CLEVELAND -- Cardale Jones looked around his new school in the fall of 2011 and noticed some uncomfortable warning signs. He’d spent that whole summer telling friends back in his native Cleveland that he would be attending prep school in Virginia, envisioning a leafy campus and Carpe Diem lectures. But soon after arriving in rural Fork Union, Va., Jones experienced immediate concerns and self-rationalizations.
The first bad sign: There weren’t any girls. “I’m looking around like, ‘Holy s---,’” he said, before convincing himself otherwise. “They’re probably meeting on the other side of campus. I’m like, ‘I’m cool. I’m cool.’”
The second bad sign: Everyone appeared to be wearing the same uniform. “I’m like, they probably on the same swim team or something,” he said.
The third: The ground rules included no facial hair. “I’m like, ‘I just got a f------ mustache, I ain’t cutting s---.’”
Soon enough, reality set in and the razor came out. “The next day it hit me,” he said. “It was a military school.”
The sleepy Virginia town where Jones ended up is the home of Fork Union Military Academy, a prep school as vaunted for its discipline as for the football disciples it has produced. John Shuman has coached and taught at Fork Union for the past 35 years, 28 of them as head coach. His former lettermen read like an All-America roll call, as everyone from Vinny Testaverde to Eddie George, Plaxico Burress to Carlos Hyde and Anthony Castonzo to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank have played there. They all endured the same experience as Jones: full military uniform, no girls, no television, no music, a meticulously kept room and limited contact with the outside world. Days begin at 6 a.m. and are packed with classes, practice, marching and studying until lights out at 10 p.m. Rinse. Repeat. “It can be a battle to get guys to commit [to the discipline],” Shuman said. “And with Cardale, it was a battle. That’s why I look like I’m 80. I’m only 57.”
Jones grew up in Cleveland with so little supervision that he often roamed the streets and slept at friends’ houses many nights each week. The difference in structure, jarring for anyone, hit him like a plunge in a cold tub. He fought. Hard.
“This is terrible,” Jones recalled thinking. “Like, we don’t have cheerleaders? I was heartbroken. We couldn’t have our phones, no electronics.”
Spoiler alert: Jones didn’t die. He chafed. He pouted. He hoarded contraband electronics. He got a few stern lectures, and bolted after the first semester, not bothering to keep his uniform as a memento. “We had to wear the uniform to the airport and after we got there, I went into the bathroom and changed all my clothes just threw that s--- in the trash,” Jones said, smiling at the memory during a recent interview. “I wanted to leave so bad.”
Jones did learn preparation, though, something that has clearly helped him emerge as one of the brightest stars in sports over the past month. After an injury to Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett made Jones the starter for the Big Ten title game, he transformed from an anonymous third-stringer into a Buckeyes cult hero in a two-game span so surreal it seems to come straight from the pages of fan fiction. Ohio State smoked Wisconsin 59-0, and then erased a 15-point deficit to beat top-ranked Alabama 42-35 in a College Football Playoff semifinal. But Jones, a redshirt sophomore, didn’t exactly arrive from Fork Union as a finished product. “If you asked me a year ago or six months ago [about Jones playing like this], I would have looked at you like you’ve got six heads,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
Cleveland Glenville High coach and Ginn Academy founder Ted Ginn Sr. prepared Jones for this moment. Jones starred at quarterback for Ginn at Glenville, but also proved a challenge in the classroom at Ginn Academy. Although Jones qualified for a scholarship and signed with Ohio State in February 2011, Ginn concocted the idea to send him to prep school. Ginn knew Jones needed another year to mature.
He also wanted to separate Jones in class from Braxton Miller, who signed with then-coach Jim Tressel that same February. By going to Fork Union and later redshirting -- essentially grayshirting -- it would create two years of space between the quarterbacks. But Ginn was wise enough to know Cardale never would have embraced the idea of military school. “I set him up,” Ginn said with a laugh. “It was all my idea.” It worked, as Shuman said, “Coach Ginn tricked him up pretty good.”
And the results were sitcom predictable. Shuman recalls Jones having a hard time doing, well, everything: coming to practice, tidying his room, marching in unison and committing to do things the right way. Shuman also knew early on that Jones had smuggled a cellphone into his dorm, a risk that carried a severe punishment. “If you got caught with a phone it was like 50 tours, and one tour is a 45-minute marching period,” Jones said. “You just march [about 20 yards] for 45 minutes, that’s one tour. Fifty tours is like two months of marching because you don’t have much free time there, and all your time you’ve got to be serving tours.”
Shuman knew that Jones had a phone, as family members would call him with complaints that only Jones could have called in. He never found it -- Jones stashed it behind books on his windowsill -- and didn’t make it sound like he emptied Jones’ room searching for it. Still, Jones unleashes a halogen smile at having successfully hid a phone for a semester. “Leaving Fork Union I thought I was the smartest person in the world because I didn’t get caught with my cellphone.”
Jones isn’t ready to build a dorm there yet -- “I’ll never go back” -- and demanded that Ohio State staffers not list it as his graduating school. (He insists on Glenville.) However, when pressed, Jones admits his six months in uniform, without girls and with a contraband phone, were probably good for him. “I really think it did, actually, help mold me as far as my patience,” he said. “It was really, really structurally sound. We had to be somewhere every minute of the day, every single minute.”
As he has seized his moment during Ohio State’s ride to the national title game, Jones’ trip to prep school looks in retrospect like it came at the perfect time.