After horrible tragedy, Jaashawn Jones keeps his NFL dream alive
Like any player from a small school hoping to make an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent, Delaware State's Jaashawn Jones has plenty of supporters echoing the same sentiment.
Just give him a chance.
During the past six years, those words have had an entirely different meaning, haunting him as he grew into a chiseled 6-foot-1, 225-pound running back. They reminded him of the worst night of his life, a vivid memory that could be triggered in an instant by a simple turn of a doorknob or a loud noise.
Now those words refer to a potential NFL career, an opportunity to honor a brother, a chance to represent a community aching for a role model, and the ability to take care of the family that has watched over him amid the hardest of times. All Jones wants is a chance.
Jones' NFL prospects received a boost when he was selected to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) All-Star Bowl on Dec. 18 in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. He had nine carries for 50 yards for the highest per-carry average (5.6) of any back in the game for the victorious East squad. His combination of size and speed had numerous teams at least inquiring about his draft day contact information.
Veteran agent Everette Scott was so touched by Jones' story that he decided to take him on as a client. "When you go through the adversity he has endured in his life, it takes a special person to keep going,'' Scott said. "His story is outrageous. If I'm a GM, I want someone with that kind of character representing my brand, especially someone with that combination of size and speed who can genuinely play.''
The dream of playing in the NFL is what kept Jones alive when an armed robber stood over him in 2005, debating whether to put a bullet in the back of his head. The three assailants in his older brother's apartment that night had no idea that Jaashawn Jones was a 17-year-old star running back for Asbury Park (N.J.) High, and they didn't care.
They just knew that the money they were there to steal could not be found and they were getting tired of the excuses. As they became more hostile, Saahron "Loggy'' Jones, 27, did not beg for his life as he lay face down and tied up on the floor. He instead pleaded with a woman and two men to spare his brother's life.
As Saahron lay on the floor in a room only about 10 feet from where Jaashawn was being held face down with a coat over his head, the attackers cranked up the volume on the television. One of them placed a pillow on the back of Saahron's head to muffle the sound of a gun shot before firing a single fatal shot into the back of his skull.
"Once I heard the shot, I figured I was next,'' Jones said.
Jones grew up in Asbury Park, the city on the Jersey Shore where U.S. presidents once vacationed and the place where Bruce Springsteen famously sent his greetings from. While the beachfront began to experience revitalization in the 2000s, the Asbury Park Jones knows is one defined by gangs and drugs.
His family moved multiple times when he was young, eventually settling in a house on Summerfield Avenue in a tough part of town. A familiar destination was the field just south of the train station and across the street from the Boston Way Village projects, where the kids from the different neighborhoods would gather in all conditions to play football.
"We called it the Super Bowl,'' Jones said. "It didn't matter if it was snowing and 20 degrees out, we would be out there.''
Jones played Pop Warner in Asbury Park with his cousin, Prince Young, and good friend Vinny Curry. The three would sit after practice and talk about how one day they would play in the real Super Bowl. Young is now a rising senior running back at Northern Michigan, while Curry is a star defensive end from Marshall, who was drafted by the Eagles in the second round last Friday.
While Young starred as a running back at a high school one county away and Curry played for Asbury Park's longtime rival, Neptune High, Jones attended tiny Academy Charter, a school of 140 students two towns over in Lake Como. Academy Charter accepts Asbury Park residents on a lottery basis, and when his name was selected, Jones chose to go there rather than Asbury Park High. He wanted to avoid the growing violence between Haitian-American and African-American students that had mushroomed in the early 2000s.
Jones still played football for Asbury Park because Academy Charter does not have a team, so its students are allowed to play for their local school district. In his senior season in 2005, Jones ran for more than 1,100 yards for a team that reached the state playoffs, drawing some interest from Big East programs. However, he was overshadowed by local stars in his own county like Indianapolis Colts running back Donald Brown of Red Bank Catholic and Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno of Middletown South, both of whom were first-round draft picks in 2009.
Still, Jones got good grades and earned a spot in the annual North-South Classic, a statewide all-star game held in June that usually attracted numerous college coaches. His future was bright. All he needed was a chance.
On Dec. 31, 2005 Jones bounded up the steps to his older brother's second-floor apartment in Asbury Park, making a quick pit stop to grab a gold chain that would complete his New Year's Eve outfit. Only minutes earlier, Jaashawn had called over to his brother's house and hadn't got an answer, but figured Loggy was just in the shower.
As they parked at the curb across the street from his brother's apartment, Jaashawn told Young to wait in the car because he would be right back. It was close to 9 p.m. when he turned the doorknob and sensed something wasn't right.
The bottom lock was unlocked, but the dead bolt above it was locked. Loggy almost never locked the door when he was home, and he never used the deadbolt. After a few knocks, the door opened into the long hallway of the apartment. Jones took one step inside to find an unknown man pointing a gun in his face. Another man closed the door behind him and forced him to the floor as he saw his brother tied up in the other room.
"I'm just thinking they're about to kill the both of us,'' Jones said.
