Into The Light
From a town where coal is king, Thomas and Julius Jones ran straight to the NFL
The two men see themselves as kids again, little boys bunking in the downstairs bedroom of a tarpaper house on a hillside in Appalachia, Va. They stand outside the bedroom's single-pane window, hands cupped at their temples, peering inside at the warped and sloped floorboards, the peeling paint, the cramped spot where their bunk bed once stood.
They're TJ and JJ again, standing next to each other, big men with outsize arms who make a living by running away from bigger men. They're remarkably still and oddly quiet, especially the older one, Thomas, who is never quiet for more than a speck of time. Hairstyles give away personalities: The older man's braids reflect a more flamboyant, slightly rebellious side; the younger one's nearly shaved head denotes a nature more serious, more reserved.
Their breath on the window fogs and clears, fogs and clears. Their cupped hands fight the reflection, but their reflection is all over the room. Hands can't stop that.
Thomas Jones, who at 27 is three years older than his brother, says, "Look how small that room is. Damn, we lived in that room."
It is a statement that veers close to being a question.
The window fogs and clears, fogs and clears. Their eyes dart from one end of the room to the other. Their minds race with memories.
Fog. Clear. Fog. Clear. These men aren't moving.
Quietly, almost to himself, Julius says, "Yeah, we did live there. We sure did."
Eventually they walk around, trying doors, looking through the front windows. The place is empty, and a FOR SALE BY OWNER sign stands in the front yard. Houses around here sell for between $25,000 and $35,000. Either brother could write a check and never feel it.
The front porch creaks and groans so loudly that Thomas begins to tiptoe his 230 pounds to the high side, like a trespasser. Laughing, he says, "I don't remember that."
They haven't been back here in a long time, not since Thomas, after being named the seventh pick in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft, bought his family a sprawling house on a hilltop in nearby Big Stone Gap. Big kitchen, swimming pool, great room-the new place is nothing like this one.
The brothers have always been a regional curiosity. But interest heightened last year when they combined for more than 2,300 yards. Thomas gained 1,335 for the Bears, making an overdue claim for big-time-back status after being dogged by the unfulfilled promise of three lost seasons in Arizona. Julius, Dallas' second-round pick in 2004, is the Cowboys' featured back and a particular favorite of Bill Parcells for the way he gets his 217-pound body rolling. If injuries hadn't cost him three games, his numbers would have looked a lot like his brother's.
Their parents, Betty and Thomas Sr., stand on the street in front of their old house, watching the sons whose stories are nothing like their own. Betty worked underground for 20 years in the Appalachian coal mines, a black woman in a white man's world. Thomas Sr. worked a number of jobs: TV reporter, coal miner, in the admissions office at Tennessee and finally as a corrections officer.
The story of the Jones family is a story of place as much as achievement. This is rural coal country, a depressed but resilient corner of Virginia, one of those off-the-track outposts where they build maximum-security prisons and call it economic redevelopment. Wal-Mart sits like a sentinel on a knoll above the freeway while the boarded-up mom-and-pops cower below in what once passed for downtown.
Roughly two out of three radio stations blast sin and salvation. For generations, the families of Big Stone Gap and Appalachia and Cracker Neck have taken their hard hats and their faith into these mountains to make lives for themselves and better ones for their children.
Betty Jones is a slender woman with a generous laugh and a level of refinement that doesn't suggest two decades in a mining shaft. Still, she left home every night to work graveyard-the hootowl shift, they call it-knowing she might not make it back. She told her children that, too, saying, "If it's my time, it's my time."
She recounts this now with the emotion of someone reading from a grocery list: You go to work; you might never see your family again. A fact of life. Thomas Sr. picks up a vibe. The reaction is common among outsiders; they can't understand.
"It's hard for someone who's not here," he says.
"The mine is a way of life. Betty went down there every day. It taught our kids that you do what has to be done. And you do it together."
Julius learned the lesson. "We saw how hard they worked," he says. "What we do is easy."
EVENTUALLY, THERE would be seven Jones children: five girls, Thomas and Julius. Today five have college degrees; Thomas, who graduated from Virginia in three years, is 15 credits short of a master's in psychology. One daughter is a junior in high school on the path toward college. And Julius, whose most embarrassing moment was an academic failure that cost him a year away from Notre Dame, is three classes shy of a diploma. He promises to earn it, even though the wealth he's gained leaves little incentive beyond pride.
The brothers used to run up the hill to the old house over and over, about a 20% grade over a 100-yard stretch that builds leg strength and taxes the lungs. And from the time they were 6, their father told them to end each day with sets of push-ups and sit-ups on the floor of their bedroom. He wanted them to be strong, of course. But he wanted discipline and structure to be a conduit to the mental strength his sons would need to reach beyond their surroundings.
Thomas Sr. speaks with the cadence and patience of a preacher when he says, "For the two to come from Big Stone Gap High School in this little area, it makes folks want to know, what's going on here? There has to be an intangible somewhere."
Thomas Sr. is fixated on this unlikely calculus of success. Break it down: From a town of 5,000, from a high school of 500, from a family of seven children, only two of them boys. Those two boys become not only star high school players but star college players and now star NFL players, both at the same position. What are the odds?
