GEORGIA LINEBACKER JARVIS JONES HAS OVERCOME A CAREER-THREATENING INJURY TO BECOME THE BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER IN THE SEC, BUT THE FAMILY TRAGEDY THAT DRIVES HIM? WELL, HE'S DEALING WITH THAT THE BEST HE CAN
This is an article from the Oct. 8, 2012 issue
Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham stared at the not-so-broken linebacker sitting across from him at a Cracker Barrel in Athens, and made his pitch. Since coming from the Dallas Cowboys five months earlier, Grantham had built a 3--4 defense from the inside out. He had space-eating nosetackles. He had fast-twitch defensive ends. He had stout inside linebackers. He needed a hybrid—a linebacker like Cowboys All-Pro DeMarcus Ware—who could rush the passer, stuff the run and cover wide receivers. Grantham thought Jarvis Jones could be that sort of game-changer, although to fill that role Jones needed one trait that couldn't be measured by any drill.
Grantham knew Ware succeeded because he kept attacking no matter the down or the score or the time of game. From what he'd seen on tape, Grantham felt Jones had the skills to be the same type of player, but could he be as relentless? He would have to be fueled by an inner fire so hot that no 300-pound tackle, no bullnecked fullback, no configuration of double teams could block him for an entire game.
Grantham had no idea how fiercely Jones's fire blazed.
WHEN THE FIFTH-RANKED Bulldogs face No. 6 South Carolina on Saturday in Columbia, Jones will have to handle all of the above tasks plus one more. Georgia coach Mark Richt says the 6'3", 241-pound Jones makes the perfect spy to shadow quarterbacks who can run and throw. The Gamecocks' Connor Shaw fits that description. The last time the Bulldogs faced such a dual threat, Jones terrorized Missouri's James Franklin with an interception, two sacks and two forced fumbles. The redshirt junior leads Georgia with eight tackles for loss, 4½ sacks and 14 quarterback pressures, statistics that fail to reflect all the double teams, chip blocks and other ways that offensive coordinators scheme to put distance between Jones and whoever has the ball.
But no game plan can prevent Jones from closing his eyes on the field and talking to Darcell Kitchens. That's how Jones stokes that fire—by imagining a conversation with the brother he believes he could have saved. If only he'd prevented the celebratory trip to a bar that ended one life and changed another forever.
It was Jan. 8, 2005, and as another lazy Saturday in rural Stewart County, Ga., drew to a close, Jones, then an eighth-grader, and Kitchens stood on the street near their mother's house. Midnight struck, and Kitchens turned 19. A car pulled up and Kitchens approached. An invitation was extended. Before Kitchens stepped into the car, he turned back and yelled to his brother.
"Do you want me to stay?" Kitchens asked. No, Jones replied. He didn't want to cramp his older brother's style. "I'll see you in the morning," Kitchens said before the car pulled away.
Kitchens wound up at the Gypsy Tea Room and Lounge, a dingy bar in Richland. That's where he ran into Nakiedrian Garrett, also 19. Garrett was drunk, and he accused Kitchens of breaking into his grandmother's house. Kitchens suggested the men discuss the matter outside. Garrett had a gun. Kitchens did not. There, on Church Street, two shots rang out. Kitchens, with one .38-caliber bullet hole in his chest and another in his back, staggered into the bar, fell to the floor and died.
A few minutes after the shooting, a friend's sister delivered the news to Jones, and he collapsed atop her car. "I felt like I had lost everything," Jones says. That night he began asking himself why, and he hasn't stopped since. Why didn't he tell Kitchens to stay? Why did he let him get into that car? Why did his brother have to die?
On the first floor of the Stewart County Courthouse in Lumpkin, photos of Jones hang in almost every office. They are proud of their native son, but they are glad he got away. Many of the county's 5,910 residents are stuck in a financial struggle that provides little hope for advancement but ample opportunities for trouble. The county is one of the poorest in Georgia, with a median household income of $30,954, almost $20,000 below the state average. When Jones discusses where he came from, he says simply, "There ain't nothin' going on there for a young black man."
To escape Stewart County, Jones had to first get thrown out. His Georgia teammates can't believe their Goody Two-shoes linebacker was ever in trouble, but Jones lived in a dark place in the months following his brother's death. He blamed himself, but he wouldn't talk to anyone about the killing, and his pain turned to anger. Jones got expelled from Stewart County Middle School, then from an alternative program for fighting. Out of options within the county, Gloria Dowdell had to find a way to get her youngest child back in school. She asked Tony Adams, Jones's AAU basketball coach, if he could help. Dowdell signed away guardianship of Jones to Adams. He placed Jones with Shelley Stephens, who provided academic counseling to the players in his program. By moving 35 miles to Columbus—which is in Muscogee County—Jones would be allowed to attend school.
"It was very hard," Jones says of the separation. "My mom really cares about me. I'm her baby. Every chance I got, I went to see her."
