For three years the father and son shared a pregame ritual. In the tense moments between warmups and kickoff, when the locker room fell into a fearful silence, Missouri quarterback Corby Jones would sit on a bench at his yellow dressing stall in full uniform. His dad, Tigers defensive line coach Curtis Jones, would kneel in front of him and offer some nugget of advice or information, such as which way the wind was blowing, and then they would say a prayer together. Curtis would rise and, in his gravelly voice, whisper to Corby, "Good luck." Then he would kiss his son on top of the head. The kiss was always last.
On the thick late-summer evening of Sept. 5, Missouri began its 108th football season with a nonconference home game against Bowling Green. There was promise in the air because the Tigers had gone 7-5 in 1997, cracking the Top 25 and playing in a bowl game for the first time since 1983. They figured to be even better in '98, and they would know quickly if they were, for they faced a difficult early-season schedule that included this weekend's matchup with No. 1-ranked Ohio State in Columbus. Yet on that night, Corby sat in his usual seat in the dressing room beneath the south end-zone bleachers and was consumed by sadness. There would be no weather report. No prayer. No kiss.
Lord knows, Curtis did his best to beat back death. Knowing that his father had died of heart disease, knowing that three of his four brothers had died young from the same illness, Curtis exercised every day. He was fastidious about his diet. "He controlled everything that he could control," says his widow and Corby's mother, Gwen. "He could not control genetics."
Last spring Curtis underwent successful heart valve replacement surgery. Then on June 21, Father's Day, he experienced an arrhythmia, during which Gwen successfully performed CPR. Curtis seemed to have recovered from that; on July 23 he was cleared by his doctor to return to the practice field. But three days later he had a heart attack and died at age 55.
Before the game against Bowling Green, following more than a month of what Corby called "firsts," as in "first day at the football facility without Dad" and "first time on the practice field without Dad," and after a long August night during which Corby and his roommate, Devin West, Missouri's starting tailback, stood together in the darkness and cried, Corby was overwhelmed by his father's absence. Only after the other Tigers had begun to take the field did he rise from his bench. Just one other man, defensive coordinator Moe Ankney, was left in the locker room with him. "He was having a very tough time," says Ankney. Slowly Corby approached the door, crying so hard he could barely breathe.
On a January evening in 1995, Corby, then a highly recruited senior at Hickman High in Columbia, Mo., returned to his family's house after a night out with Tigers freshman running back Brock Olivo, his official recruiting host. Jones had previously visited Illinois and loved it. Nebraska recruiter Turner Gill kept calling him, trying to persuade him to become Tommie Frazier's replacement. Jones knocked on his parents' bedroom door and stepped inside. "Dad, I think I'm going to Missouri," he said. For a moment Curtis sat mute, mock serious. Then he laughed for what seemed like hours.
The Missouri to which Curtis had returned before the 1994 season was more than just the ninth stop in his peripatetic journey as a career assistant coach. It was home. Curtis, the 11th of 13 children born to sharecroppers in Tennessee, had worked alongside his parents and siblings in the fields as a child and hadn't begun school until he was eight. After the family moved to St. Louis when Curtis was 15, he struggled academically, but he graduated from high school and community college. Then Mizzou opened its doors to him with an athletic scholarship. "Curtis saw this as a place that gave him opportunity," says Gwen, a 53-year-old physical therapist. "He had such love for this university, and in his heart he always wanted to be here again someday. To have Corby with him meant so much. He was ecstatic."
They were alike in many ways: stubborn, competitive, instinctive. Curtis was a good enough linebacker to play three seasons, 1968 to '70, in the NFL, and Corby is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. When Corby was 11 years old, the Joneses were living in Portland, where Curtis coached first for the Portland Breakers of the USFL and then at Pacific. He also coached Corby's Little League baseball team. "They would come home after a game and sit around talking, and their take on everything was exactly the same," says Corby's older brother, Curtis Jr., a 25-year-old Dartmouth graduate. Until Corby enrolled at Missouri, that Little League team was the only one Curtis coached on which either of his sons played.
Under coach Larry Smith, who arrived at Missouri one season before Corby, the Tigers have become a solid team. Last year four of Missouri's five defeats were against ranked teams, including an unforgettable 45-38 overtime loss to Nebraska that was widely acclaimed the game of the year. As the Tigers head into Columbus following last Saturday's 41-23 thumping of Kansas, they're 2-0 and ranked No. 7
Jones became Missouri's starting quarterback in the seventh game of his freshman season. He learned of his promotion while listening on his car radio to the postgame show after the Tigers' 30-0 road loss to Kansas State (he wasn't on the travel roster). He heard Smith promise to revamp the offense. "I knew revamping the offense meant using the option, and I knew that meant me," says Jones. When he got home that evening, Gwen met him at the door crying, believing that in seven days her son would be sacrificed to Nebraska. She was right. The Cornhuskers crushed Missouri 57-0, sacking Jones five times.