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Homecoming

Sep 1 2017
Photo by
Kevin D. Liles/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Kevin D. Liles/The Players' Tribune
Shaq Jones
UAB Blazers
Sep 1 2017

E very part of me ached. It felt like a sinkhole had opened in my stomach and was consuming me from the inside out. It was like the loss of a loved one.

And in a way, that’s exactly what it was. That’s what it felt like on December 2, 2014, the moment I was told that UAB was disbanding our football program.

My immediate reaction was brutal, but what made it hurt even worse was looking around the meeting room where the announcement was made, and seeing all my teammates in shock as well. These weren’t just guys I sweated with at practice, we were a family. There were so many guys in that room who had helped define this period of my life in different ways. We ate lunch together, we went to class together, we made dumb jokes together and, on Saturdays, we played football together.

That’s what we always were as a team: Together.

Until we weren’t.

I’m generally not someone who shows his emotions too much, but in that moment, I couldn’t help but to start crying. This was a room filled with many of the toughest men I’d ever met, and I don’t think there was a single person not in tears.

When I first got word that we had to come to campus for a team meeting, I figured it was going to be more of a celebration.

Just a few days earlier we had gotten a big win over Southern Miss to make us bowl eligible for the first time in a decade. When I got the text from one of my coaches about the meeting, I kind of  figured we’d be talking about our plans for the month if we were invited to a bowl game.

Of course I wasn’t completely in the dark about the state of the program. I’d heard some rumblings throughout the season about our uncertain future, but I always tried to push that stuff aside. It wasn’t something within my control, so why focus on negatives? We had so much good going for us and I didn’t want to put any of my energy towards worrying.

The Players' Tribune

It didn’t take long after arriving at the meeting room to pick up on the fact that this wasn’t going to be about bowl games.

Dr. Watts, UAB’s president, stood at the front of the room and we all knew he was there to confirm our worst fears.

I had so many thoughts going through my head that it was difficult to really take in all of his remarks, but I remember the gist of it: numbers.

“The numbers didn’t add up.”

Ultimately, it didn’t matter how much we’d worked to bring the program back to respectability.

I tried to convince myself that if we had a good year, everything would be fine. I guess it’s hard to acknowledge that the thing that makes you who you are can be taken away in an instant if the bottom line falls short.

When we committed to play at UAB, none of us thought we were signing up for a super glamorous experience. In fact, that was part of the appeal in a way — the opportunity to create a new identity for the program. We wanted to leave the program better than we found it. But it turns out the next-to-adequate practice facilities didn’t just add character to our program — they were part of a larger issue.

While most of the guys in the meeting room sat stunned, trying to absorb the news, Tristan Henderson, our tight end, stood up to make his voice heard. Tristan was a former military policeman in Iraq and someone we all deeply respected. He began talking about his three-year-old son, Ayden. This kid was practically part of the team. He was always around the locker room and the facility. We all loved him like he was our own.

“What am I supposed to do?” Tristan shouted at Dr. Watts, with tears in his eyes. “What am I supposed to tell my kid?”

My mind immediately jumped to my own son, Jamari. He was only four years old at the time, and whenever he was around the team, they all showed him the same love they showed Ayden. A big part of my decision to attend UAB came down to being close to Jamari. Even though my son was very young, one thing he knew was that his daddy played football. He loved that. Everywhere I went with Jamari, he would make it his mission to tell whatever strangers we might encounter the same thing: “My daddy plays for UAB!”

That right there, was all I needed. Making my son proud was it for me.

Now what was I supposed to tell him?

To him, I was “Daddy the UAB Football Player.” He said it all in one breath.

How was I supposed to tell him that his daddy didn’t play for UAB anymore? How was I supposed to explain to him that the numbers just didn’t add up?

As soon as I left that meeting room, the first person I called was my mom. I tried to sound strong, like I was holding myself together, but I could hardly control the pitch of my voice. I rambled and cried. I thought about my teammates. I thought about my friends on campus. I thought about Jamari. I felt like my world was falling apart.

And then my mom, like she usually does, told me what I needed to hear.

“Be patient.”

