And when the voices of El Paso told of Mr. Jones with a tenor and a resonance surpassing even lofty words, it might have steered a mind toward the idea of loss, a concept gone rampant in the world of late. Another year of covid loss has sent the planet past 5.4 million deaths all told, but 5.4 million can seem imponderable. Maybe the comprehension of the loss comes with the comprehension of one wise, steadfast, tough, decent, strict, kind, benevolent, entire man who would have reeled at this praise.
To those who knew Mr. Jones, his death at 56 on April 6 from covid complications has become that eternal human bewilderment, the strain to comprehend the fresh absence of such a reliable, deepened presence. He was the husband of Vurgess Jones, both of them noncommissioned officers in the Army, and the father of five, who include Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones and his twin, Canadian Football League linebacker Alvin Jones Jr. He carried around the kind of intellect someone corrals from Army tours in seven countries. He was “the greatest man” Aaron Jones ever met, and his passing left Aaron’s heart “torn into a million pieces,” and his ashes, once found, remain in a pouch in Aaron’s game-day No. 33. And then to people around El Paso and especially El Paso sports, he was something else, too: the kind of human bedrock every city and town needs — quiet, constant, impossibly reliable, a mountain of a soul resistant to attention, a life so considerable that a death became inconceivable.
“Oh, yeah,” said Sandra B. McNeal, the twins’ seventh-grade teacher whose family befriended the Jones family and who keeps the obituary close by on her table.
“It doesn’t feel real even today,” said Shawn Bryan, a car company owner who met “Senior,” as he called him, when each had children adept at sports.
“I was utterly shocked, you know, when I got the news,” said Marcus Graham, who coached the twins at football at Burges High in El Paso and coaches today at Beaumont (Tex.) United.
“Oh, it’s devastating,” said a youth coach who spoke on the condition of anonymity in homage to Mr. Jones’s memory. “I can’t believe it, still.”
Here are details from Mr. Jones’s obituary: 28 years in the Army (1984 to 2012) ... retired as command sergeant major … tours of Iraq, Kuwait, Hungary, Egypt, Germany and South Korea with various posts in the United States … six medals listed … member of church at Fort Bliss, member of “Hospitality Ministry” at the church … youth-sports coach … board member of the West Texas Blazers AAU basketball team … organizer of youth football camps … organizer of bike drives, of turkey drives, of a shoe drive at the time of his death.
Here’s a sampling of the comments beneath the obituary at the site Dignity Memorial, their tone and volume deluging any inkling of superficiality: “Calm demeanor” … “caring spirit” … “shining light” … “a credit to the uniform he wore” … “I could go on forever about how awesome of a joker [he was]” … “Such a beautiful person has taken his wings” … “Absolutely heartbroken, speechless and shocked” … “His care for the community will be forever cherished and never forgotten” … “That man made you better just by being around him.” One man told of a four-hour drive through Germany with Mr. Jones for a meeting that got postponed from the next morning to the next evening, whereupon Mr. Jones promptly drove four hours back to catch his sons’ game the next morning, followed by another four-hour drive back for the meeting.
Here’s a sampling of comments from those around El Paso, around its Franklin Mountains, its colorful rocks, its stouthearted desert vegetation: “Very calm” … “always dropping gems, dropping knowledge” … “a leader, a soldier, a leader of soldiers” … “great posture” … “wasn’t a belligerent guy” … “a demanding guy [and] a caring guy” … “straight shooter” … “very easy to approach” … “very strict with his boys” but “very forgiving when they made mistakes.” He and Vurgess would drive kids, feed kids, take in a middle school kid. “Always A-1, always available anytime, any place, just someone you can depend on, really depend on” … “a magnetic personality, just something you want to gravitate toward” … “He didn’t pretend like his kids were the best kids and didn’t make mistakes or do anything wrong” … “He would be one — at Burges High School — would always go back to the high school and visit, and just his presence, everyone would always know, ‘That’s Mr. Jones.’ ”
“He was,” said Graham, the football coach, “a model for really how you want parents to be involved.”
In fact, without collaboration or consultation, people in El Paso tend to reach a thought strikingly similar.
“ ‘Senior’ was the man,” Bryan said, “and this is what I want people to know about him, and for people who knew him this is true: ‘Senior’ is the man who, when he walks into the room, you would automatically want to be a better person. You would want to be a better dad, a better friend, a better husband.”
“He had a way with kids,” said McNeal, the teacher, “that made them want to be better. It was the way he talked to them. ... When my boys gave me problems, he would come over and he would talk to them and he would tell them, ‘No matter what you do in life and what you accomplish, your mom and dad are always going to be there.’ … He never belittled them or called them names. … It’s a gift because not everybody can do it. Even teachers who are trained, taught to be positive and not sarcastic with the kids still have to work at it.”
“He was a person, when he talked, you want to listen,” Jon Mathews said.
When Mathews, 32, himself an Army veteran, co-founded the West Texas Blazers, the twins already played football at UTEP, and Mathews felt skittish about consulting Jones per his aunt’s recommendation. Do it, said his aunt, McNeal, and the advice did flow: about taking the players on trips to Dallas and Phoenix and Los Angeles to help them gain visibility, about scheduling older teams to hone toughness, about conducting a toy drive at Christmas, about contacting children’s hospitals for same.
Later, when the Joneses started traveling to Packers games far and farther, Mathews would hear from McNeal: Contact them; they’re trying to donate to you. Or sometimes Mathews might talk to another coach, and there might come that moment of realization: “He could be helping two people, and they didn’t even know [he was helping the other].”
“Behind the scenes,” Graham said, “he’s going to be doing a lot of things people don’t know about. The booster club, he wasn’t the president, but behind the scenes, he’s going to be hustling.” And so: “He was a doer, man — not a talker, a doer,” who would say, “ ‘If you’re going to tell these kids to do something, you have to do it, too.’ ”
At the high school where his sons played football and basketball and ran track, with its “THIS IS MUSTANG COUNTRY” sign and its purple-and-gold press box against a blue sky, “Papa Jones” or “Senior” or “Mr. Jones” had been present, often on the sideline. At the Sun Bowl where his sons played football and the stadium tucks so exquisitely into the brown hills, among America’s best stadium settings, he had been present. At Lambeau Field, where he became something of a known fixture, unfailingly in the stands at Packers games, he had been present enough that Mathews once said to him, “I see the [TV] camera’s finding you again.”
“I wish it didn’t!” came the reply.
Then covid brought its horrible lottery, and a man who didn’t crave being known became nationally known through the story of the ashes in the end zone. He became the very idea of a man about whom more people should know. That sense turned up in words and in depths of feelings and in fragments of hearts, and it rang in three words McNeal spoke just after a pause.
“He was remarkable,” she said.