VOL. 42 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 22, 2018
Murfreesboro's Jones finds new way to ‘give my all’ to Tennessee
By Rhiannon Potkey
Spinal Stenosis put an end to offensive lineman Jack Jones’ career in 2017 during his junior season with the Vols. -- Donald Page | Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com
They walked around the mall in a zombie-like trance, still trying to process what they’d just been told.
Nearly 15 years of blood, sweat and tears on the football field was put to end in just five minutes. Jack Jones and his parents had traveled to Dallas last October seeking a solution for Jones’ recurring neck and shoulder issues.
Dr. Andrew Dossett, a spine specialist who consults with the Dallas Cowboys, delivered the family the sobering news. There was no surgical procedure that could help Jones. Physical therapy wasn’t going to improve the condition.
Jones would need to retire from football immediately or risk greater injury.
The University of Tennessee offensive lineman has a form of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that can put pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots. It was the same condition that ended the playing career of Cooper Manning, the older brother of legendary Vols quarterback Peyton Manning.
“I really didn’t have much of a decision,’’ Jones says. “The doctor told me I needed to stop playing or I would seriously hurt myself and it would make my life a lot more difficult.
“It was definitely a very hard thing to hear. Not being able to stop playing on your own terms is tough. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.”
In the eight months since his career-ending diagnosis, Jones has ridden an emotional roller coaster. The physical pain that tormented his body was replaced by mental anguish.
The Murfreesboro native and Oakland High graduate is still trying to come to grips with the transition from being a Division I athlete to just a regular student.
Instead of days filled with a structured schedule of practices, lifting and film, Jones has been trying to find a purpose beyond football to fill his days.
Jones first strapped on a helmet and pads at age 6, and all he ever wanted was to play for Tennessee.
Jones committed to the Vols two days after receiving the scholarship offer, and he never considered visiting another school.
“I thank God every day I was able to live my dream,” Jones adds. “I was that Tennessee kid from Murfreesboro going to games when I was little and then being able to represent the university. I got to run out of the T and do the Vol walk and start against Alabama and Florida. “I gave my everything for Tennessee and got to do what many people dream of doing and play football at a high level in the SEC.”
But having it end so abruptly was not part of the storybook vision. Jones’ parents never expected a career-ending outcome when they flew to Dallas to accompany their son on his visit to the specialist.
“We were all in shock. This had been such a big part of our lives and Jack’s dream, and it only took the doctor a few minutes to tell us it was over,” explains Jack’s father, John Jones, a former Tennessee Tech offensive lineman.
“My wife is a heart person, and the tears started flowing right away. My mouth was wide open, and Jack was tearing up. I remember trying to ask a couple questions, but we already had the answer. He was done playing.”
Once the family flew home late that night, John Jones called then-head coach Butch Jones to give him the diagnosis. The Vols were preparing to play Alabama that week, and Jones and his staff were still watching film.
“He picked up right away and he couldn’t have been better. He said we love that kid and if he wants to coach tomorrow he has a job with us,” John Jones recalls.
“He was completely supportive and understanding of what Jack was going through. That meant a lot to our family.”
Jack Jones still attended every home game last season and tried to go to a few practices. Being around the facility wasn’t easy because he yearned to be out on the field helping the Vols.
Once the season ended and Christmas break arrived, the reality of never being able to play again started sinking in even more.
“He just felt very lonely and sad and had a lot of dark days,” John Jones says. “He would never come home, and all of a sudden he was coming home. His heart was hurting. As parents, that makes you very sad because you want to fix their pain.
“All we could really do is just sit with him and have empathy. You have to go through it. It’s OK. God gives you pain for a reason to deal with things. If you use it the right way, it builds character.”
Having the support of his family has helped Jones emotionally process no longer being able to play the game he’s loved for so long.
“They’ve been through the ups and downs with me during this,” he adds. “There are times I’ve driven home and had to go hug my dad and be like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ They have all been there for me through it all.”
A new purpose
At a time when some are demanding more compensation for college athletes, Jones is grateful to remain on scholarship at UT despite not being on the roster anymore.
“The University of Tennessee has been nothing but great to me. They have gone above and beyond,” Jones says. “They are still letting me access the training room, and I still can go in and get treatment and I still get my school paid for.
“I have everything I had before I got hurt.”
Finding a purpose beyond football has been the next step in Jones’ recovery. Once spring practice began under new head coach Jeremy Pruitt, Jones became more motivated to explore new opportunities.
“I realized I could let the injury control me or I could control it,” he points out. “I basically said, ‘Alright. It is what it is, now let’s see what we can do to help the school in a different way and see how the new phase of my life will start.’”
Jones scheduled a meeting with Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer and expressed an interest in working at UT. He was given an internship with the Tennessee Fund, which raises money to provide for all expenses associated with UT sports.
“I feel like this is my way of giving back for Tennessee paying for my school,” Jones says. “I have really enjoyed attacking this new part of my life just like I did football. I tell my teammates, ‘Ya’ll have no idea how much time these people spend making your Saturday the best atmosphere and environment in can be.’ It really makes me even more grateful as a student to see the work they are doing behind the scenes.”
John Jones appreciated Fulmer clearing his schedule to sit down with his son and ask how he could assist his transition.
“Jack didn’t care if he just licked envelopes. He wanted to be around good people and still help the university. Coach Fulmer obviously gets it,” John Jones points out. “He was an ex-offensive lineman and a Tennessee guy. He showed compassion for a guy who needed some.”
Although Jack Jones hasn’t played for the new staff at UT, the coaches have welcomed him around the facility. He plans to attend some practices and every home game this season.
“I will still be heavily involved I guess you could say without being in on the X’s and O’s part of it,” Jones adds. “The O-Line guys, and any other guys on the team, know if they ever need to talk about anything I will be there for them. If they want any help, I am there for them.”
Jones hasn’t been afraid to share what he’s gone through since his career-ending diagnosis, hoping he can help others while also helping himself.
“I have learned from the jump it’s a good way to cope with it,” Jones recounts. “It’s definitely something that has become easier and easier since it happened. But it’s still tough. I still want to be out there every day. But being able to tell my story is something I hold very dear to my heart.”
Jones would give nearly anything to have another season of football or even just one more game. Nothing made him happier than wearing a Tennessee uniform and soaking in the atmosphere at Neyland Stadium as he ran onto the field.
But knowing the risk as a player is too dangerous, he’ll settle for a spot on the sidelines as the program’s biggest supporter.
“I love this place and I will always give my all to Tennessee, whether in the football arena or working in the Tennessee Fund,” Jones says.
“Even though my career ended earlier than I wanted, I truly feel blessed to have been able to play here.”