By Todd Burlage
Sometimes, it’s just a familiar song on the car radio, or perhaps a favorite show on the television. Other times, the emotions stir inside TJ Jones when teammates are simply sharing stories about their own time with family.
Barely a year since a brain aneurysm claimed his father at the age of 42, life’s most mundane moments can still trigger a flashflood of pain and joy through the soul of TJ, now a Notre Dame junior.
“I absolutely want to cry,” Jones said of those weaker moments. “But I’ll walk away, gather myself real quickly and brush it off. I’m able to wake up now, put a smile on my face and try to go about my business. But dealing with the emotion is definitely still difficult day to day.”
TJ and his father, Andre Jones, shared so much in common they almost lived parallel lives. TJ even chose the No. 7 for his jersey and claimed his father’s old locker space to celebrate a legacy shared on the football field at Notre Dame
Andre was a defensive standout for the Irish and a member of the 1988 National Championship team. TJ is an up-and-coming wide receiver, and a cornerstone this season both in terms of production and leadership, especially with the graduation of All-American wideout Michael Floyd.
Similar football experiences, and a shared understanding of what it takes to be a Notre Dame Man, tightened the bond between Andre and TJ. No father-son relationship always runs perfectly, but nothing ever kept the elder Jones from his daily progress report on his boy. Andre was his son’s harshest critic and his greatest fan … and he needed every detail.
“Everyday after practice there was a phone call from dad wanting all the specifics,” TJ said. “How many catches did I have? How was the team looking? He wanted all of it. If I had any problems, he would help me because he had already been through it. In a sense, I was a younger him, just reliving a life that he already went through.”
That all changed on June 21, 2011, when the phone would ring no more.
TJ was summoned from a player workout and rushed to the airport for a flight home to Atlanta because his father had fallen ill. Within a few hours, Andre was gone, leaving behind his six children, all but one under the age of 20.
TJ, the second oldest of the crew, did what he thought his father would want and stayed back home and away from Notre Dame for about 10 days, helping bring strength to his mother and siblings.
“I just wanted to completely shut down,” TJ recalls. “That entire week and a half at home, I didn’t think I was coming back to ND. I knew my mom needed help so I just wanted to stay back and be with the family.”
But mother knows best, and calling on her own inner strength, the love of her family and the memory of her husband, Michele Jones gave her son TJ one option.
“She made me promise her that I wouldn’t shut down or let her shut down because she knew she was going to have to carry the load,” TJ said. “So she forced me to come back to Notre Dame and get my degree because she knew I would be more help to her and the family with that degree rather than coming back home and doing who knows what.”
“(TJ) pushed on because he needed to push on,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of the strength Jones showed. “He needed to be a rock for his family.”
The thoughts of his mother and the memory of his father will burn strong for TJ as he enters his third season as a starter at Notre Dame, and returns to the field as the most productive wideout on the team. In his first two seasons, Jones caught 61 passes for 672 yards and six touchdowns.
The 5-11, 190-pound speedster can play all three of the wideout positions, and in 2010, TJ became the first freshman in Notre Dame history to catch a touchdown pass in each of his first two career games.
Kelly and the other Irish coaches praised the work of Jones throughout training camp, and expect their shifty star to help a receiving corps that took much criticism in the offseason because of its inexperience.
“We hear it, and we know that the spotlight is on us right now and it isn’t necessarily a positive light,” TJ said. “People are questioning our ability, but we know the talent we have at receiver so we think differently, very differently.”
A strong message that would make any father proud.