Loggy owned a pet store in town and had no connections to gangs or drugs. He simply had bragged to the wrong girl that he had money to impress her, and she then set him up for the robbery, according to court testimony. After one of the assailants executed Loggy while he pleaded for his younger brother's life, they gathered up whatever they could get their hands on, including the gold chain Jaashawn had come to retrieve.
One of the men then stood over Jaashawn, kicked him in the ribs and told him not to move for five minutes or he would be killed. After what seemed like an eternity, the three of them nonchalantly exited the house. As he heard his brother gasping his final breaths in the next room, Jaashawn got off the floor.
"I just thought, if you are going to kill me, then kill me,'' Jones said. "I'm going to see my brother.''
Jones encountered a scene that was seared into his memory forever. He slowly untied his brother, who weighed more than 250 pounds, and tried to turn him over to no avail. He rushed to the window to check on his cousin, who was still waiting outside in the car following an ordeal that Jones estimates lasted about 20 minutes. Young, whose teenage sister had died in a car accident only two weeks earlier, had no idea what had just occurred.
"Those three walked out so calmly that you would've never known what was going on in there,'' Young said. "It wasn't until Jaashawn came running out that I tried to remember their faces because I knew something bad had happened.''
Jones sprinted out of the apartment, leapt down from the top of the steps and ran toward the car. Hysterically crying and screaming that his brother had just been killed, he told Young to floor it back to his family's house. A neighbor had called the police, who responded to the call at about 10 p.m.
"My whole focus was to just get us out of there because I was worried they might come back and finish the job,'' Young said.
Jones had already endured an ordeal with one older brother, Nakal, 30, after he was convicted on a drug conspiracy charge in 2004. Now Loggy was gone, too.
"Not only did the prison system take one of his brothers, he lost another one over a $400 necklace,'' Young said. "That's just not fair.''
In the ensuing days, Jones became enveloped by survivor's guilt, searching for the answer of why he was spared. "I thought about it every time I closed my eyes,'' he said. "Why me? Why did they let me go? There had to be a reason.''
As the years went by, the reason became more apparent. "I had to lose one son to save another one,'' his mother said.
Following the shooting, Jones was gripped by what was later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, which is more commonly associated with soldiers returning from the horrors of war. He experienced constant night terrors and could not sleep for six months. He could no longer be in big crowds and was spooked by loud noises.
At Academy Charter, he no longer attended school with other students. He did all his work in the cramped office of school director Mary Jo McKinley, whom Jones calls his second mother. Jones would read entire books, wake up the next morning and have no recollection of anything he read.
"That was a real scary time,'' McKinley said. "He wasn't sleeping, he wasn't eating, and he barely talked.''
Often Jones would be only two feet from McKinley in her office but would communicate in writing because he did not want to speak to anyone. "I didn't feel comfortable being around anyone but my family,'' Jones said. "Every time I blinked my eyes I would just see Log on the floor.''
The three attackers were still at large, leading those around him to fear for Jones' safety. Academy Charter installed a security door at the front entrance and an intercom system to protect Jones, according to McKinley. Meanwhile, Jones and Young secretly hoped they would get a chance to administer some street justice.
"I wanted them to come back,'' Jones said. "That always ran through my mind -- me catching these people before the police caught them.''
Just days after the crime, Jones' older sister, Ikeenya, now 29, was on a computer in the family's home perusing a section on the website of the local newspaper that lists mug shots and aliases of locals who have been convicted of felonies. As Jaashawn was walking by, he glanced at the computer and froze.
"That's her,'' he said.
Angela Pizzarelli, 25, of Hazlet, N.J., had previously served six months in 2001 for helping to plan and execute an armed robbery in Ocean County. The Jones family immediately went to the police with the information. Pizzarelli was arrested on Jan. 3 and then led authorities to the two men who helped carry out the robbery, a pair of brothers from Jersey City, Antoine and Andre Dennis.
With the suspects in custody, Jones tried to piece his life back together. Attending a four-year college the following fall was out of the question given his struggles with PTSD. McKinley helped him get a grant to attend Peddie School, a private boarding school in Hightstown, N.J., that allows postgraduate students to play on its football team.
Jones had sequestered himself in his home for months after his brother's murder, and his mother suffered anxiety attacks whenever her children wanted to go out at night. Finally in June, Jones ventured out to attend a party around the time of his high school graduation. A fight broke out and Jones was shot through the left side of his torso.
"I had started to not really care about things, which led to me being in the streets more, and then I end up getting shot,'' he said.
The bullet did not cause any major damage, but Jones could not play in the North-South Classic all-star game that summer. He made himself watch in frustration from the sidelines. He also knew what his future classmates at Peddie, which is 74 percent white, would think of him after this latest incident.
"When I came on campus, I was already labeled as the thug from Asbury Park who got shot,'' Jones said. "I already looked intimidating, so kids would move out of the way in school. I hated every minute of it.''