Then again, how many boys were ever as driven? Thomas Sr. sometimes heard them in the middle of the night, rustling about. It was usually Thomas who stage-whispered, "Julius, wake up. Did you do your push-ups and sit-ups?"
Julius would grumble and say, "I forgot."
"I did too."
Silence. It would be easier to forget, to roll back over and do them in the morning.
"We better get up and do them."
More grumbling. "Yeah, okay."
They'd crawl out of bed at 2 in the morning, 3 in the morning, maybe 4. They didn't know and it didn't matter. They'd get down on that plank floor, side by side, and count them out together- one … two … -until they were done.
Thomas Sr. took the sports section out of the newspaper and kept it from his sons until he was satisfied they had at least skimmed the news. He bought them dictionaries and gave them assignments: Learn five or 10 new words a day.
The boys weren't quizzed on vocabulary or hounded about workouts, but they felt the call of duty and the pull of obligation all the same. Sacrifice is a part of life, tying them to each other, pushing them higher. Together. Thomas and Julius call each other and each one of their siblings before kickoff every Sunday. When the brothers talk, they deliver the same message:
Let's go get it, but let's be safe. Watch your legs. Watch your ankles. Hold onto the ball. I love you. I'll call you after the game.
"I depend on those phone calls," Julius says. "I don't know what I'd do without them."
The Jones family got together in Big Stone Gap in February for their paternal grandmother's 90th birthday party. It snowed all weekend, and Thomas and Julius sat in the great room, surrounded by their sisters and nieces and nephews, and stared out the window at the flakes falling on the mountains. Thomas says, "This is the most peaceful place I know." And they know every hill and holler in these mountains.
BETTY WAS the first black cheerleader at Appalachia High, but when she discusses the experience, there are no allusions to bitterness or racism. "Thomas and my brother played on the team, and I was very proud to be there." Betty's brother was Edd Clark, a famous high school running back nicknamed the Stonega Stallion. Edd set state records that stood until his nephew Thomas broke them. Maybe the most impressive is rushing yards in a game: Thomas gained 462 to surpass Edd's 449.
But Edd's story reaches beyond football. Thomas Sr. and Betty say that Edd was given grades during high school and in exchange went to Purdue at the urging of his coach. It took him-already married, his wife pregnant-only one semester to flunk out. There are those who believe Edd was as good as his nephews are. "I always said if we have boys, I will not let them be treated like Edd," Betty says. "They will be their own men and make informed decisions."
So when Julius was ruled academically ineligible for the 2002 season at Notre Dame and the university said he could make up the classes elsewhere and return the following year, his father told him, "You broke something. Go back and fix it." Julius moved in with Thomas and took classes at Arizona State. Coincidentally, Thomas was serving his own exile from the Cardinals at the time. Consistently short of breath, he insisted he was injured. Jones says the team sent him to a psychiatrist and implied he was a head case. Eventually, after he saw too many specialists, a chiropractor found three dislocated ribs. He reset the ribs-and Thomas' career.
Together again, the brothers reconnected with what got them where they were. They worked out, but at 3 or 4 in the morning to avoid being recognized. Thomas bought Julius a beat-up 1988 Oldsmobile, a symbol of humility. "Julius had to get back to the mind-set he had on that hill," Thomas Sr. says. "He'd have been a totally different Julius Jones if he'd taken the easy way out." Julius earned his way back to Notre Dame in 2003. That same season, Thomas was traded to Tampa Bay, where he took the first steps toward rehabilitating his career. A year later, after signing with the Bears as a free agent, he gained nearly 1,000 yards and scored seven touchdowns.
Thomas Sr. credits an intangible for all the success, but could it be something deepersomething genetic?
Time for Edd Clark to reenter the story. His legend is a cautionary tale, sure, but it's much more. On Easter Sunday in 1986, Edd, a truck driver, saved two drowning children in Boynton Beach, Fla. He was going back for a third when exhaustion overtook him.
"He died a hero," Betty says.
BEFORE DROPPING by the old house in Appalachia, the brothers and their parents drive into the mountains to a mine run by Betty's old employer. It is snowy and cold, and the black earth oozes with every footfall. They arrive as men from the day shift head down the hill in their pickups, faces smudged black with soot.
At the mine entrance, Thomas Sr. and Betty strike up a conversation with two men. They all seem oblivious to the incessant thrumming from inside the shaft as miners dig deeper and deeper, every increment of progress making the next more dangerous.
Thomas and Julius stay in the front seats of the family's Escalade, Thomas behind the wheel. They stare out toward the big hole in the mountain, at their mother laughing and their father shaking hands. The parents are comfortable here. The sons, though, are from this world but no longer of it.
A miner named Gary Sexton stands outside the shaft, wearing a hard hat with "JESUS" written four times in block letters in a circle above the brim. He coached youth football against the team Thomas and Julius were on and played high school football against Thomas Sr. and Edd Clark. The world compresses in these mountains. "This is a great family," Sexton says, nodding toward Betty and Thomas Sr. "We're proud to have 'em."
He points to the two men in the car. Shaking his head, he says, "Two boys in the NFL from the same family? From here in little ol' Big Stone Gap? You might say that's a big deal around these parts."
He laughs long and hard at the obviousness of his words. The sound echoes off the black mountain. Thomas and Julius just sit there, content to watch themselves be watched.
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