There’s a story I need to tell you, but you’re probably not going to believe it. It begins in September 1901, when John Burton Foley journeyed from the Midwest to Washington, D.C., to attend the funeral of President William McKinley. During those travels a man approached Foley and spoke of an uninhabited land just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually Foley purchased some 50,000 of those acres, harboring visions of the next grand metropolis. But his dream never came to pass. Today, that land in South Baldwin County, Ala., consists mainly of large swaths of farmland dotted with modest residences. Horses and goats graze. Signs with images of tractors and the message share the road line dirt paths.
Foley never would have imagined that long after he bought those 31 square miles, a child with long arms and long legs and big ears would be born there, a child who would later be compared to a beast, a monster, an alien, a legend, a superhero. That out of this dust bowl of obscurity, a man would rise whose life seemed more myth than reality. So if I were to tell you the story of that boy from Foley, and if you closed your eyes, it might feel as if his tale were playing out on black-and-white 8mm film, flickering across a projector screen at 16 frames per second. The tales would seem tall, the details implausible. But after you hear so many witnesses recount so many fantastical stories, you just might find yourself convinced that his legend was true all along.
As a baby he would pick things up—things babies aren’t supposed to pick up—and that’s what he would play with. He had no interest in blocks or G.I. Joe figures. Quintorris Jones was drawn instead to logs and slabs of oak. Sometimes the pieces of wood were just as big as the boy. “He would pick it up and put it on his chest and just walk with it,” says a cousin, Sam Jones, 18 years Quintorris’s senior. “And I would think, What in the world is this boy doing?”
The kid was painfully shy, tethered to his mother, Queen Marvin, but he was always big and strong and fast. In Foley’s streets he’d play a game they called Throw ’Em Up Bust ’Em Up. Maybe you know it as Crush the Carrier or Rumble Fumble, but the point was that one kid would get the football and another dozen would try to catch him and throw him to the pavement. Quintorris would play with boys five years his elder, “and if they did catch him,” says Sam Jones, “he’d just push guys off with one hand. He was never scared of anything.”
Those who knew Quintorris back then say this all just came naturally, that he was born with that strength and speed, as if he came out of the womb with muscles bulging. They make it seem as if he were created in a special lab where scientists spliced together all of the perfect traits to create the perfect athlete. “Can’t nobody take credit for that,” says Sam. “He was always just different.”
You’re skeptical already, aren’t you?
Years later Kenny Thomason and Rusty Hinson would ask the boys at Foley Middle School, where they coached the football team, which players would be coming up the following season. Who did they have to look forward to? And every time those boys would say the same name: Quintorris, Quintorris, Quintorris. O.K., great. Is he in sixth grade? Fifth?
“Third,” Hinson remembers them replying.
It would be three more years before the coaches finally met the kid they had been hearing about. Thomason and Hinson were working canteen duty when they spotted a sixth-grade boy, big and strong, hanging out on the blacktop behind the school. “Everyone was crowded around him like he was some kind of hero,” Hinson recalls.
The men approached. They asked if he played sports. The boy meekly nodded. What do you play? He managed to whisper one word. “Everything.” Got any hops? “A little bit.” There was a basketball hoop nearby, regulation size, rim slightly bent. Can you touch the net? The 11-year-old was wearing duck boots. He didn’t respond; he simply turned around, took one drop step and exploded into the air.
Who was this kid hanging from the rim with both hands? Nobody was calling him Quintorris. They asked his name.
Outtakes from SI’s Cover Shoot with Julio Jones
On the first day of Quintorris’s third-grade school year, when Kathryn Ford asked every one of her kids what they wanted to be when they grew up, Quintorris looked up and spoke some of the very few words he would say in class all year: “I’m going to be in either the NFL or the NBA.”
Impossible; that’s a one-in-a-million thing.
“I tried to cushion him,” Ford says now. “I never considered that he is that one in a million.”
Fact is, the boy was so quiet that he could have gone 12 years in Foley schools without anyone ever knowing he was there, were it not for his athletic feats. How does one remember a kid so invisible?
Years later, Ford would read in the local newspaper about the athletic exploits of Julio Jones, and she would wonder, Who is this boy? She knew every kid who came through her school. Then one day a picture ran alongside an article: a boy with long arms and long legs and big ears.
“Oh, my god,” Ford said. Clark Kent is Superman. Peter Parker is Spider-Man. “Quintorris is Julio. Julio is Quintorris.”
