T.J. Jones leaving a lasting legacy at Notre Dame

T.J. Jones leaving a lasting legacy at Notre Dame
November 21, 2013, 6:30 pm
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Saturday will mark the final time T.J. Jones puts on the navy No. 7 jersey and gold helmet at Notre Dame Stadium. He'll slap the sign and will hear his name cheered by 81,000 fans one last time. 

He'll be greeted by his family at midfield two and a half years after his father, Andre, passed away after suffering a brain aneurysm. 

Andre Jones started at defensive end for the 1988 Irish, the last Notre Dame team to win a national championship. When T.J. first suited up for Notre Dame in 2010, he became the first son of a member of that 1988 team to play for the Irish. He wears No. 7, just like his father. 

T.J. envisioned the moment when he could jog out on the field at Notre Dame Stadium and hug his dad on the same turf where both made their names. Andre may be smiling back at him on the 50-yard line, but he'll be on T.J.'s mind Saturday afternoon.

"He'll be there in spirit," Jones said. "That's all you can ask for."

***

Pat Terrell, a safety on the 1988 Irish, recalled the moment when Andre Jones called him to inform him his son was going to Notre Dame. The initial excitement was surpassed by a later phone call, in which Andre was giddy over T.J., who enrolled early at Notre Dame, having a chance to start his freshman year. 

"I'm like Andre, just relax, man -- he just got a scholarship to Notre Dame, just take that in," Terrell said. "So I met Andre up at the spring game, and sure enough I watched him in the game and got on the phone and started texting all the old teammates saying 'T.J.'s the real deal, fellas, we gotta really watch this guy. Andre's just not talking trash.' "

Jones started seven games his first year, catching 23 passes for 306 yards with three touchdowns -- the first of which came in his first career game with the Irish. For an undersized freshman, it was a fine start to his career.

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It was the summer between his freshman and sophomore years when Andre passed away. He was 42, and survived by his wife and five children. 

T.J.'s father understood him the best, not only from a father-son standpoint but because Andre knew what it was like to play at Notre Dame. Terrell said T.J. -- who initially verbally committed to Stanford -- decided to play at Notre Dame in large part because of his father.

"When he made his decision to come to Notre Dame … a lot of that was based on his dad's experiences and stories," Terrell said, "and the fact that you can go to a place and have someone that really understands what you're going through. And he lost that."

T.J. returned to Notre Dame for his sophomore year, and that 2011 season wasn't easy. T.J. thought about Andre all the time, while Andre's teammates wished they could watch T.J. play with him. 

Observing T.J.'s strength, though, helped the mourning process for Andre's teammates.

"Believe it or not, he kind of really carried a lot of us through this because you saw how strong he was and how good of a person (he was)," Terrell said. "Sometimes when people go through tragedies like that, they can go in one or two directions. And he certainly chose to continue to make his family proud and to not feel sorry for himself." 

But a number of members of that 1988 Irish team took T.J. under their wing, doing their best not to necessarily replace Andre, but make up for the void he left.

1988 starting quarterback Tony Rice sees T.J. whenever the latter is in Chicago. Terrell and former cornerback D'Juan Francisco grab dinner with him and after most home games in South Bend. T.J. still keeps up with his godfather, Rocket Ismail, and Reggie Brooks as well. 

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"He was part of the family before he even knew it, before he was even born," Rice said (Rice works as an analyst for Comcast SportsNet-Chicago). 

"Those guys are like family to me," T.J. said. "It's not awkward -- it's never like I feel like I'm imposing. I love them just like they love me." 

Whenever T.J. needs anything he'll call up one of his father's teammates, but it's a support system that works both ways.

"We always want to be around him so he can look up to us and ask us questions," Terrell said, "but just the way he's handled his situation, quite frankly a lot of us look up to him."

***

T.J. Jones has caught a pass in a Notre Dame-record 37 consecutive games, a streak that dates back to the 2010 Sun Bowl. With six more receptions, he'll have the third-most catches in Notre Dame history. A touchdown against BYU would give him eight straight games with a score, tying a mark set by Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija. 

T.J. is among the top 30 FBS receivers in yards (891, No. 27) and touchdowns (eight, No. 21). He's a precise route-runner and knows how to leverage his 6-foot, 190-pound frame. 

After his freshman year, T.J. kept improving, upping his reception and yard totals every season with Notre Dame. He's matured, too, becoming a guy lauded by coach Brian Kelly this year. 

"I didn't talk much about T.J., the last couple years," Kelly said, "but all I do (now) is talk about T.J., because now he understands team first."

"I think I've become a better person in the sense, now it's what can I do for my family or what can I do to help my teammates out, to help the younger guys out -- what would my dad want me to do in this situation. And it's allowed me to build better relationships with people, to become more of a role model to whoever looks up to me."

Jones has three games left at Notre Dame, after which he'll get a shot in the NFL. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper said he sees Jones as a late-round pick at best, with a possibility he'll been an undrafted free agent. 

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Kelly vehemently disagreed with Kiper's analysis -- "I don't know where his information comes from as it relates to T.J. Jones," he said this week -- and figures he'll be drafted next spring. But T.J. isn't thinking that far ahead just yet, with BYU, Stanford and a bowl game ahead of him.

T.J.'s legacy at Notre Dame would always involve Andre, as the son of a member of the last team to win a championship there. But he was a key contributor to 2012's run at a title, earned a captaincy in 2013 and is Notre Dame's best offensive weapon in his final season. 

There's always room for improvement, but T.J. said he'll leave Notre Dame with pride in how he played, and who he is. 

"I'm going to be I guess not content, but I'll be happy with the achievements I've made here with playing football and getting the degree, regardless if there's a post-NFL career or a post-collegiate career in the NFL," Jones said. "I'll be happy with what I achieved."

He's not the only one.

"Andre," Terrell said, "he would be so proud of him."

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