When Joe Jones was in the seventh grade in Thomaston, Ga., he was faced with the first great dilemma of his athletic career. The football coach at Robert E. Lee Institute, the high school Joe would be attending, felt Joe had potential as a halfback. But he also felt another year of growth would greatly improve Joe's possibilities as a high school runner. Would Joe, who had passing grades, mind spending another year in the seventh grade? the coach asked. Would 12-year-old Joe Jones become, in essence, a redshirt?
"I know it sounds crazy," says Jones, now 21 and a junior halfback for the University of Alabama, "but they did that all the time in Thomaston. I didn't want to stay back then, but now I'm glad I did. It helped me mature."
When Alabama played Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on January 2 of this year, Joe Jones, though willing and able, did not suit up with the team. He did not even travel to New Orleans for the game. Instead, he was watching the contest on TV at home in Thomaston, a town of 13,000 some 60 miles south of Atlanta. The reason? At the start of the 1977 season, Coach Paul Bryant decided it would be best if Joe did not participate in any of the Crimson Tide's games that year. It was Bryant's feeling that another year of growth and maturity would improve Joe Jones' possibilities as a collegiate runner. Joe Jones was redshirted again.
As the six members of the Jones family sit in their pine-paneled living room watching that Sugar Bowl game, the Jones men—Joe, his 24-year-old twin brothers John and Bill and his father, Dr. Dewey Jones, a prominent dentist—discuss the concept of holding an athlete back for future gain. Like Joe, both of the twins went through seventh grade twice, for football reasons. It was made easier, they explain, because seven other boys—all football players—stayed back with them. "To be competitive with bigger schools we had to do it," says John Jones. "All the best athletes from this area stayed back a year."
As a member of the Thomaston school board, Dr. Jones helped promote the grade school redshirt program, a policy he feels is well suited to local sentiment. "They take football very seriously here," he points out.
Lying on the carpeted floor, Joe Jones is caught up in the action of the game. Born Dewey Wheeler Jones III, Joe was given his nickname before he could talk. "My mama knew that if my grandfather, my daddy and I were sitting around and somebody said 'Dewey,' nobody'd know who they were talking to," he says. At 5'11", 185 pounds, Joe is rather small for big-time football, a situation he has tried to remedy by constantly lifting weights and working out. And by growing older.
Though normally quiet and easygoing, Joe is partisan about his team. "Look at Johnny Davis!" he says after the Alabama fullback tramples an Ohio State defender. "He's remarkable. The best runner I've ever seen."
In high school Joe was quite a runner himself, gaining 2,780 yards in four years, once returning a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. As a senior he was named All-State and was recruited by a number of Southern football powers. As a freshman at Alabama, Joe was the second-leading rusher on the junior varsity team, with 157 yards in 47 carries. As a part-time placekicker, he was good on four of five extra-point attempts and two of three field goals, including a 47-yarder. That year, 1976, he also dressed for nine varsity games. He even got into one. He carried the ball once, gaining "about three yards."
"I guess I'm not a great breakaway threat," he says, analyzing himself during a TV time-out, "but I think I can see laterally and cut back against the grain pretty well. But there's a saying at Alabama that if you can't block, you can't play. That's really what I'm learning to do. Block."
As a sophomore, Joe dressed for one game at the beginning of the 1977 season but did not play. He wasn't aware he had been redshirted until the third week of the season when Backfield Coach Shorty White informed him he would not be playing that year. Joe now claims he has no regrets about a decision he did not participate in that will result in his taking five calendar years to use up four years of varsity eligibility. "I think it's best for me," Joe says. "You have to have a lot of experience to do anything at Alabama. And it gives me another year to get all my classes in, so I can take my time a little." He pauses as, on the screen, the Tide rolls to another touchdown, and he smiles with pride.