Sept. 18, 2013
Skip Myslenski recently spent time with the Wildcats' leading receiver, speedster Tony Jones.
The Flintstones rose to prominence in the spring of 2000, that spring Flint natives Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell catalyzed Michigan State to the NCAA men's basketball title. A defining moment in their run, a moment that manifests the innards of so many who hail from that maimed Michigan city, came in their regional semifinal with Syracuse, a game they trailed by 10 at halftime. In their locker room, even before Spartan coach Tom Izzo arrived there, the hard-nosed Cleaves erupted in full cry, ultimately pinning Peterson against a locker and loudly challenging his best friend and roommate to improve his performance.
'Cats wide receiver Tony Jones is a Flintstone who, as an eight-year old, raptly watched that team makes its run through the madness of March. "You just get it," he will say when asked what it means to be a member of that tribe. "I definitely take a lot of pride being from Flint. There's not much more to say. Just a lot of pride being from Flint. You just get it. You think of yourself as pretty tough."
Tony Jones has been incandescent this fall and enters the `Cats Saturday game with Maine with a team-best 18 receptions for 293 yards and a pair of touchdowns. "Tony's a big-time player," Pat Fitzgerald has often said of him, yet he has arrived at this moment only by showing that he is every bit as tough as that place that bred him.
For it is not easy growing up in Flint ("Not at all," he agrees), which a web site called Business Insider recently rated the most-dangerous city in the country.
"Actually, now that I think about it, I can think of one or two who unfortunately passed away," Jones will say when asked if any of his old friends had been eaten up by that environment. "Even one or two who are unfortunately incarcerated right now. It's just rough. A lot of kids get dealt a tough hand. Some of my childhood friends didn't get the same opportunities as myself. So I'm very fortunate to be from Flint and to have experienced some of the things I did experience, but to have definitely grown from each learning point in my life. As a football player, that's one of my goals. To be able to give back to my community further down the road."
Both of his parents were police officers, which buffered him from the mean streets that surrounded him, and he remembers the environment in their home as "pretty strict." They then sent him to Grand Blanc, a high school some eight miles outside of Flint ("They thought it was a better fit"), and there he was twice the Most Valuable Player of its basketball team; broke the 400-meter record of current Saints running back Mark Ingram Jr.; and developed into a football prospect so coveted that he received 23 offers from schools that included Stanford, Notre Dame and Michigan State as well as the 'Cats.
"I realize every day how blessed and fortunate I am to be able to play football for this prestigious university. It's truly a blessing," he will say when asked if he ever reflects on just how far it is from Flint to the bucolic setting surrounding him on the team's practice field. "I'm very grateful for the support system I have back home and the people who continue to support me each and every day. It's really been amazing, the people who've reached out to me, that congratulate me along the way and let me know they're still in my corner."
And coming from Flint, did that toughen him?
"I feel it's definitely toughened me," he says. "You encounter adversity, really, on a daily basis, and it really taught me how to deal with that. It made me a stronger person, as well as a football player."
His skills were obvious from the moment he stepped on campus, but then came adversity. In camp his true freshman season (2011), he suffered a shoulder injury and missed the first four games. He returned for the fifth, against Minnesota, and on his very first play as a collegian, caught a 45-yard touchdown pass from Dan Persa. That gave a hint of all his possibilities. But the week before the `Cats 2012 season opener, he tore up his PCL and was done for the year. "It was terrible, especially to do it two years in a row," he now says with a look back.
"I remember just sitting in the locker room when the team left for Vanderbilt my true freshman year and then the team left for Boston College. As soon as the bus leaves, I'm sitting there crying. Watching (fellow wideout) Rashad (Lawrence), watching (quarterback) Kain (Colter) leave (with the team). It was rough. But it made me that much more hungry and definitely made me appreciate a lot more getting back on the field and really just not taking any moment for granted."
"I think when he came in everyone knew he was going to be the guy," echoes Colter, his roommate along with wideout Kyle Prater. "He played his true freshman year, had some success, but then he had injury after injury. I think it made him aware that no game is given, no play is given and that every time you're on the field it could be your last time. He's taken that mentality and any chance that he gets to play the game he's trying to make the most of it."
Does his past truly make everything seem more urgent now?
"It does," admits Jones. "It makes it that much sweeter, too, knowing that you started from the bottom. There was a point there where it seemed everything was against me. But I just had to take that negative and turn it into a positive. And it's really turned out to be a blessing as far as getting another year on the other end after having to redshirt my sophomore year. It let my body heal, let my body grow. Getting with Coach (Jay) Hooten and the Sports Performance staff and really just reconstructing my body. I came in as a young freshman, I was 175 pounds. To add a little bit more muscle and let my body mature, that's really paid dividends."
Tony Jones not only weighs just a bacon-cheeseburger less than 200 now. He is also in, to use his term, a different place. "Just mentally," he explains. "You have to focus and learn that each opportunity that presents itself, you've got to make the most of it. So really just my focus, I feel like that has really improved. I'm locked in and really not letting myself get so distracted. Even when bad things happen, you can't really dwell on them. You've just got to go out there and play football and enjoy the moment and make plays."
After the Syracuse game quarterback Trevor Siemian said of him, "He's maturing and getting cleaner with his routes."
"Definitely," he agrees. "That's something (wide receivers) Coach (Dennis) Springer really emphasized to me, to really learn how to read defenses which makes my job that much easier. Earlier in my career, I relied so heavily on my speed. But I've polished up my mechanics like running better routes, being disciplined with my eyes, just learning the little things that go into playing this position."
And he seems to be more sure-handed this season.
"I feel that I definitely am," Tony Jones finally says. "A lot of it is confidence. I feel like this past spring really helped me, seeing myself catch the ball and make the plays I know I'm capable of making. Then it carrying over into fall camp and now the games, it's just a confidence thing. I'm out here having fun, playing full speed, not worrying about injuries, not worrying about bad things happening.
"I'm just playing and having fun. It's been great."
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