I let her words sink in.

“Be patient and pray.”

Like a lot kids raised in Alabama, I fell in love with the game of football from the first time I stepped onto the field.

I grew up in a small town called Lanett. It’s a place where everybody knows everybody, and we all care about each other. In so many ways, the entire town felt like a big family. To me, that’s what Lanett represents: Family — and of course, football.

My goal was always to play ball for as long as I could. I didn’t worry about where the game would take me so much as I enjoyed following its path. It was around my junior year of high school when some schools started recruiting me. That was definitely a surreal moment — like this dream that seemed impossible was coming true.

When I first arrived at UAB, I was content just to be a member of the football team. I didn’t really think about whether I could become a star or anything like that. I came here with a different kind of focus than your usual freshman because I was already a father. Attending UAB was about becoming the first person in my family to earn a degree so that I could provide for my son. If I happened to find success on the field, that would be a bonus.

Adjusting to being away from my hometown was rough. Figuring out how to balance my football schedule with my class schedule was near impossible. It took some time for me to adjust to waking up every day at 5 a.m. for workouts, then going to class and then going to tutoring. And don’t forget about practice. The daily schedule of a college football player during the season basically goes non-stop until eight or nine o’clock at night.

It can be pretty overwhelming, but what ultimately makes it all worth it are the guys you play alongside. It’s so difficult to compete at this level that the process of pushing yourself brings you together with these other guys who have that same passion. It’s a bond that is difficult to fully describe unless you’ve experienced it. You live with your teammates, you work out with your teammates, you study with your teammates and you go to sleep with your teammates, Repeat, repeat, repeat. Over time, without even really noticing it, you aren’t just teammates anymore. You’re brothers.

Mark Almond/AL.com/AP

The 2014 season was when things really started coming together for me. A big reason for that was because of Bill Clark, who was brought on as our head coach. Up until that point, I had struggled on the field and begun to really doubt myself. It was my high school coach, Clifford Story, who encouraged me to give Coach Clark a chance. Coach Clifford was an alum of Jacksonville State, where he met Coach Clark. He knew that if I gave him a chance, Coach Clark was somebody who could push me in the right direction at UAB.

He was right. What I appreciated most about Coach Clark was that he came in and reminded us that football is supposed to be fun. He kept me loose and, with his encouragement, I stopped being satisfied with just being on the roster. I wanted to play meaningful snaps here, and I wanted to win meaningful games for UAB.

When we beat Southern Mississippi to become bowl eligible, it felt like such an exciting milestone for our program, but also for me as a player. I was so looking forward to the opportunity to play in a bowl game on national TV. That was going to be such a big step for our team.

Then, like that, on December 2, there was no more team.

And on December 3, our campus was flooded with coaches from other schools, ready to recruit.

It’s hard to acknowledge that the thing that makes you who you are can be taken away in an instant if the bottom line falls short.

Shaq Jones

I guess it was naive of me to assume I’d get time to mourn the death of the program.

Where we saw devastation, a lot of other universities saw opportunity. We had coaches hanging around the academic centers, looking to get face time with certain players. I even saw them waiting outside of lecture halls, hoping to catch guys as soon as they finished class.

I wasn’t ready to start thinking about what would come next. When coaches began calling me I didn’t answer at first. I didn’t want to talk about football.

Shaq Jones

My son did, though. That’s one of his favorite things to talk about. After we got the news, I remember him asking me, kind of confused, “Dad, you still play football for Birmingham?” (He knew I lived in Birmingham, so that’s what he called the team.)

I told him the truth. “I don’t know.”

Then he asked what he really wanted to know.

“Are you still gonna be in Birmingham?”

And I think that was when it really hit me how difficult it was going to be for me to pursue my dream of playing college football while still living close to my son. That was a life adjustment I just wasn’t prepared to make. I had been so excited about the future of this program — my future with this program. And then suddenly I was a recruit again.

