On the afternoon of March 18, officials and scouts from nearly every NFL team gathered at a small municipal stadium in North Miami. Lunch, catered by a fashionable Boca Raton country club, was served beneath a white tent. But the real feast for the scouts was Marvin Jones—a young man who grew up on a dusty, palmetto-lined Miami side street—who stepped onto the field, shirtless and so fit he seemed bronzed, and proceeded to demonstrate his physical abilities. The command performance was meant to establish that Jones would be worthy of a very high pick, perhaps even the first, in this Sunday's NFL draft, and it did. Throughout his life Jones had learned to deal with adversity; now, it seems, he will have to learn to cope with success.
By the end of the afternoon, in the face of enormous expectations, Jones, a 20-year-old junior linebacker out of Florida State, had succeeded in dazzling the scouts: He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds; he bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times; and he ascended to 38½" in the vertical leap. "He met the eyeball test, mentally and physically," says Charley Armey, the director of player personnel for the New England Patriots, who have the first pick but seem more in need of a quarterback than a linebacker.
The consensus on Jones, who won the Butkus and Lombardi awards last season as both the college game's top linebacker and lineman, respectively, is that, regardless of when he is picked, he is the player most likely to make an immediate impact in the NFL. "He's going to have to be accounted for on every snap," says Dick Steinberg, vice-president and general manager of the New York Jets, the team with the third pick. Some NFL scouts and personnel directors go so far as to speculate that Jones is the next great linebacker, the player who will fill the void now that Mike Singletary has retired and Lawrence Taylor is on the wane. "I saw Singletary at Baylor," says Bill Tobin of the Chicago Bears, "and this kid is similar at the same stage."
The truth about Jones is that when he hits people, he means it, a prerequisite for greatness at linebacker. He led the Seminoles in their in-house categories of intimidation tackles and knock-em-backs—he had 21 of each last season. In addition he had 14 quarterback hurries. And he broke Duke quarterback Steve Prince's jaw with a forearm shiver. His style is shockingly abrupt—a rattlesnake's quickness with the impact of a beer bottle over the head. He likes to talk about it, and when he does, his smile becomes bright. His eyes, normally the rich hue of root beer, seem to drain of color. He tells you that he wears the number 55 because "it's the speed limit. Everything stops there." Running backs, he says, "I eat with ketchup. It takes the bad taste away." The perfect hit, he explains, "is when I achieve total blackness. Oh, it's lovely."
Dennis Erickson, the University of Miami coach, has summed up Jones's play better than anyone else: "Marvin gets to the ball in a hurry, and he's not in a good mood when he gets there." Jones led Florida State in tackles for three straight seasons, including his junior year, when he had 111, 70 of them solo. But beyond his numbers, the sheer weight of his presence on the field made him the most-feared player in the college ranks. The mobility Jones demonstrated as a Seminole was such that even at the pro level he will have to be reckoned with from sideline to sideline and in all situations. "He's an every-down player," says Armey. "You don't have to take him off the field on third-and-long or fourth-and-a-foot."
Jones, who is still two months shy of his 21st birthday, can in the coming year become a star of the first magnitude, not to mention a very wealthy man. His workout for the scouts was a reminder of the show put on by last year's No. 1 pick, Steve Emtman, a junior defensive tackle from Washington. Emtman went on to sign a contract with the Indianapolis Colts worth $8.6 million over four years. Jones's prospects represent a staggering turn of events for a young man whose life thus far has been punctuated by sorrow and who, for all of his fierceness, retains a little-boy-lost quality.
Jones was robbed of his sense of security at the age of 11, when his mother, a sister and a grandfather all died within the space of three months. He was raised single-handedly by his father, Nathaniel. He was just as single-handedly molded into a football player by his older brother Fred, who also played linebacker at Florida State. Fred, a 27-year-old man of sterling character, is now an officer in the Metro-Dade (Fla.) Police Department. That Marvin turned out exceedingly mannerly and surprisingly gentle off the field is a tribute to his father; his devastating play on the field is Fred's doing.
In the middle of November 1983, Jones's paternal grandfather, Anthony Lee Jones, died. On Dec. 21 of that year, the eldest Jones daughter, 23-year-old Barbara, succumbed to heart disease after years of illness. Marvin's mother, Thelma, had a cardiac ailment as well. She began to suffer what at first seemed to be asthma attacks but were, in fact, small heart attacks. On Feb. 14, 1984, she died of heart failure. The sequence of events was numbing to the family. "It got so we were afraid to pick up the phone," Marvin says.
