Antwain Jimmerson had known Felix Jones for years, ever since they spent their days attending the same church in Tulsa. Jimmerson was a family friend of the Jones’ family, and knew that some day Felix would play football for him at Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School.
Of course, since Felix was an eighth-grader at this particular time, knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, and football wasn’t on the list. Football ranked somewhere on the priority list between eating vegetables and taking out the trash.
“Coach, once I get to high school I’m going to play basketball,” Jones told Jimmerson. “I’m a basketball player.”
True enough, Jones was and remains a pretty good basketball player. But eventually Jimmerson was able to talk him into playing football, but not running back.
“Coach, I’m a receiver,” Jones told Jimmerson when he was a freshman.
True enough, Jones was and remains a pretty good receiver. But eventually Jimmerson was able to talk him into running back.
“Second or third game of his sophomore year, I had to suspend our starting running back, who is also my nephew,” Jimmerson said. “Day of the game I told Felix he was playing running back. Needless to say my family was a little mad at me that I did it.”
So it may have taken some time for Felix Jones to find his right position on the field, but he did. And the Dallas Cowboys, whose players report to training camp Thursday, think they have found the right person to add a little bit more pop to their offense in 2008.
Although a Cowboys first-round 2008 draft pick out of the University of Arkansas, it seems that since he was a kid Jones has been groomed to be in the position he’s in now -- the guy who sits on fringe of the photograph, never receiving the attention as the person in the middle … and he desperately prefers it that way.
The quiet type
New Orleans Saints receiver Robert Meachem had played with Jones for two seasons in high school, spent countless hours with him, and thought he knew Felix well enough. But it wasn’t until he came back from the University of Tennessee in late May when, for the first time, he actually saw a different Felix Jones.
“It was his prom night, and he was at this party a friend of a friend threw, and we were both there,” Meachem said. “He was so excited. And it was the very first time I ever saw him when he talked and talked and talked. That was funny to me. After as long as I had known him, I had never seen that.”
Anybody who knows Jones well pretty much all say the same thing: A night like that from Felix Jones is like seeing Halley’s Comet twice on the same night. Only when Jones is very comfortable in his environment and those in it will he reveal himself.
About the only time Jones will easily reveal himself is after a loss.
“I saw him literally change as a person if we lost,” former Cowboys assistant and current Miami Dolphins assistant coach David Lee said. Lee spent last season with Jones as the Arkansas offensive coordinator.
“He hates to lose as much as anybody I’ve ever been around. He is that way. He absolutely can’t stand it.”
Raised in Tulsa by a pastor and a devoutly religious mother, Jones remains a portrait of humility and shyness. He’d rather eat worms than talk about himself.
He sang in the church choir as well as participated in annual plays, but it’s easy to envision Felix Jones playing the part of the tree so he wouldn’t have to talk. Or the kid who is to the far right of the riser so he’s not easily seen.
“I learned early on that he was not a guy you could holler at or he could go backwards,” Lee said. “But what I also learned is all you needed to do was tell him what you wanted once and he could correct anything. He’s a real genuine person with a sensitive spirit.”
Dynamic Hog duo
Jones came over to football as a high school freshman with the idea that he would be a wide receiver, despite his coach’s plea to change positions. But at every practice, Jones would be one of 20 kids waiting to run practice routes.
With the likes of Meachem and other Division I-A talent on his team, Jones was not going to be a receiver. It took until his sophomore year before he reluctantly agreed, or was coerced, into the running back spot.
“Yeah, we had a talk,” Jones said of his high school coach.
There was reluctance, perhaps because of the contact. Once Jones realized he was either faster or stronger than everyone else, he started at safety and running back and was truly off and running.
“Every time he touched the ball it was 7 yards,” Meachem said. “And in his senior year it was 15 yards. He never got stopped. It was like he was destined to be a running back.”
That was right up until Jones suffered a season-ending ankle injury early in his junior year.
“I figured everything out after that,” Jones said. “Once my senior year came around, I got a little better and started to think I could do something with this.”
Meachem might be right that Jones was destined to be a running back, but not a star. A star relishes in its own illumination. Jones seems to deliberately try to cover his.
When he signed with Arkansas, the Hogs also had Darren McFadden, who would turn out to be a two-time Heisman finalist in the Hogs backfield.
Jones could have started for any other college team in America -- he averaged 7.6 yards per carry and twice ran for more than 1,000 yards -- yet he was OK with being the guy off the bench. Even though it was McFadden who received nearly all of the team’s national attention, every now and then no one could tell there was a difference between the two.
When Arkansas beat LSU last fall in three overtimes, Lee called for a toss sweep with the option to pass on the 2-point conversion.
“Let’s put it in the hands of McFadden and see if they can tackle him,” Lee told then Arkansas coach Houston Nutt.
The huddle broke from the sidelines, and there was McFadden not going anywhere.
“What is Felix doing running out there?” Nutt said into his headset, noting that he had no more timeouts.
“Who cares?” Lee said.
Much like McFadden, no one could tackle Jones either, and he scored on the sweep designed for McFadden for the game-winning points in one of the nation’s biggest upsets of the season.
Before Jones was selected in the first round in April, the Cowboys committed to Marion Barber as the starter. Then the Cowboys could have either Illinois’ Rashard Mendenhall or Jones, and it appears consistent with the rest of his career that Jones would land on a team where he wouldn’t have to be the man, even if he could.
“He has the personality to be a starter, but he just doesn’t care about that,” Lee said.
A couple of months after Jones was drafted he was back living with his mother. He was also back at Booker T. Washington, working out with the high schoolers, many who aspire to be him now.
“Most of the time when a guy gets drafted they never come back,” Jimmerson said. “But Felix is out there, working out with my guys.”
And when the two talk now there is no need for Jimmerson to plead with Jones to play running back.
“I think,” Jones said, “it kinda all worked out.”