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On the afternoon of March 18, officials and scouts from nearly every NFL team gathered at a small municipal stadium in North Miami. Lunch, catered by a fashionable Boca Raton country club, was served beneath a white tent. But the real feast for the scouts was Marvin Jones—a young man who grew up on a dusty, palmetto-lined Miami side street—who stepped onto the field, shirtless and so fit he seemed bronzed, and proceeded to demonstrate his physical abilities. The command performance was meant to establish that Jones would be worthy of a very high pick, perhaps even the first, in this Sunday's NFL draft, and it did. Throughout his life Jones had learned to deal with adversity; now, it seems, he will have to learn to cope with success.
By the end of the afternoon, in the face of enormous expectations, Jones, a 20-year-old junior linebacker out of Florida State, had succeeded in dazzling the scouts: He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds; he bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times; and he ascended to 38½" in the vertical leap. "He met the eyeball test, mentally and physically," says Charley Armey, the director of player personnel for the New England Patriots, who have the first pick but seem more in need of a quarterback than a linebacker.
The consensus on Jones, who won the Butkus and Lombardi awards last season as both the college game's top linebacker and lineman, respectively, is that, regardless of when he is picked, he is the player most likely to make an immediate impact in the NFL. "He's going to have to be accounted for on every snap," says Dick Steinberg, vice-president and general manager of the New York Jets, the team with the third pick. Some NFL scouts and personnel directors go so far as to speculate that Jones is the next great linebacker, the player who will fill the void now that Mike Singletary has retired and Lawrence Taylor is on the wane. "I saw Singletary at Baylor," says Bill Tobin of the Chicago Bears, "and this kid is similar at the same stage."
The truth about Jones is that when he hits people, he means it, a prerequisite for greatness at linebacker. He led the Seminoles in their in-house categories of intimidation tackles and knock-em-backs—he had 21 of each last season. In addition he had 14 quarterback hurries. And he broke Duke quarterback Steve Prince's jaw with a forearm shiver. His style is shockingly abrupt—a rattlesnake's quickness with the impact of a beer bottle over the head. He likes to talk about it, and when he does, his smile becomes bright. His eyes, normally the rich hue of root beer, seem to drain of color. He tells you that he wears the number 55 because "it's the speed limit. Everything stops there." Running backs, he says, "I eat with ketchup. It takes the bad taste away." The perfect hit, he explains, "is when I achieve total blackness. Oh, it's lovely."
Dennis Erickson, the University of Miami coach, has summed up Jones's play better than anyone else: "Marvin gets to the ball in a hurry, and he's not in a good mood when he gets there." Jones led Florida State in tackles for three straight seasons, including his junior year, when he had 111, 70 of them solo. But beyond his numbers, the sheer weight of his presence on the field made him the most-feared player in the college ranks. The mobility Jones demonstrated as a Seminole was such that even at the pro level he will have to be reckoned with from sideline to sideline and in all situations. "He's an every-down player," says Armey. "You don't have to take him off the field on third-and-long or fourth-and-a-foot."
Jones, who is still two months shy of his 21st birthday, can in the coming year become a star of the first magnitude, not to mention a very wealthy man. His workout for the scouts was a reminder of the show put on by last year's No. 1 pick, Steve Emtman, a junior defensive tackle from Washington. Emtman went on to sign a contract with the Indianapolis Colts worth $8.6 million over four years. Jones's prospects represent a staggering turn of events for a young man whose life thus far has been punctuated by sorrow and who, for all of his fierceness, retains a little-boy-lost quality.
Jones was robbed of his sense of security at the age of 11, when his mother, a sister and a grandfather all died within the space of three months. He was raised single-handedly by his father, Nathaniel. He was just as single-handedly molded into a football player by his older brother Fred, who also played linebacker at Florida State. Fred, a 27-year-old man of sterling character, is now an officer in the Metro-Dade (Fla.) Police Department. That Marvin turned out exceedingly mannerly and surprisingly gentle off the field is a tribute to his father; his devastating play on the field is Fred's doing.
In the middle of November 1983, Jones's paternal grandfather, Anthony Lee Jones, died. On Dec. 21 of that year, the eldest Jones daughter, 23-year-old Barbara, succumbed to heart disease after years of illness. Marvin's mother, Thelma, had a cardiac ailment as well. She began to suffer what at first seemed to be asthma attacks but were, in fact, small heart attacks. On Feb. 14, 1984, she died of heart failure. The sequence of events was numbing to the family. "It got so we were afraid to pick up the phone," Marvin says.
Nathaniel was a Korean War veteran who for many years was a truck driver and spent countless hours on the road, relying on Thelma to care for his home and seven children. When she died, he had two sons, Marvin and 12-year-old Michael, still in grade school and not much of an idea as to how to care for them. Moreover, Michael had a cyst on his spine, a condition that would eventually deteriorate to the point that he now uses crutches to walk. The rest of the children were grown with families of their own—except for Fred, who was then a freshman at Florida State.
Before his wife died, Nathaniel had taken a job repairing heavy machinery, which took him off the road, but he still had to learn to find his way around the unfamiliar territory of his own house, a small two-bedroom place in Coconut Grove—not in the chic, bohemian artists' district, but in the more ragged fringe. "I had no idea what to do," Nathaniel says now. "Everything was so uncertain. I had never cooked a meal in my life. I didn't even know how to use the washing machine. I had to read the directions. But I continued on." He learned how to run the household efficiently enough that Fred now calls him Mr. Mom. "My daddy is a good man," Fred says. "He earned my respect. When Marvin woke up every morning, there was breakfast on the table, and my father saw him off to school."