Nathaniel was a Korean War veteran who for many years was a truck driver and spent countless hours on the road, relying on Thelma to care for his home and seven children. When she died, he had two sons, Marvin and 12-year-old Michael, still in grade school and not much of an idea as to how to care for them. Moreover, Michael had a cyst on his spine, a condition that would eventually deteriorate to the point that he now uses crutches to walk. The rest of the children were grown with families of their own—except for Fred, who was then a freshman at Florida State.
Before his wife died, Nathaniel had taken a job repairing heavy machinery, which took him off the road, but he still had to learn to find his way around the unfamiliar territory of his own house, a small two-bedroom place in Coconut Grove—not in the chic, bohemian artists' district, but in the more ragged fringe. "I had no idea what to do," Nathaniel says now. "Everything was so uncertain. I had never cooked a meal in my life. I didn't even know how to use the washing machine. I had to read the directions. But I continued on." He learned how to run the household efficiently enough that Fred now calls him Mr. Mom. "My daddy is a good man," Fred says. "He earned my respect. When Marvin woke up every morning, there was breakfast on the table, and my father saw him off to school."
Fred remembers the succession of dreadful phone calls that came for him at Florida State over those three months in 1983 and '84. It seemed as though every time he turned around, he would receive an urgent summons to the office of defensive line coach Chuck Amato. He would make his way through the athletic building with a cold wave spreading through his stomach. When Amato told Fred that his mother was gravely ill, the coach and some of the other players wondered if Fred would ever come back. Fred attended his mother's burial during a weekend. On Sunday night he was back at school. "People said, 'That's it, Fred ain't coming back,' " he says. "It was important to do it, for me and for my little brothers. Anybody can say, 'I quit.' I couldn't quit after preaching that to them."
Marvin was a shy, overweight child and the baby of the family. As a grade-schooler he was too heavy and too slow to be much of an athlete. He was a homebody who would sit inside every day after school, waiting for his mother to get off work so he could hang around in the kitchen with her. When Nathaniel was around, he would tell his son to go outside and play. Instead, Marvin would cling to Thelma. "He was definitely a mama's boy," Fred remembers. "And I'm pretty sure that losing her was devastating for him. It lets you know anything can be taken from you."
Thelma's death also marked the true beginning of Marvin's football career. As the biggest kid in the neighborhood he had begun before his mother died to play in the local pee wee leagues and was always the hardest hitter. Now he began to hit harder. Hitting became his preferred manner of expression. "The thing about it is, I never told her how much I loved her," Marvin says of his mother. "I was young, I didn't have a talkative relationship. You have things to say."
When he came home on weekends and vacations, Fred would use football to get Marvin out of the house. He would force him to go on conditioning runs and then take him to a local park for grass drills. Fred would run four and five miles at a time, forcing Marvin to struggle along with him as far as he could. "Torture," Marvin says of the workouts. Marvin would feign sleep in the mornings, but Fred would haul him out of bed. "He was lazy," Fred says.
But one morning when Marvin was about 13, Fred found him waiting to go running. Then Marvin began seeking out Fred for workouts. He would call him at school and announce some new athletic feat. When Marvin was in the eighth grade, Fred got a call. "I can dunk a basketball," Marvin announced. Fred said he doubted it, but Marvin insisted it was true. A few days later Fred came home and took Marvin to the court at a local boys' club. Marvin stood at the top of the key, bounced the ball high in the air, leaped and caught it at his waist, swung it around and jammed it. "Right then I knew," Fred says. "I said uh-oh, because he did it easy. And he didn't even like basketball."
By then Fred was a veteran starter for the Seminoles, and he began teaching Marvin football technique. He pushed him through sprints, shuffles, cariocas and change-of-direction drills. As Fred watched Marvin get bigger, an idea formed: He would teach Marvin everything he knew, so he would always be ahead of the game. Fred wanted Marvin to have high school skills in junior high, college skills in high school and pro skills in college. Which is exactly what happened. "We'd go over and over it, until he knew it like the back of his hand," Fred says.
When Marvin reached high school, Fred told him one day to put on his gear and then took him into the backyard. The two brothers settled into their stances and went head-to-head. Nathaniel came out on the back porch to watch. "You better not hurt that boy," he warned Fred. The noise of their collisions could be heard in the surrounding backyards. "The ground shook," Marvin says. It became a tradition, Fred and Marvin's pounding each other in the backyard, until Marvin grew into an NFL prospect and the drills stopped, because neither brother wanted to risk injury. But the impression of the contact lingers still. "We barely walk close to each other now," Marvin says.