At 15, he was already 6'3", while Stephens was 4'11". He thought it hilarious that he towered over her. Stephens's grocery bill shot up, but she was happy to feed the man-child who quickly became an older brother to her sons, Delray and Jon, who were six and four at the time. Stephens was aware that Jones had been expelled, but she had known Jones through basketball since he was in sixth grade. She realized that he only needed support and a second chance. "I appreciate that his mom trusted me to be that person for him," Stephens says. "He wanted to do something different, so he wouldn't end up in a situation like [his brother's]." Before long Jones began calling Stephens Mom too.
Jones finished eighth grade at Rose Hill Center in Columbus and moved on to Carver High. As a freshman he played tight end and receiver for coach Dell McGee, but Jones stopped going to practice after sustaining a minor injury. "I hated football," Jones says. When McGee found Jones practicing with the basketball team, McGee called the player in for a talk. McGee explained: 6'3" power forwards have few college options, but college football coaches would salivate over someone with Jones's speed and strength. Jones returned to football and eventually grew to love the game and his teammates. It became an outlet for his pent-up anger and a place where he could find others to confide in.
Carver players Jarmon Fortson and Bill Alexander were among the first people Jones opened up to about his brother's murder. Over time, they helped Jones deal with the guilt that had consumed him. "They always told me, It ain't your fault. I could say it wasn't, but I just never looked at it that way," Jones says. "That's my brother. I'm going to see it differently. I've learned not to dwell on it."
As an inside linebacker at Carver, Jones hunted ballcarriers from sideline to sideline and tortured opposing offenses. With Stephens, who is working on a doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Phoenix, monitoring Jones's academics, and McGee, a former Auburn cornerback, training him on the field, Jones was an ideal recruit. He eventually signed with USC.
Jones cracked the Trojans' rotation at backup strongside linebacker as a true freshman. His future appeared limitless until he sprained his neck in a loss at Oregon on Oct. 31, 2009. What initially seemed like a minor injury turned into a major issue. Doctors at USC diagnosed spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that puts pressure on the spinal cord, and declared Jones's career over. "Devastating," Jones says. "Heartbreaking, man."
Stephens cried when she heard the news. Then she went to work. She found examples of players who had suffered similar injuries and continued their careers without incident. In spring 2010, she sent Jones to a spine specialist in Los Angeles, who declared him fit to play. USC wasn't convinced and refused to risk a potentially catastrophic neck injury. So Jones requested a release from his scholarship and began looking for a new school. In Athens, Richt accompanied Jones as he underwent tests on his neck. On that same visit, Grantham and Jones broke bread and began plotting the downfall of the SEC's quarterbacks.
That relentlessness Grantham sought emerged the moment Jones stepped onto Georgia's practice field. Because he had to sit out a season after transferring, Jones played on the scout-team defense in 2010 and blew up the first-team offense so regularly that coaches had to ask him to cool it. When the regular season ended, the Bulldogs had a few weeks of practice while awaiting the Liberty Bowl, so Grantham decided to give Jones some time with the first-team defense. "We put him outside," Grantham said, "and he just wreaked havoc." Grantham knew he had a star, and both he and Jones looked forward to his debut the following autumn. But before Jones could take the field, he had to clear another hurdle.
A police investigation into corruption within the Columbus parks and recreation department had revealed that Adams paid for flights to and from Los Angeles for Stephens and Jones. The NCAA followed with its own inquiry. Once again Jones waited while others decided his fate. In August 2011 the NCAA concluded that Adams and Stephens were the equivalent of family members who had been taking care of Jones long before anyone knew he'd be a major college football player. He'd escaped another dead end.
Just as Grantham predicted, Jones dominated. He led the SEC in sacks (13½) and tackles for loss (19½), and piqued the interest of NFL scouts. But he wasn't interested in them. Jones might have gone in the first round had he left Georgia last year, but unlike several of his teammates, he didn't even submit paperwork to be evaluated by the NFL's draft advisory board. Jones had made up his mind that he needed to learn more at Georgia. "No matter how much people pressured him," Stephens says, "he always had the same answer."
Jones thought he could improve his draft stock with another dominant season. He may not stay after this year, but he's adamant that he will get his degree in child and family development, and he has grand plans for any riches he might make in the NFL. He has begun researching the formation of a foundation that will allow him to build a recreational center for children in Stewart County. He wants kids where he grew up to have access to coaches and academic support so they don't have to spend their days, as he did, roaming the streets or shooting at a basketball goal created by nailing a milk crate to a piece of plywood. "I just want to show them that there's more to life than being on the streets smoking marijuana, drinking and getting in trouble," he says. "You can do positive things."
He can't quite picture the rec center yet, but he knows it will be named after Darcell Kitchens. "I feel like my brother walks with me every day," Jones says.
Stewart Mandel gets the story on Georgia's dynamic duo of freshman running backs, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, next Thursday at SI.com/cfb