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TJ Jones carries the memory of his father on the field

Andrew Owens | Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ever since he was a young boy, sophomore receiver TJ Jones has depended on his father as the rock in his life — spiritually, academically and athletically.

When Andre Jones, member of the 1988 Irish national championship team, died at age 42 in June, much of what TJ had come to rely on in his first 18 years of life was thrown into chaos. But the sophomore has transformed into the rock that his mother and four younger siblings depend on in Gainesville, Ga.

“I just think to myself [about his father] every day,” Jones said. “I’ve got six, seven people counting on me. So every day I got to push myself that much harder to make sure that it’s not enough to make it for myself, but also for my family.”

Jones was participating in summer practices when receivers coach Tony Alford called him into the Guglielmino Complex and told him his father was ill after suffering a brain aneurism.

Alford and Andre Jones developed a close bond after the recruitment of TJ. When Alford’s father died at the time, Jones assisted the receivers coach during the period.

“[Alford] and my dad had a very close relationship, and he’s kind of like that father figure in my life on campus and I can talk about anything with him if I needed to,” TJ said. “I know during that period, him and my dad, their relationship grew because my dad was there for him helping him stay through it spiritually, so that helps our relationship now because he knows what I’m going through and he knows what kind of person my dad was.”

Those surrounding TJ have been astonished by the receiver’s composure since the tragedy.

“Just the way that he’s handled himself, it’s just unbelievable,” Irish senior safety and captain Harrison Smith said. “There was never any time where he was down or gave up. He’s just a tough kid and … it’s just motivation. Just doing it for his dad. Just giving him that little bit extra when you might not want to put everything you have into it is something that he has definitely used to his advantage.

Irish coach Brian Kelly credits Jones’ ability to mature amid a life-changing situation.

“As a player, I think he’s really stepped up and become more accountable,” Kelly said. “He’s not a freshman anymore. Last year there were times where he would just act like a freshman. He’s a lot more mature in the way he handles himself.”

Jones said he often stops during his busy days and reflects on his relationship with his father.

“It’s not hard to keep him on my mind,” he said. “Every second I’m not thinking about schoolwork or football, I’m thinking about him. It’s put a toll on me. When I’m on the field or in the classroom [it’s difficult], but outside that I can think to myself and be myself.”

Jones said he valued the discussions he had with his father, his source of advice for life at Notre Dame and as a college football player.

“I don’t have that person to go to when I have questions on football or life at Notre Dame because he knew all that,” Jones said. “So I don’t have anyone to really talk to now, and I’ve become the man of the house, so my problems don’t matter to me anymore. It’s more helping my family out.

“I’m very grateful because I know a lot of times it would make him tear up or cry running out of the tunnel, and I never understood it until I ran out of the tunnel the first time knowing he wasn’t there, so I am very grateful he got to see me last year.”

Jones is serving as a father-figure for his brother Malachi while the high school senior takes recruiting visits himself and decides where to play college football.

“Every Thursday or so I try to talk to him pregame and see who they’re playing, what their gameplan is, and that’s my advice — to go out and ball and do your best, give it your all and play,” Jones said. “Then we’ll talk on Sunday and Monday and recap how the game went if I can’t catch it online.”

As those in his life — teammates, friends and family — continue to rely on the sophomore’s ability to lead, TJ has discovered more about himself by reflecting on Andre’s life as a football player, a friend, and, most importantly, a father.