To escape Stewart County, Jones had to first get thrown out. His Georgia teammates can't believe their Goody Two-shoes linebacker was ever in trouble, but Jones lived in a dark place in the months following his brother's death. He blamed himself, but he wouldn't talk to anyone about the killing, and his pain turned to anger. Jones got expelled from Stewart County Middle School, then from an alternative program for fighting. Out of options within the county, Gloria Dowdell had to find a way to get her youngest child back in school. She asked Tony Adams, Jones's AAU basketball coach, if he could help. Dowdell signed away guardianship of Jones to Adams. He placed Jones with Shelley Stephens, who provided academic counseling to the players in his program. By moving 35 miles to Columbus—which is in Muscogee County—Jones would be allowed to attend school.
"It was very hard," Jones says of the separation. "My mom really cares about me. I'm her baby. Every chance I got, I went to see her."
At 15, he was already 6'3", while Stephens was 4'11". He thought it hilarious that he towered over her. Stephens's grocery bill shot up, but she was happy to feed the man-child who quickly became an older brother to her sons, Delray and Jon, who were six and four at the time. Stephens was aware that Jones had been expelled, but she had known Jones through basketball since he was in sixth grade. She realized that he only needed support and a second chance. "I appreciate that his mom trusted me to be that person for him," Stephens says. "He wanted to do something different, so he wouldn't end up in a situation like [his brother's]." Before long Jones began calling Stephens Mom too.
Jones finished eighth grade at Rose Hill Center in Columbus and moved on to Carver High. As a freshman he played tight end and receiver for coach Dell McGee, but Jones stopped going to practice after sustaining a minor injury. "I hated football," Jones says. When McGee found Jones practicing with the basketball team, McGee called the player in for a talk. McGee explained: 6'3" power forwards have few college options, but college football coaches would salivate over someone with Jones's speed and strength. Jones returned to football and eventually grew to love the game and his teammates. It became an outlet for his pent-up anger and a place where he could find others to confide in.
Carver players Jarmon Fortson and Bill Alexander were among the first people Jones opened up to about his brother's murder. Over time, they helped Jones deal with the guilt that had consumed him. "They always told me, It ain't your fault. I could say it wasn't, but I just never looked at it that way," Jones says. "That's my brother. I'm going to see it differently. I've learned not to dwell on it."
As an inside linebacker at Carver, Jones hunted ballcarriers from sideline to sideline and tortured opposing offenses. With Stephens, who is working on a doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Phoenix, monitoring Jones's academics, and McGee, a former Auburn cornerback, training him on the field, Jones was an ideal recruit. He eventually signed with USC.
Jones cracked the Trojans' rotation at backup strongside linebacker as a true freshman. His future appeared limitless until he sprained his neck in a loss at Oregon on Oct. 31, 2009. What initially seemed like a minor injury turned into a major issue. Doctors at USC diagnosed spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that puts pressure on the spinal cord, and declared Jones's career over. "Devastating," Jones says. "Heartbreaking, man."
Stephens cried when she heard the news. Then she went to work. She found examples of players who had suffered similar injuries and continued their careers without incident. In spring 2010, she sent Jones to a spine specialist in Los Angeles, who declared him fit to play. USC wasn't convinced and refused to risk a potentially catastrophic neck injury. So Jones requested a release from his scholarship and began looking for a new school. In Athens, Richt accompanied Jones as he underwent tests on his neck. On that same visit, Grantham and Jones broke bread and began plotting the downfall of the SEC's quarterbacks.
That relentlessness Grantham sought emerged the moment Jones stepped onto Georgia's practice field. Because he had to sit out a season after transferring, Jones played on the scout-team defense in 2010 and blew up the first-team offense so regularly that coaches had to ask him to cool it. When the regular season ended, the Bulldogs had a few weeks of practice while awaiting the Liberty Bowl, so Grantham decided to give Jones some time with the first-team defense. "We put him outside," Grantham said, "and he just wreaked havoc." Grantham knew he had a star, and both he and Jones looked forward to his debut the following autumn. But before Jones could take the field, he had to clear another hurdle.
A police investigation into corruption within the Columbus parks and recreation department had revealed that Adams paid for flights to and from Los Angeles for Stephens and Jones. The NCAA followed with its own inquiry. Once again Jones waited while others decided his fate. In August 2011 the NCAA concluded that Adams and Stephens were the equivalent of family members who had been taking care of Jones long before anyone knew he'd be a major college football player. He'd escaped another dead end.