In those backyard workouts Fred created a masterpiece. Marvin attended Miami Northwestern High because it had a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, and the Jones family felt that the program's hard work and discipline would serve him well later in life. By Marvin's senior year at Northwestern he was the best young linebacker in the country. As a freshman at Florida State he became a starter the third game of the season, but his legend had begun to build when, one day in preseason practice, he flopped down under a large oak tree, exhausted from wind sprints, and an assistant coach nicknamed him Shadetree. Jones retorted, "One day they'll call this place Marvinville." Coach Bobby Bowden wanted to make Jones a starter immediately but was afraid to give him too much too fast. It didn't matter. Whatever Jones wanted, he seized. By the end of his sophomore season he was a consensus All-America and a finalist for the Lombardi Award. Now he says, "Maybe one day I'll go back to Tallahassee and run for mayor."
Fred has watched Marvin's career in amazement. "I play through him," he says. With the coaching turned over to others, Fred turned his attention to overseeing other aspects of Marvin's development, mostly by preaching at him to keep out of trouble. There was one glitch in Marvin's fast-forward highlight film of a college career. It came in the midst of his sophomore season, when a series of off-the-field incidents caused many fans to wonder if all that early success hadn't gone to his head.
In November of that season Jones and some teammates were videotaped by rapper Luther Campbell at a Tallahassee nightclub making disparaging comments about the Miami Hurricanes. Campbell, a devoted Miami fan, showed the tape to the Hurricane players, and many of them called it a motivating factor in their 17-16 defeat of the Seminoles later that same month. In December of that year Jones missed a curfew in Dallas during the Seminoles' preparation for the Cotton Bowl game against Texas A&M, and Bowden punished him by not starting him and then playing him only sparingly in the first half. In January 1992 Jones and some teammates got into a shouting match with an airline employee in the Tallahassee airport and were prevented from boarding a flight. "I grew up fast," Marvin says. "I wasn't allowed to make freshman mistakes."
He also had to assume the responsibilities of a man older than his years after the birth in December 1991 of his daughter, Jada. The child's mother—Marvin does not wish to identify her—was a junior college student, and although she and Jones have ended their relationship, he says that they are friendly. Marvin says of Jada, "She's mine. She's my baby. She's smart. She's a lot like me." Marvin says that he has tried to see his child as often as possible, though now that he is living in Miami, that has proved to be difficult.
Fred has tried to teach Marvin what he has learned patrolling the streets of Miami: "You don't have to look for trouble, it'll look for you." Fred wasn't going to let Marvin screw up all that talent—the kind he'd never had. Fred wasn't the most-gifted linebacker, but he was tireless. "I was one of those hard workers," he says. And Fred worked steadily toward a degree in criminology at Florida State. He played briefly for the Kansas City Chiefs during the 1987 NFL players' strike, but that was it for pro football. In '89 he became a Metro-Dade police officer. Despite Fred's success after football, his failure to make it in the NFL weighs heavily on him. "I told Marvin, "You don't ever want to know what it feels like to be in my position,' " Fred says. "The hard work for Marvin now isn't on the field, it's off."
On the eve of the NFL draft Marvin has taken Fred's advice. He is living at home, eating the meals that his father prepares, driving the 1986 maroon Buick Regal that Nathaniel gave him to take to college, and working out daily with Fred. By remaining at home and keeping a low profile, Jones hopes to show the NFL scouts that he has matured beyond his years. He could, if he wanted, have a more fashionable car and his own apartment by now. Instead Jones has decided to present a different image. "He wanted to send a message," says his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. "He's going to keep things in perspective. Other 20-year-olds might lose their grip. He's willing to keep his head, to keep his feet on the ground."
One respect in which Marvin has not followed the course set by Fred is that he never returned to Florida State after the Seminoles' Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska on New Year's Day 1993. He enrolled in two courses at Miami-Dade Community College, but in fact he concentrated on preparing for his staged workout.
Perhaps that is because, in his mind, Jones has already moved on to the NFL. "This is something I've been preparing to do for a long time," he says. "I've been playing this game since I was seven. That's more than half my life." And yet the deeply felt sense of caution that he has carried with him ever since his harrowing 11th year has prevented him from exulting prematurely in his predicted stardom. He has a fatalistic, even dark, conviction that if something comes easy, it is not to be trusted.
Says Rosenhaus, "Things are going so well he's afraid something is going to happen. Some people see the draft as the beall and end-all. Marvin sees it as just a beginning."