Those who should know give Ben Jones high marks as a prospect for Sunday employment in the National Football League. If he realizes his lifelong ambition, there will be many reasons noted for his reaching his goal.
For starters, the Georgia center has adequate physical dimensions (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) and the footwork, which can enhance the balance he needs to thwart the bull rushes of opposing linemen. Further, he has the quickness to make the cutoff and “reach” blocks, but there is more.
His work ethic has been exemplary, his attitude is selfless — he’s the consummate team player — and his competitive instincts motivate him to fight and persevere. He has had the advantage of propitious training — Southeastern Conference competition and schooling under Stacy Searels, who is regarded by his peers as a teacher nonpareil.
However, all of that might not be of significance if it weren’t for his mother, Vickie. The rock of the family, she took a pragmatic approach to life with Ben and his older brother, Clay, when their father, Stephen Jones, tragically lost his life in a helicopter accident when Ben was 10 years old.
The grief was overwhelming because of the togetherness spawned by Ben’s father, but life goes on. You can let tragedy and sorrow compromise your opportunity, or you can make the best of a bad situation. That is where Vickie’s influence set a tone of moving on. Stephen had been the boys’ little league coach, so she took up where he left off. She became a coach. “Have you done your lifting today?” she would often ask Ben and Clay, making sure they didn’t neglect the fundamentals of weight training.
Or she might say, “Run down and get the mail.” Since the family lived on a 500-acre farm and their home was located a mile from the main road, the command to “run down and get the mail” was not fulfilled quickly or easily. Moreover, when Vickie said “run,” she meant exactly that. The family couriers were not allowed to walk.
Bringing them home from team practices, she might make the turn off the main road and say, “You could probably use a little more work. Why don’t you run home from here?” She commanded respect from her sons, and there never was a time when they resisted her additional work admonitions. They knew she wanted the best for them, and they knew that it was what their dad would have wanted. And expected.
Searels might be amused, perhaps chagrined, if he knew that raising his voice on the practice field is not disconcerting to the Bulldog’s starting center. “I’d rather have him yelling at me,” Ben laughed, “than my mother.” The diplomatic Ben then pays tribute to his line coach, who constantly applies pressure in the direction of second effort. “He is an excellent teacher, and I see in him the same qualities I saw in my dad. It has to be good for my future to play under a coach like him.”
The farm, in addition to offering seclusion, which Ben and Clay preferred, offered outdoor opportunity, which they found exhilarating. When they weren’t practicing for their various high school teams, they could be found bass fishing in the 10-acre lake on the family farm. “There is nothing like taking the boat out on the lake and catching a big bass,” Ben says. Or, he added, spending time following a bird dog and knocking down a few quail on a chilly winter’s day.
Ben’s story is not without a bit of intrigue in that he grew up in Centerville, Ala., which is 30 miles from Tuscaloosa. Looking east to Athens for the college football experience is not such an incongruous decision if you look into his past. It began with his father’s influence. Stephen Jones played at Thomasville Central High School and was graduated from the University of Georgia. That gave Ben an emotional link that made him secure enough to cross the state line for further schooling.
The family farm will always have an allure for him and Clay, who is a minor league first baseman in the Detroit Tigers chain. When Ben was a sophomore in high school, Clay was the quarterback. “He is working hard to make it to the big leagues,” Ben says with a respect born of brotherly love.
Like his younger brother, Clay knows something about positive parental influence and the value of an unrelenting work ethic.
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]