Quintorris was diffident, but Julio was different. Julio didn’t want to beat you. He wanted to destroy you, force you to submit to his will, make you realize: He is Julio Jones and you are not. Sometimes, when he was warming up for the high jump at Foley High, as his opponents crowded around to catch a glimpse of the kid they’d heard so much about, he’d jump with a scissors technique, an old-fashioned style that yields lesser results than a flop. It’s not how anyone would jump in modern competition, but “he’d go out and scissor 6' 3" just because he knew everyone was watching,” says Russ Moore, one of Jones’s old track coaches. “Half the guys would quit. The other half would ask, ‘Who’s getting second?’ ”
At the state championship during his junior year, Julio was the prohibitive favorite to win the triple jump, but he was off his mark that day. His first two jumps were fouls for overstepping the takeoff line—one more and he would be disqualified—and he found himself needing to hit 43 feet to get to the finals. The crowd was stunned.
Julio lined up for his last attempt. But instead of walking back 40 feet from the jumping board, as everyone in the history of track has done, he stood 10 feet back. Julio took two walking steps, careful to stay behind the line, and leaped. He landed at exactly 43 feet.
Do you believe any of this? How could you?
There was a playoff basketball game, at LeFlore High, in Julio’s senior year. After a steal and a fast break, one of his teammates pulled up for a three-pointer. Julio, trailing the play, came streaking down the lane as the ball caromed off the back iron. “He took off from the top of the key,” says Todd Watson, Julio’s football coach that year. “It was like he was coming out of the rafters.”
“Like he had wings,” says Clark Stewart, Foley’s radio announcer. “Here comes Superman, flying from out of nowhere, and he slams it down. It was like a bolt of thunder.”
“He was looking down at the rim,” says Moore, the track coach. “He touched his butt with the ball and then dunked it.”
“His chest was over the rim,” says Sam Jones.
What’s real and what’s legend?
DeMarcus Cousins, a future NBA All-Star, was then a 6' 9" center for LeFlore. Some in attendance that day remember Cousins being in the game, but he may not yet have gotten back on defense, may not have been in the lane, may have been mercifully spared. Others remember him being in early foul trouble, sitting on the bench. Nobody is sure. Except for Sam Jones. “It was all up in Cousins’s face,” he says. “It was definitely on Cousins.”
Opposing fans, some people will tell you, came running onto the court, screaming; opposing players came off the bench to high-five Julio. The game was stopped for five minutes. The radio broadcast had to go to commercial break. The place nearly descended into delirium—everyone except for Julio, who ran back on defense, unfazed. Superman doesn’t celebrate every time he takes flight.
Are you questioning everything yet?
Here’s one more, Sam Jones says, that you just have to hear. It happened in Mobile, that same season, when Julio drove baseline against a 6' 8" defender and took off like a NASA rocket. “He kept going up, and up, and up,” says Sam. “His whole body was over the rim. On the way down, the [defender] got a little bit of the ball, and Julio took the guy’s arm and the ball through the goal—he dunked them both. He broke the kid’s hand, it was so bad. He took him all the way through the [basket] with him.”
Julio moved across town during high school and crashed with Sam, who had a nicer home, in a nicer neighborhood, and a pit bull named Benny. Quintorris raised that dog, loved him, but one day Benny broke free and got into a fight with another dog. Again. Sam felt he had no choice but to put Benny down. Julio said no.
“That fool stood between the dog and my gun,” says Sam. “He wouldn’t let me.” Benny lived. The legend grew.
At this point, Julio is still just a teenager. But everywhere he went he was celebrated, followed, fawned over. Adults would ask him to sign their foreheads. So when a longtime Foley resident was released from prison during Julio’s senior year and he heard all the hype around this teenager, the man—a “grown-ass man,” the best basketball player in his prison, says Sam—felt he had to put the kid in his place. He challenged Julio to a game of one-on-one, and Sam knew it would be a very different type of test for the boy.
They played to 15. “This guy thought he’d just push Julio around—jailhouse basketball, rough ball,” Sam recalls, “but the damn 18-year-old was pushing him all over the court. The guy would shoot, Julio would block it; he’d let the guy get it back, and Julio would block it again. After about 10 minutes the guy had his hands on his hips; he couldn’t keep up. Julio beat him 15–2. That’s when I knew he wasn’t scared of s---.”
A life saved, a supervillain defeated—can any of this be real?