Jones played running back and linebacker at Peddie in the fall of 2006, regenerating the college interest that had dissipated. During that time, his good friend and next-door neighbor growing up, Tylik Pugh, was gunned down close to his family's house on Summerfield Avenue. Another friend committed suicide.
The football field was the only place he could feel normal, if only for a few hours. Unable to function in crowds and unnerved by loud noises in everyday life, Jones was a different person on the football field. He could batter his way through the maelstrom of grunting linemen and charging linebackers amid the din of a cheering crowd without a problem.
"When I am on the field, I hear nothing,'' he said. "Everything goes away.''
While at Peddie, he also learned that his longtime girlfriend, Shaquashia Agolio, was pregnant with their daughter, Ja'ziya, who is now 4 years old. He considered giving up hopes of a career in order to come back to Asbury Park to take care of his family, but Agolio urged him to stay in school. Delaware State offered a 75 percent scholarship with the chance of it becoming a full ride, and he gladly accepted.
For much of his career at Delaware State, Jones juggled football with reliving the trauma of his brother's death. He testified in three separate jury trials over the span of three years. The horror he refused to describe to his mother, Celeste, no matter how many times she asked, was now being shown in crime scene photographs every time he took the stand. His mother often left the courtroom in tears.
"I didn't want to testify, but I did it for my family,'' he said. "It was terrible.''
In 2009, Pizzarelli was sentenced to 45 years in prison for her role in the murder, while both of the Dennis brothers were given life sentences for first-degree murder in 2010. Investigators were never able to conclusively determine which of the three pulled the trigger, but Celeste Jones saw the silver lining of why her younger son walked into his brother's apartment that night.
"Jaashawn was there that night so that his brother didn't die alone and so that we could find out who did it,'' she said. "There was a reason he survived that night, and it was to get this second chance.''
While still trying to keep his football career going at Delaware State during the trials, Jones was often withdrawn and earned the label of having an attitude problem. As a redshirt freshman, he served as a short-yardage back. The following season he was a projected starter but suffered a spider bite on his right foot less than two weeks before the season began that swelled up so badly he could not practice.
He sunk to the bottom of the depth chart, but once he was given a chance in the middle of the season, he blossomed. He finished fifth in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in rushing at 79 yards per game. As a redshirt junior, he finished fourth in the MEAC in total rushing yards despite playing the whole season with two torn ligaments and a partially torn rotator cuff in his shoulder that required surgery. Every time he scored or made a big play, he flashed the big "L'' with his thumb and index finger in honor of Loggy.
Playing under a new coaching staff as a senior last fall, he entered as a preseason All-MEAC selection but finished with only 333 yards rushing as the Hornets went 3-8. Helping him stave off frustration during the season was new running backs coach Tory Woodbury, who starred at Winston-Salem State and played for the New York Jets from 2001-03. Woodbury could relate to Jones when no one else could, as his younger brother was murdered in his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C., when Woodbury was playing in the NFL.
"I had heard all the negative things about Jaashawn, but I just think he felt he didn't have anybody he could trust,'' Woodbury said. "We developed a big brother-little brother relationship. I still cry about my brother, and I told him it's OK to do that, but you've just got to keep pushing to make him proud.''
Jones also began seeing a counselor at school as a senior, although he refused any medication for his PTSD, saying it made him sick. An aspiring rapper who goes by the name Ja-Money, he poured his emotions into his music, releasing an album online on April 20 called "New Money'' that includes a song called "Celebration.'' It's a song letting Loggy know everything that has happened since his death and the promise of what is ahead, whether it's the degree in sports management he is set to receive on May 20 or the possibility of playing football on Sundays.
It's only been in the past few months that the scene of his brother's death does not regularly pop into his head, but reminders of that night are never far away. Whenever he has returned to Asbury Park, he purposely avoids going anywhere near the corner where his brother's old apartment was located. Last fall, he dropped by his parents' new apartment in a nearby town, and the bottom lock was unlocked while the dead bolt was locked. They were taking a nap and not answering their phones.
"I lost it,'' he said. "I screamed at my mom until I couldn't scream any more. Every time the door is like that, I lose my mind. It never fails.''
If the NFL does not work out, Jones plans to use his degree to become a coach or athletic director. His parents are more excited for his graduation in May than a potential career in the NFL.
"This represents a new beginning for us,'' Celeste Jones said. "I think I'm going to be a big crybaby on his graduation day. He never gave up on that dream.''
"Most of the time when our family is getting together, we're going to somebody's funeral,'' said Herbert Jones, Jaashawn's father. "It feels good to have something positive to look forward to.''
However it turns out, Jones will make sure to say thanks to a brother who served as a motivating force every time he felt like quitting college and moving back to Asbury Park to be with his girlfriend and daughter. If Loggy was still here, Jones knows what he would ask of any NFL team. My little brother just needs a uniform and some carries and he will take care of the rest.
"I don't know what to expect, but I know that something good will happen because Log is watching out for me like the big brother he's always been,'' Jones said. "Just give me a chance. That's all I'm asking for.''