I’ll always respect Coach Clark and his staff for how they handled a really difficult situation. At a time when I’m sure they were hurting just as much as the players, they went out of their way to look out for our best interests as people. They helped us recognize programs where we would fit within the scheme and connected us with other coaches. We even hosted a mini-combine, which was a really bittersweet experience. Quite a few guys earned scholarships on the spot because of how they performed, and even though I felt happy for them, it also was a reminder that our family was falling apart.

Most programs wanted me to commit right away so I could enroll for the spring semester, but that didn’t feel right to me. I knew I would need more time in order to make the right decision, so I decided to stayed enrolled at UAB. I used that semester to focus on my classes and spend as much time as I possibly could with my son. I wanted to use that time to prepare myself in case I did have to move away.

Around that time, I picked up a side job as a solo contractor building fences. It was very physical work, hours on end in the sweaty Alabama heat, just lifting, digging and hammering — over and over.

I narrowed down my college choices to Western Michigan, Marshall and Western Kentucky. I pictured myself excelling at any of those programs because the coaching staffs were all so impressive, but all of them required me to move farther away from Jamari.

My mom’s advice was to simply choose the option that made me happiest. I appreciated that, but the truth was I felt happiest around my family.

Ultimately, I decided to commit to Western Kentucky because some of the staff had come from UAB, so there was a sense of familiarity. It was a seven-hour drive from home, but I was just going to try to make it work.

That seemed like the only option.

It was a really hot June day when I got the phone call that changed everything.

I had just gotten off a long day outside building fences, and was driving home when a news reporter from Kentucky called me.

“UAB football is back. What’s your plan?”

I held the phone a little closer to my ear.

“Uhhhh, come again?”

Then he said, “Yeah. UAB reinstated it’s program, so what’s your plan? Do you still plan on coming to play here with Kentucky?”

It didn’t even take me half a second to answer.

“No sir!”

Of course I was incredibly thankful for the opportunity to play at another school, but it was never where my heart was. For me, it didn’t matter when UAB’s next game was going to be played or how they planned to rebuild the program. I just knew that I was going to be a Blazer again, and for the first time since we were told the program was being shut down, I felt truly happy.

Not long after that, I quit that job. I think that might have been an even happier day than when I got the phone call that the program was returning. As soon as I finished that last day, I threw away my work shoes but kept the laces. I wanted to hold onto them as a reminder of the reason why I push myself. I have absolute respect for hard work, but digging fences isn’t the life I want for me or my son. To get where I’m going, I need a degree.

Now, I’m on track to earn two by the end of this semester.

The Players' Tribune

It’s funny, I figured I would be ready for that first day of practice. After all, I had been building fences all summer, and that was no easy job. Also, Coach Clark was returning to the program, so I figured I had a handle on what to expect. But I was sadly mistaken. We started pushing sleds and I made it through probably three reps before I puked. I had to take the rest of the day off. I was a little disappointed in myself. I obviously had a lot of catching up to do. It wasn’t just about physically rebuilding ourselves, but also about coming back stronger than we were before.

Today, I see more love for UAB than ever.

I can’t go anywhere in Birmingham in my UAB football gear without being stopped by fans. We take pictures and they ask me my name, my number, my position so that they can tell all their friends who they met. Most tell me they’ll be at the first game, on September 2. You can sense that the whole city is beyond excited to have its football program back.

Let me tell you exactly how excited they are: We had a summer scrimmage, just our team, green against gold. It was basically just a practice, but you wouldn’t know that by the number of fans that showed up. That’s when I really felt like we were ready as a program to change the narrative surrounding us. We aren’t a story about a team that disbanded; we’re a story about a university that has come together.

When I close my eyes, it’s easy for me to imagine that first game back. I’ve thought about it a lot, actually. Running out of that tunnel and immediately feeling the energy of the crowd. Being able to look up and see my parents holding Jamari in a UAB football jersey, imagining him telling everybody within earshot that his daddy plays football for UAB. That makes me smile.

It’s not going to be the same as before. I still miss my old teammates and they way things were. But after everything that’s happened, I think the feeling of stepping foot on that field once again in a UAB jersey is going to make it all worth it.

As a team, I want us to take some time to live in that moment.

Then, we’re going to show everybody what they’ve been missing.

Shaq Jones
UAB Blazers