Reggie Jones lost his parents with one strike of a match in the middle of the night. His stepfather left the house in the back of an ambulance. His mother left in the back seat of a police car.
Twelve years later, the memory of that one horrific night of violence during his childhood is propelling Jones through the Washington Redskins’ training camp, where he’s trying to crack a crowded secondary and earn a spot on the team’s 53-man roster.
”After seeing what I saw, I knew that life was short and if I want to make something happen, I have to go do it,” said the 25-year-old cornerback. “Because anything can happen.”
Jones’s chances of making the Redskins are slim, especially as a cornerback, though he played extensively in Friday night’s preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. His best shot may be on special teams, and even there, he is practicing with the second team.
But after turning his nightmare into an NFL dream, Jones believes he can overcome any obstacle.
“I never thought my mom would end up in prison for murdering my dad. I never thought that could happen,” Jones said. “Anything can happen at any moment in life, so I just knew I had to take advantage of every moment and go.”
On a cool October morning in 1999, Jones, then 13, was asleep with his sisters in the basement of his home in Seattle, unaware of his parents’ argument in the upstairs master bedroom over an alleged affair, according to court documents.
Tonya and Donyea Jones had begun fighting Friday night and continued, off and on, into Sunday morning. At one point, they “confronted each other with handguns,” according to the court papers.
Reggie Jones, awakened by a loud bang, sprinted up a flight of stairs and into a cloud of smoke. He looked down to see his stepfather — the man who taught him how to catch a football in the backyard — in flames, screaming on the floor.
“Don’t just stand there!” Jones recalled his father’s plea. “Help!”
“I didn’t know what to do,” Jones said.
He went downstairs, grabbed his sisters and fled out the back door.
Police said Tonya Jones lit her sleeping husband on fire. Consumed by panic, Reggie Jones remembers only a “blurry” image of his mother standing by the kitchen door on the phone. She called 911 four times while her husband lay writhing in pain as the flames burned 90 percent of his body in 10 minutes.
“I seen my dad all charred from the flames. . . . I seen them handcuff my mom and they took her away,” Jones said. “I had my two sisters standing under my arms and they’re both looking at me like, ‘Bro, what are we going to do?’ ”
The easy answer would have been to evade his responsibilities as head of the family he inherited that day. But his mother had taught him better.
“You’re a Jones. You’re a Jones. Make it mean something,” Tonya Jones repeatedly told her son as he grew up.
The jury convicted her of second-degree murder based on her husband’s dying declaration that she had set him on fire, his burned street clothes and a burnt match found on a laundry bag on the bed in the master bedroom, among other evidence.
Defense counsel tried to suggest that Donyea Jones had accidentally set himself on fire. Tonya Jones appealed the conviction to no avail.
“When I was going to all those court hearings and listening in, I was there, but I wasn’t really there,” Jones said. “I knew the end result and I knew I wasn’t happy from it and I knew that it crushed my sisters and it crushed a part of me. But I never spent time thinking about did she do it or did she not do it. I never even asked her.”
Instead, Jones threw himself headlong into football. He moved in with his grandparents in Kent, Wash., where he spent eighth grade through high school. In the past, Jones and his grandmother had talked almost every week at her home, sharing his latest football news.
After the tragedy, however, Jones immersed himself in football, even skipping an all-expense-paid family trip to Disney World in favor of training.
“He kind of withdrew,” his grandmother, Dorothy Swift, said. “I guess within himself, to fight through it, he threw himself even more into football. He was consumed with it at that time. Opposed to thinking about what happened, he chose to absorb himself into football and I guess that was less painful for him.”
Jones’s athletic talent allowed him to letter in swimming, track and football at Kent Meridian High. As a sophomore, he caught the eye of the baseball coach and though he never played for him, the coach created an outlet.
“I’ve seen you out there,” the baseball coach told Jones. “You’re fast. You could be our Deion Sanders. We’ll call you ‘Primetime.’ ”
Jones politely declined.
“We’ll call you ‘Showtime.’ ”
“That became my alter ego and a way for me to get away from the reality,” Jones said. “I created my own reality. And that’s who I lived in on the football field.”
“Showtime” Jones starred for the Royals every Friday night, playing almost every position, including punter, on a team that won two games in three seasons. He earned a scholarship to the University of Oregon, which later rescinded the offer.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Jones, who said he left the house in tears when he got the word. “I just couldn’t pass the SAT. I kept missing by 10 points. Every time. And my fourth time I passed it.”
That was just in time to join the University of Idaho football program as a defensive back, where he stayed for three years before transferring to Portland State. Jones recorded four interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown, in his final college season.
“He was a kid that needed a lot of guidance, but he was a kid that was easy to guide,” said Alundis Brice, who coached Jones at both schools. “He was hungry and he knew what he wanted.”
Jones signed with New Orleans as an undrafted free agent in 2009, but an Achilles’ tendon injury sidelined him during his rookie season, the year the Saints won the Super Bowl. He spent last season on the Saints’ practice squad until he signed with the Redskins in December.
Playing football is “what I figured myself to do,” Jones said. “In New Orleans, I learned a lot. And here I am [in Washington] now with a chance to shine. New Orleans found me as a diamond in the rough. And I’m ready to shine now.”
Now, being a Jones also means expending every ounce of energy at Redskins Park — here his dreadlocks dance across the name on his burgundy practice jersey — for the chance to become one of the NFL’s greatest success stories. Being a Jones means setting “not a good example, but a great example,” for his two younger sisters, his wife and his eight-month-old son. Being a Jones means being the best husband to his wife and the best father to his son, whom Jones kisses under the Redskins Park suite tents after every practice.
In 15 months, he will be able to show his mother what being a Jones means.
Tonya Jones is scheduled for release from the Graham Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C., on Nov. 24, 2012. Jones plans to send a black limousine stocked with daiquiris to the prison’s front gate, to escort his mother to her sister’s house, where Jones and his family will be waiting with welcome home signs and open arms.
“I just knew I had to overcome. For my sisters. For myself. Just for everyone looking at me. . . I didn’t want any pity. I didn’t want any sympathy. I wanted them to say, ‘Oh this guy overcame a lot.’ ”