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Jones deserves Irish rushing record

Chris Federico | Friday, December 5, 2003

Julius Jones could have taken the easy way out.

When he was dismissed from Notre Dame for academic reasons two summers ago, he could have transferred to another school where the expectations would have been lower.

He could have tried to jump early to the NFL through the supplemental draft.

Or he could have left football behind altogether, disappearing into the obscurity that is the land of disgraced and forgotten athletes.

But Jones was determined not to let himself off the hook that easily. He felt he owed it to himself, his family and his Irish teammates to return to Notre Dame one day and reclaim his spot in the Irish backfield.

“I think people have had an eye on me coming back to Notre Dame to see what I would do,” said the Irish running back about the high expectations surrounding his return to South Bend.

Now 209 carries and 1,214 yards later, Jones stands only 223 yards shy of Notre Dame history and silencing his doubters once and for all – that is the margin by which he trails the Notre Dame single season rushing record, set by Vagas Ferguson in 1979.

Saturday in Notre Dame’s last game of the season against Syracuse, Jones will have that mark in his sights, and nobody deserves the record more than the Irish fifth-year senior.

He deserves it, because Irish fans need something to cheer about and remember from coach Tyrone Willingham’s sophomore season, when the Irish struggled to reach .500 and failed to earn a bowl berth for the second time in three years. Jones breaking that record could be the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal season that started tragically and finished with a little flicker of hope.

He deserves it, because he kept his Irish teammates focused on winning when things had gotten their worst in the season. After a 23-10 loss at Purdue as the Irish dropped to 1-3 on the season, a visibly frustrated Jones made his feelings known – he did not want to go out a loser, and he did not want his return to Notre Dame to be tainted in that way.

He deserves it for those times this season when his hard running and determination almost single-handedly kept the Irish in the game: his 19-yard touchdown run against Washington State that put the Irish on top for the first time, his record-breaking 262-yard day against Pittsburgh that sealed the Irish upset and his 221-yard, two-touchdown day that saved an embarrassing loss to Navy and kept Notre Dame’s 40-year winning streak over the Midshipmen alive.

He deserves it for his family, for his mother and father that saw him through the toughest of times and for older brother and NFL running back Thomas who kept him on the right track and saw through his return to Notre Dame.

He deserves it, because everything he’s accomplished this season, he’s done with the utmost humility and respect for the program. When he wasn’t getting many carries at the beginning of the season, he never criticized his coach’s decisions, as he unselfishly waited for his turn to prove himself on the field.

Most importantly, Jones deserves this Notre Dame record as a reward and trophy for all he’s accomplished in his comeback with the Irish. After his dismissal, Jones realized his mistake and worked harder than ever to prove that he belonged as part of the Notre Dame family.

“Yeah, I had something to prove,” Jones said. “I had something to prove to everybody, that I could go to school here and play football here, and I think I’ve done that. When I get that degree, I think everything will be complete.”

Jones now has that chance to prove himself. He is on track to graduate from Notre Dame in the spring, and Saturday, he can secure his place alongside the family of Irish football greats by surpassing Ferguson’s 24-year old mark.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily of The Observer. Contact Chris Federico at cfederic@nd.edu