Gannon University wide receiver Jonathan Jones will soon sport a quarter-sized ring for his coaching efforts in his high school alma mater’s undefeated championship season.
But, if you ask Jones, he’ll tell you it’s one of the least valuable gifts he received from his debut on powerhouse Aquinas Institute’s sidelines.
“I realized that I’m really blessed to have a scholarship to play football and do what I like to do,” said Jones, who spent both the academic and athletic year in New York away from his classes, friends and teammates at Gannon. “I took a lot away from [the experience].”
That’s quite the outcome considering Jones never had any intention of stepping on the sideline for the Little Irish.
After foundering grades and on-campus incidents put his playing status in question, Jones, his mother and coach Jim Kiernan decided it was best to take one year off to clear his head. Kiernan said that as long as the 6-foot-5-inch, 210 pound receiver took classes while at home in Rochester, N.Y., he could come back the following season.
“When I went home the plan wasn’t even for me to coach,” said Jones, who caught 18 balls for 228 yards and two scores for the Knights in his sophomore season. “But I went back to my high school to watch their first practice and my coach actually came up and asked me. He thought I’d be a good coach.”
Jones, a pass catcher by trade since the start of his football career, reveled in the chance to play coach and mentor to his brother Jarron Jones, a 6-foot-7, 308 pound defensive tackle headed to the University of Notre Dame next fall. With little hesitation, Jones accepted the offer to become one of Aquinas’ receiving coaches.
However, being so soon removed from Aquinas made the first few weeks of coaching a roster full of future D-I players difficult. Jones knew he was an encyclopedia of valuable knowledge; it just took the players to realize he was worth reading.
“The only hard part was getting over that hump that once we’re on the field, I’m not your friend anymore,” he said. “They caught on after they realized I was serious and wasn’t going to come out and be a jokester every day.”
Jones spent the rest of the season teaching the receiving core and detailing opponents’ secondary coverages as the Little Irish beat up their 13 opponents by an average of 22 points per game while on the way to a second state championship in four years.
The defensive schemes that coaches threw at him proved to be the easy part of the job. It was fighting off the urge to strap on the pads that served as his biggest obstacle to overcome.
“At first I was all pumped up but then it’s like ‘oh, I’m not hitting anybody. I’m just telling people what to do,’” Jones said. “That hardest thing about coaching is that I still felt like I had years of playing left.”
Jones was able to vent his pent -up aggression by playing vicariously through his Gannon teammates each weekend.
“I’d be in the locker room on game days watching the live updates,” he said. “Seeing the guys succeed last year would make me lift more when I lifted and run harder when I ran.”
However, the personal trials of the past year turned into personal triumph as the clock wound down on Aquinas’ 24-13 victory against Harrison High School in the championship game. According to Jones, who won a state title of his own during his senior year, he enjoyed his title as a coach more so than he did his one as a player.
“It was more exciting,” he said. “You’re not selfish, you’re thinking about all of your guys. These kids are getting the glory that I already had – it almost felt like I was a dad.”
Football wasn’t the only thing Jones found a renewed appreciation for.
After working a side job to help pay rent to his mother, Jones said he now sees how his lifestyle would change if he doesn’t take advantage of his opportunities both on and off the field.
“I was seeing how life would be without a college degree,” he said. “It showed me that I need to take advantage of my discount education because a lot of guys aren’t getting scholarships to college.”
Jones now returns to Gannon a reformed player, teammate and man. And it’s obvious to everyone around him.
“The core of JJ in terms of being a good person hasn’t changed,” Kiernan said. “The ‘how I approach things’ aspect about him has changed dramatically. You can really see a change in his thought process and it’s obvious – it’s like the nose on your face kind of thing.”
Matt Jones, his brother and a Gannon junior defensive lineman, said that he has been pleasantly surprised with the strides Jonathan has made since his sophomore season.
“He has definitely matured,” Matt said. “It forced him to mature because he had people looking up to him. I know he’s always studying. He’s not as wild as he used to be.”
But the renewed focused isn’t only on his school work. Before suffering a Grade-1 shoulder separation, Jones caught 13 balls – more than half of his career total – for 160 yards.
After proving he can excel wearing either the helmet or headset, Jones cut another potential career path in sports – but for now he’s happy donning the maroon and gold.
“Right now, I still definitely would rather play but as I get older I’d like to coach,” he said. “When I started coaching, I knew it was something I could see myself doing.”