Quintorris wanted the new iPhone, so Sam—a de facto dad after the boy’s father left—cut him a deal. They were eating dinner one fall night in 2007, and Sam told the boy, then a senior, he would buy him the gadget if he scored three touchdowns in his next game. In bed that night, Sam’s wife turned and said, “You know you need to get him that new iPhone tomorrow, right?”
Sam was sitting on the visitors’ side of the bleachers during a home game that Friday when Julio returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. The boy turned to Sam in the stands and raised one finger in the sky. The opposing team’s fans were furious—they thought he was showboating. “He had his phone by halftime,” Sam says.
You’re not buying this, right? Maybe you should.
Foley didn’t have a single victory during Julio’s freshman season, but his senior year, in 2007, the Lions went 12–1, scoring a school-record 463 points and winning their first (and still only) regional championship. Midway through that season Julio was already the top-ranked player in the nation, and ESPN decided to put him on prime-time TV: Foley vs. Daphne, the Lions’ main rival. By then the stories had begun to spread, but that was just troubadours singing folk songs. Now there were cameras to capture the legend. Or debunk it.
Julio entered that matchup nursing a severely sprained ankle, but in the first quarter he still shed a triple team, blazed past flailing defenders and caught a 30-yard TD to open the scoring. At halftime he struggled to fit his cleat over his swollen foot, but he persuaded his coaches to let him stay in. Then, with nine minutes left, trailing 14–10, Foley’s QB lofted a ball 40 yards in the air to the right corner of the end zone, where Julio had two defenders draped over him. He shed one like he was wiping lint from his jacket and soared over the other, ripping the ball from the poor DB’s grasp. When SportsCenter showcased the game-winning catch the next day it marked the country’s official introduction to Julio Jones. Here we finally had concrete evidence, caught on film.
Maybe it is all real. . . .
Nick Saban and three of his assistants sat in a darkened room in the winter of 2006. On a screen in front of them flickered footage of a fabled player from Foley. Saban had just been hired at Alabama, tasked with reviving a once-great program mired in mediocrity, and here he saw the vessel he could use to return the Crimson Tide to glory. After three plays Saban hit PAUSE. “We gotta get him,” he said. “This is the type of kid you can build your program around.”
Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain was dispatched to Foley to watch a basketball game. He remembers the Lions playing a 2-1-2 zone defense, with Jones in the middle. “I don’t remember how many blocks he had,” McElwain says, “but I think of Alonzo Mourning or Dikembe Mutombo.”
As recruiting season went on, Saban grew concerned. Four receivers had already committed to Alabama; he didn’t want Jones to perceive that as a negative, as too much competition. Eventually it came up. “Coach,” Jones said, “I don’t care how many guys are committed at my position.” He would soon become the first freshman receiver to start a Tide season opener. He was Julio Jones; those other recruits were not.
Asked to recall their favorite Julio moment, Saban and McElwain conjure up a quick screen pass to the left flat against LSU in Jones’s sophomore year. Jones broke one tackle, then turned upfield and was almost immediately in high gear, four defenders falling farther and farther away, the receiver burning up 73 yards for a touchdown. Says Saban, “I don’t know if anyone else could have done that.”
Other witnesses bring up the game against South Carolina during Jones’s junior year—when he set Alabama’s single-season mark with 78 catches—in which he broke his left hand in the first half, didn’t realize it, played the second half and finished with eight receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown. Afterward, doctors inserted a metal plate and screws into his palm, and Saban told him to take some time off. But Jones refused; in practice he tried catching balls with only his fingertips so his stitches wouldn’t bust open. Saban called up Sam back in Foley, but neither man could persuade Julio to take even a day off. He was back on the field seven days later against Ole Miss.
“It’s superhuman,” says Greg McElroy, Jones’s quarterback that year. “We all make a big deal about Bo Jackson and Jesse Owens, guys who perform feats of physical strength and speed and stamina, but I don’t see how you can possibly not include him in those conversations.”
In Jones’s sophomore season, 2009, the Crimson Tide won their first national title in 17 years. They did it again two years later, his first season away, and again the year after that, and then again in ’15. “What Julio did was change the culture here,” says Saban.
Do you believe now?
“Everything that kid did was folklore,” says Lance Thompson, who as a Bama assistant helped recruit Jones. “But everything you hear about him is accurate.”
Foley, Tuscaloosa . . . Atlanta. Again Jones would be held up as a savior, a city’s worth of expectations heaped onto his broad shoulders.
