By David Steele
Byron Jones' high school football coach is attending the NFL Draft. Jones himself almost didn't go, though, because he wouldn't be able to have all his invited guests there with him.
Two of Jones’ three older brothers serve in the military, and one of them wouldn’t be able to leave his base to join the family in Chicago. "If all of them couldn’t go," Jude Kelly recalled his former player saying, "then I couldn’t go, because we all are going together."
That's typical, Kelly said. For those who know Jones, the only things less surprising than the spectacular athletic ability he showed at February’s Combine are the deep family ties and the generous, humble nature he exhibits for everybody everywhere.
The cornerback from Connecticut eventually decided to accept the NFL's invitation and bring the family. He'll give his coach from St. Paul High School in Bristol, Conn., the extra ticket to sit at his table in the green room.
"The athleticism is there," Kelly said, "but it still comes down to, Byron is a beautiful person, a great, great person … He’s such a tremendous, charismatic, caring person."
Jones left such an impact at his high school that when he unleashed his now-famous 12-foot, 3-inch broad jump last month in Indianapolis, it went viral at St. Paul just the way it did around the rest of the football world.
"The hallways were literally buzzing," recalled athletic director David Dennehy, the person who informed the smartphone-less Kelly of Jones' performance.
Kelly had seen plenty examples of the prowess. Jones also played basketball, ran track as a senior and pulled off a move in an annual volleyball game between the St. Paul juniors and seniors that brings Kelly a laugh to this day.
Jones was a junior and the seniors went for a kill at the net, the coach explained: "Byron blocks the shot, a senior hits it back, and while Byron's still in the air from blocking the shot, he spikes it right back. I said, 'Wow.'"
NFL scouts know that feeling. They moved Jones up the boards after the broad jump — better than the recognized world record — and his 44 1/2-inch vertical jump ... plus the 4.36 40-yard dash at his pro day last month.
Jones did all this after recovering from a dislocated left shoulder in October, which cut short his senior year at UConn and kept him from playing in January’s Senior Bowl.
Jones’ quick rebound was another sign of his personality, said Maryland head coach Randy Edsall, who recruited him to Connecticut and coached him in his redshirt freshman year in 2010.
"He had that injury, and he still put in the work and showed what he was able to do," Edsall said. "It doesn’t surprise me. I knew he was a really hard worker."
Edsall also noticed how Jones reacted to his own stunning Combine performance. For one thing, Jones tweeted thanks to his parents, Donald and Garnette, for their "good genetics."
He also returned to his high school in between workouts and draft preparation to visit old coaches and current students, even working out there in his old gym. During his junior year at Connecticut, Dennehy said, he came back to speak at St. Paul’s football banquet.
"A lot of the kids here know him, even though he’s been gone for five years. He’s always around."
Jones was exceptionally grounded and "very coachable" in high school, Edsall said, but also very raw. The skinny, speedy, high-jumping kid did not scream "NFL prospect." But what stuck in Edsall’s head, he said, was that Jones took nothing for granted and never acted entitled to anything.
"He's been raised the right way. In the time I was with him, he always appreciated everything."
Even after he left for Maryland, Edsall stayed in touch and found time to speak with Jones when his Terrapins played the Huskies. He also made a point not to throw to Jones' side of the field.
"He's a kid that hasn’t changed in the five years since we recruited him," Edsall said. "You want a lot of guys like Byron Jones on your team."
It’s how Jones was at St. Paul, too, as Dennehy recalled — especially in 2009, when Jones played in a heartbreaker of a state semifinal playoff loss. St. Paul was part of a co-op football program with two other small nearby schools, and it had a chance to upset bigger New Canaan (three-time state champ) after scoring a last-minute touchdown.
St. Paul went for the lead with a two-point conversion, but the pass to Jones was low. While he nearly scooped it up before it hit the ground in the end zone, it was ruled incomplete, giving New Canaan the win.
Jones’ first reaction after the game, Dennehy said, was to jog straight to opposing coach Lou Marinelli.
"Byron shook his hand, congratulated him and wished him good luck," he said. "The first thing Coach said afterwards was that he'd never seen that from a player from the other team before.