I guess it would have been more acceptable for him to be playing."
Making a Run for It
With about 600 students, Powell Valley High School belongs to the Virginia High School League's classification for schools with the smallest enrollments. So despite racking up incredible statistics (462 carries, a state-record 3,314 yards and 45 touchdowns as a junior, for example) and being rated the nation's second-best running back by SuperPrep magazine, questions remained about whether he could succeed at the major-college level. Before Jones, there had not been a Division I recruit in the region since 1985, and before that, the last was Edd Clark, Jones's uncle, who played at Purdue in the late 1960s.
At Virginia, Jones initially toiled in the shadow of Tiki Barber, who graduated after Jones's freshman year and predicted Jones would break all his school rushing records.
"I said it half-jokingly, but I knew," said Barber, who plays for the New York Giants and whose career and season rushing records have been steamrolled by Jones. "I knew he was that good a back."
Jones did not immediately threaten Barber's legacy, rushing for 692 yards as a sophomore. Again, the doubts began. At 5 feet 10, 199 pounds and with a 40-yard dash time of about 4.6 seconds, Jones was said to be too small to be a power runner and too slow to be a slasher. But last season, he matured with his offensive line and rushed 1,303 yards, leading the ACC by nearly 400 yards.
Few observers seemed impressed. He was on no one's list of Heisman Trophy candidates, Lindy's preseason magazines listed him as the nation's eighth-best running back, the Sporting News' season preview magazine listed him 12th.
But Jones began piling up statistics better--much better--than those he had as a junior. Having bulked up to 207 pounds and lowered his 40-yard dash to about 4.4 seconds, he opened with 149 yards rushing against North Carolina. Two weeks later, he had 164 against Wake Forest, then followed it with 210 against Brigham Young. Through five games, he had 703 yards. That was just the beginning.
In his past five games, including then-No. 7 Georgia Tech and No. 1 Florida State, he has rushed for 1,004 yards--more than 200 per game--while averaging more than 33 carries per game.
For the season, against what one computer ranking system considers the nation's 11th-toughest schedule, he has 1,707 yards rushing and needs 14 more to set the ACC single-season mark set by North Carolina's Don McCauley in 1970. He needs 128 yards to outrush Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, the likely Heisman Trophy winner who finished his regular season last week.
"He's too much," Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden said after Jones's 26-carry, 164-yard effort against the Seminoles on Oct. 30. "I'll be honest with you: I think he's the best running back in the nation. I know Dayne's mighty good up there at Wisconsin [but] there couldn't be one better than Jones."
Several classroom walls at Powell Valley are covered with pictures and newspaper clippings of Jones, but his non-athletic extracurricular activities were almost as important to him as football. He worked as a peer counselor and knew nearly every student at school; he always was the first to ask the members of the debate team how they did over the weekend, before they could congratulate him on another 300-yard game. He was elected class president three times, and is still revered by his classmates and teammates.
"People would run against him, but that was a joke; everyone knew Thomas would win," said Jason McCoy, Jones's best friend from high school, now a senior at the U.S. Military Academy. "Everyone loved him."
And Jones's parents, Betty and Thomas Jones, made sure the adulation did not affect him. They raised Thomas with an emphasis on education and hard work. Betty Jones worked in coal mines for 19 years, while the elder Thomas Jones worked as an admissions officer for several regional colleges, including Tennessee.
"We're an A's and B's household," Betty Jones said. "I told them at an early age not to bring any C's home."
Jones was selected for Lonesome Pine District all-academic teams in each of his 12 high school marking periods, and he took community college classes as a senior, enabling him to enter Virginia with 14 credits in physics and English. (That and his willingness to take heavier-than-normal course loads during several semesters in Charlottesville enabled him to finish his undergraduate degree early, and begin taking graduate classes in education this fall.)
"If that child had never touched a football, we'd still be as proud of him," said Becky Caldwell, who taught Jones accounting at Powell Valley and has remained close since.
But during Jones's junior and senior years, football was more important than usual in Big Stone Gap. The coal industry, the backbone of the region's economy for more than a century, was declining. Westmoreland, the region's largest mining company went bankrupt and workers, including Jones's mother, got laid off. One of the ways the town's 4,800 people kept hope was by rooting for Powell Valley's football team and Jones, who won the Group A state championship Jones's junior and senior seasons, going 26-2 during that time.
"When the football team excelled, it was an output of success for all of the town," said David Doughty, who was Powell Valley's principal during Jones's years there. "A lot of people had lost their jobs. Thomas just brought everyone joy."
So while Jones does not seem broken up about having such slim chances of winning the Heisman Trophy, Jones's family and friends are in an uproar.
"I have no doubt if he was at a Notre Dame, he'd be at the top of these lists," said Jones's father, who knows of what he speaks, since the family's youngest son, Julius, has shown considerable promise as a freshman running back for the Fighting Irish.
Thomas Jones's Heisman cause probably has not been helped by Virginia's 6-4 record and fall from the national rankings, which occurred after a 31-7 loss to Virginia Tech on Oct. 2, and was followed by a 24-17 overtime loss to Duke in which Jones lost a fumble at the Blue Devils 11-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
But some experts who have seen more than one of Virginia's games, including ESPN's Mike Gottfried, have begun touting him.
"He just has all the qualities you want," Virginia Coach George Welsh said. "He's got great vision now, which is better than it was last year, so he's making all those good cuts. He's got acceleration, and he's always going forward. And he's durable."
According to Virginia's staff and Jones's high school coaches, he has never missed a practice. That, as much as any other accomplishment on the field, may epitomize Jones, who said, "I'm willing to do whatever I have to do--you just try to be perfect on everything," and ignored his teammates' encouragement to strike the Heisman stiff-arm pose after his 84-yard touchdown reception in last Saturday's victory over Buffalo.
"To be getting recognition like that, it's definitely a weird feeling," Jones said. "I haven't really had too much recognition since I got here. It's just an honor to be mentioned with the Heisman. Whether I get invited to go or not, I can always say I was a Heisman Trophy candidate."
Season To Shine
Thomas Jones leads the nation in rushing yards per game. He was 11th in the nation last season and was first in the ACC.
North Carolina W, 20-17/35/149/1
Clemson L, 33-14/23/97/1
Wake Forest W, 35-7/24/164/3
Brigham Young W, 45-40/35/210/2
Virginia Tech L, 31-7/23/83/0
Duke L, 24-17 (2OT)/31/185/2
N.C. State W, 47-26/38/221/3
Florida State L, 35-10/26/164/1
Georgia Tech W, 45-38/39/213/2
Buffalo W, 50-21/32/221/1
1997 201/692/4 (+1 rec.)
1998 238/1,303/13 (+2 rec.)
1999 306/1,707/16 (+1 rec.)
Totals 557/2,921/23 (+4 rec.)