Finishing the job
Andrew Soukup | Thursday, September 4, 2003
At Notre Dame’s annual football media day three weeks ago, Ryan Grant sat alone patiently waiting for a reporter to approach him. After all, wouldn’t somebody want to talk to Notre Dame’s first 1,000-yard rusher in five years?
Under normal circumstances, Grant’s table would have been surrounded by all kinds of media types.
But on this particular day, Julius Jones had planned to speak publicly for the first time regarding his forced exile from the Irish. So while Grant sat mostly by himself, the crowd around Jones’ table stretched three deep. They waited for the player once named to a future NFL all-decade team to explain his academic-related absence.
And they wanted to hear him explain why he came back.
To understand why some consider Jones’ return the equivalent of the Second Coming, it’s easier to show crowd-pleasing clips featuring his electrifying kick returns and ankle-breaking moves from his first three years at Notre Dame.
But to explain who Jones became after he got booted by the Irish, it’s easier to explain what he did in his own personal purgatory – away from the Irish, away from the television cameras, away from everyone but his family
Making a mistake
Jones first burst onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium as a freshman in 1999, wowing fans with his explosive speed and devastating quickness. As Notre Dame’s primary kick returner for most of the season, Jones tallied 798 return yards for the Irish, the second-highest season total in Notre Dame history.
He quickly became popular with fans for his big-play potential, which he demonstrated a year later against No. 1 Nebraska when he started his first game at running back and returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to help send the game into overtime. Just as conducting the band during the 1812 Overture is second nature for Irish fans, so too was lifting their arms, crossing their wrists and raising two fingers raised on each hand to symbolize Jones’ uniform number each time he ran onto the field to return a kick.
But off the field, few things were perfect for Jones. He missed spring practice one year thanks to a University suspension, and some teammates quietly grumbled about the star running back’s work ethic. His reputation for dodging interviews with the media was so legendary that one day, a handful of reporters started a pool on whether Jones would show up to speak to them (he didn’t).
By the time Jones had returned to the playing field for his junior year, he had added 20 pounds at the coaches’ urging. Sure, he was a bigger back, but he had lost the burst of speed that made him such a dangerous threat in the first place – even though he went on to lead the Irish in rushing that fall with 718 yards.
Then, the summer before his senior year, disaster struck.
Jones, a film, television and theater major, met with his parents and academic officials from Notre Dame to discuss something neither party has been willing to talk about. But after the meeting, word had trickled out that Jones was going to be suspended for a year.
“I was pretty hurt and upset,” he said. “But you have to look forward and try to make the best of it.”
The Irish, and their new head coach Tyrone Willingham, weren’t fazed. At one point during the summer, when someone asked Willingham if he considered Jones a leader, the Irish coach said simply, “No.”
Looking to his family
When Jones learned he had been booted from the University, the running back was the emotional equivalent of a tornado. He flirted with entering the supplemental NFL draft. He tossed around the idea of transferring.
But in the end, he realized he wanted to go to Notre Dame.
“I started here, and I want to finish things I started,” he said. “I came here for a reason, I came here to graduate and I didn’t feel comfortable going somewhere else.”
Jones moved to Arizona to live with his brother and best friend Thomas, then a running back with the Arizona Cardinals (he has since been traded to Tampa Bay). He enrolled in classes at Arizona State to maintain his college eligibility while thriving in the relative anonymity as just another regular student on the Pac-10 campus.
Meanwhile, back in South Bend, the Irish had charged to an 8-0 start in Jones’ absence. Grant was on his way to gaining 1,085 yards as Notre Dame’s featured back and Vontez Duff’s kick returning abilities had all but made Irish fans think, “Julius who?”
But Jones hadn’t forgotten the Irish. As much as it hurt, he watched every game on television – “I was one of the biggest cheerleaders,” he said. He even made several trips to South Bend to visit with his girlfriend and his teammates – and saw a campus feeding off the success of the football team.
“It just looked so fun last year,” Jones said. “They were winning and having a good time, and I wasn’t a part of it.”
In between trips to Indiana, Jones rebuilt himself academically and athletically. Watching his brother showed him the work ethic necessary to succeed in the NFL. He changed to a high protein diet. He rarely touched a football, choosing instead to work out in weight room four times a week.
And under the guidance of his brother – whom Jones said he considers one of his best friends – Jones traded fat for muscle and laziness for dedication.
“When I first got the news about not being able to come back to Notre Dame, it really hurt,” Jones said. “But as I look at it, it was kind of a chance for me to grow up a little bit, to get hungry and to get ready to come back here and take care of business.”
By the time a chiseled, 210-pound Jones appeared on an ESPN interview in February, saying he wanted to return to Notre Dame, he appeared stronger, more determined and – most of all – more mature.
At one point, Jones met with Willingham to find out what he had to do to rejoin the football team. While Jones doesn’t want to talk about the substance of the discussion or what exactly he had to do to return, he acknowledged he had quite a bit to change.
“I had to change my attitude,” he said. “I didn’t really have a bad attitude, but as far as taking care of things and getting things done, I wasn’t really on top of that.”
For his part, Willingham –who had said all along that Jones would be an integral part of the Irish if he came back to South Bend – maintained he set no criteria for Jones to rejoin the team.
“He made a mistake,” Willingham said. “But he was man enough to admit he made a mistake and man enough to do what he had to do to correct that mistake.”
By June, Jones had cleared most of the University’s academic requirements for re-admission and enrolled in summer classes. When summer school wrapped up in early August – and Jones had passed his classes – he was back on the Irish for good.
“What kept me going?” he said. “My brother. My family. I knew I had let them down, and I wanted to prove to them I could get back here.”
The Notre Dame team to which Jones returned was drastically different than the one he left. No longer were the Irish a squad that lost more games each season than it won. Instead, Jones noticed a disciplined team fanatically bent on success. Practices were faster and more intense. The offense was completely different.
And Jones realized he was no longer the top running back. That honor – at least for this Saturday – went to Grant, who had a year under his belt in Willingham’s complicated offense.
But Jones, too, was different. While many of the Irish are hesitant to describe Jones pre-exile, many now will praise his heightened work ethic and improved attitude.
“I think it wasn’t that he had a bad attitude before,” Grant said. “I think maybe he didn’t approach things the right way in terms of going all out.
“But that’s all behind him, and he’s going forward.”
Willingham said he now considers Jones one of the team’s leaders, even as the coach dodges questions about how much the senior running back will play. Yet the coaches know how pivotal Jones is to Notre Dame’s potential success.
“I don’t know what the past was,” running backs coach Buzz Preston said. “All I know is that the young man is coming back here and is doing a good job.”
The soft-spoken Jones now appears happier than before he left. In the days leading up to Notre Dame’s season opener against Washington State, he grinned broadly when describing his anticipation about running out of the tunnel – “I remember it, but it’s gonna be sweet when I do it for real. It feels like it’s been 10 years since I played.
“I missed it a lot,” he added. “Anytime you have something taken away from you that you love doing, it hurts pretty bad.
“It’s like that sometimes. You learn from your mistakes, and I think I’ve done that.”