Two weeks before the 2011 NFL draft, Thomas Dimitroff, general manager of the Falcons, decided to stake his entire career on the kid from Foley, just as Saban had. Atlanta had the 27th pick, and they wanted the 6' 2 3/4", 220-pound Jones—the guy who ran a 4.39 40 at the combine with a broken right foot—so Dimitroff called teams at the top of the draft order, proposing a historic move. The Browns accepted, surrendering the No. 6 slot for five draft choices. “It was a once-in-an-organization’s-lifetime move,” says Dimitroff. “But if you really believe in something, you have to go for it.”
He believes. Why don’t you?
As the new guy settled in, the incumbent receivers soon realized their fines system was in need of an overhaul. Whereas every other Atlanta wideout would get dinged for dropping easy balls, Jones would pay up for failing to pull off the spectacular. A one-handed, over-the-shoulder near-catch? For Jones, that was a fine. Superheroes have their own set of standards.
Taylor Gabriel, at 5' 8" one of the smallest and fastest receivers in the league (he once ran a 4.27 40), remembers the first time the two men sprinted side by side, executing double go routes during practice last season. “I looked to my right, just to check where he was,” says Gabriel, “and he was probably five yards in front of me. To see someone that big get downfield like that, it’s freaky. He’s something I’ve never seen.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn compares Jones’s midair body control to that of a cat thrown from ahigh, his competitiveness to that of a boxer who gets punched and then goes harder, his speed to that of an Olympic sprinter. Every player in the NFL has a weakness. In Jones, he sees none.
“He’s got no kryptonite,” says Roddy White, who lined up opposite Jones for five years.
There’s even a boxing story. In 2015, Quinn introduced his team to trainer Freddie Roach, who has worked with the likes of Manny Pacquiao. After one practice Roach worked the mitts with several Falcons players and was immediately drawn to Jones’s combination of coordination, balance and athleticism. While others struggled with hitting the speed bag, Julio picked up the rhythm and the timing instantly. “He could be a world champion boxer,” Roach says of the guy he came to dub Julio Cesar Jones.
Quarterback Matt Ryan takes it further: “Julio could be a world champ at anything. Boxing. Sprinting. Baseball. Whatever he wanted.”
What he chose is football, and seven years into his career, Jones’s per-game average of 94.6 receiving yards is the best in NFL history. Witnesses—coaches and teammates, mortals all—no longer seem all that impressed with Jones’s exploits. Sure, when pressed they’ll recite a favorite play: maybe the 73-yard catch-and-stiff-arm against the Packers in last season’s NFC title game; maybe the leaping, acrobatic, toe-tapping sideline grab a month later, at Super Bowl LI. But even then, it’s all become so rote. Once you’ve seen Clark Kent don blue tights and blast lasers out of his eyeballs 100 times, how special is it anymore?
Besides, they’ve all seen Jones, 28, perform feats even more spectacular when the cameras aren’t rolling. If only Matt Ryan wore a GoPro on his head, maybe then you would see what Jones does on a daily basis, the routineness of it all. Maybe then you’d believe.
“Julio is Julio,” Gabriel says. “Superman.”
Is that enough? Is there anyone left you need to hear from?
Quintorris Jones takes a seat on a red-and-black stool. He says he has no memory of why his given name was abandoned and Julio adopted. One day it just happened.
Klieg lights illuminate his face for a video interview; two cameras point directly at him. He’s wearing red-and-white-checkered Vans, navy pants, a beige rain jacket, and a green, bent-brim, strap-back hat pulled down over his eyes. Even when asked, he refuses to take the lid off, as if he’s attempting to conceal his identity. He’s told that his third-grade teacher has been telling stories about him.
He scrunches his eyebrows. “Mrs. Ford?”
He’s asked about his hometown, with the goats and the horses and the farmland. How does someone like him come out of somewhere like that?
“I didn’t want to be stuck,” he says. “I’m trying to bloom. I felt like there was more for me.”
He isn’t bragging. He’s gotten used to his abilities. “I’m never surprised when I do something,” he says. “I feel like I can do anything and everything.”
So the seismic dunks and the preposterous catches, soaring as if on wings—is that all true?
“I’ve been doing that my whole life,” he says. “People ask, ‘How do you do this? How do you that?’ It’s normal to me. I do that every day. It’s not fabricated. It’s me.”
Do you still not believe? Imagine this soft-spoken man in his chair, his hat pulled low. Now think about everything you’ve heard. And then ask yourself: Would a superhero lie?
Additional reporting by Greg Bishop.