Sept. 2, 2010
Spartan All-America linebacker Greg Jones visited his hometown of Cincinnati in the summer to speak at the Boys and Girls Club in the Avondale neighborhood. He also took time to catch up with friends and family before the start of the football season and gave a tour of his most memorable places in his hometown. In the second of a three-part series on msuspartans.com, Jones stops by at the first practice field he learned how to play football and speaks at the Boys and Girls Club.
Part One | Photo Gallery - Greg Jones at Avondale Boys and Girls Club
Greg Jones with his parents Beverly and Greg outside of the U.S. Bank Avondale Boys and Girls Club.
Heading out of downtown and north on I-75, the excitement grew in Greg's voice after exiting for Avondale. With each passing block on the way to the U.S. Bank Boys and Girls Club, the memories seemed to grow vivid and more poignant. The look on his face wore a simple, universal expression - had it really been this long since I was here? Does time go by that fast?
"It's been a long time," Greg said, repeatedly, surprising himself with each utterance of the phrase on how many years it had been - or how many it had seemed, anyway.
Suddenly, the corner of Rockdale and Harvey arrived, and the field on the corner came into view. Taking a left down Rockdale, Greg looked out his window, glancing where it all started.
"I remember it being a lot bigger," he said.
Walking along the field in his Michigan State football t-shirt, Greg started telling his memories of this very place. From the hard, dried-out ground of a neighborhood field in Cincinnati to the pristine grass of Spartan Stadium is quite a journey. All told, he practiced for five years on the field.
"First play, first day ever, right here. My dad bought me baseball pants. I put my pads in, and I would run down the field, and all my pads would fall out," he recalled, laughing.
"First play, first day ever, right here. My dad bought me baseball pants. I put my pads in, and I would run down the field, and all my pads would fall out," Greg Jones recalled, laughing.
"Every now and then, when my heart's beating really fast and I'm trying to figure out what's going on, it just goes back to, `you've been here before, you've done this. You've been doing this your whole life,'" he said when asked if he ever thinks of this field while playing at Spartan Stadium. "A flashback comes up where I used to wear the black and gold (Avondale's colors). A lot of times it happens after a game. I think about all that happened, and I remember doing that one time when I was younger."
Just down the street from the field awaited the Boys and Girls Club.
Walking up to the front door, Greg uttered, "This is exactly how I remember it."
It didn't take long for someone to recognize him. He was home.
"Greg, hey, what's up man, good to see you!"
Greg looked up and saw one of his good childhood friends, a former Avondale Warrior himself, who now worked at the Boys and Girls Club. They shook hands, hugged, and started to catch up. It was that kind of day.
"It's crazy being back here - a lot of memories," said Greg.
As he made his way into the center, a few of the kids recognized him, but most didn't. No matter. He wasn't here to boast about his accomplishments and have people shower him with praise. He was here to interact, share his story, and possibly make a difference in the lives of his fellow youth in Cincinnati.
With an hour to burn before the presentation, Greg bounced around from room to room. He joked around with kids, signed autographs and played games. He was one of them again.
During a stop to say hi to the younger children before talking with the teenagers, a confident boy challenged Greg to a pushup contest. Even here, he had to prove his worth. He then popped in the gym to play basketball, one of his true passions growing up.
Already a vibrant place, the presence of Greg seemed to electrify the atmosphere of the center to an even higher degree. One teenager found an image on the internet of Greg making a tackle and instantly made it the desktop background for one of the computers. His impact was already being felt.
Greg Jones speaks in the "Teen Center" of the Boys and Girls Club.
As Greg found his way back to the "Teen Center" of the club, the room began filling with family friends and his former coaches, all here to represent him and tell stories of why he is a role model for the students in the room. The event was not about Greg - it was for the community, to provide an example of what opportunities existed outside of their neighborhood by taking advantage of the ones already within it.
All phases of Greg's life were on hand, from his youth football coaches, to his high school assistant coach, to one of his current coaches, and of course, his parents.
"Some players don't blossom until late, but Greg had it very early on," said Kenneth Robinson, who helped coach the Avondale Warriors during Greg's first years a football player. "Greg has always been a gentle giant. His character speaks volumes - he's very respectful, comes from a good family, is very personable, and has always been like that. Then you see the guy when the lights come on, and the whistle blows, he turns into this guy that's a force to be reckoned with.
"Today's an affair of the heart," Robinson continued. "I know it does his heart good, even though he's a man of few words. He's very modest. To come back here, it must speak volumes, to not only himself and his family, but the community, to have one of their own come back here. I'm not surprised Greg took the time to come back - we're proud of him."
Current Spartan defensive backs coach and fellow Cincinnati native Harlon Barnett was also in attendance.
"Just so you know, he didn't want all of this," Barnett told the classroom. "This wasn't his idea. He wanted to come in here and one day just pop in. But we said no, you're more special than that, they need to know who you really are. He may came in later on, maybe when he's in the NFL, and start playing with you. It will be the same guy, and you might not even know who he is. So be on the lookout for him."
Many of the kids appeared to grasp the main concepts of character, family, hard work and responsibility being presented. But Greg Jones is a football player too, and visuals always help get a point across.
Following the presenters, a highlight video of Greg was shown, full of high-energy music set to his punishing hits and tackles, with clips of TV announcers referencing the All-America linebacker. Throughout the video, oohs and aahs were heard in the room. Almost collectively, the teenagers seemed to sense, "Whoa, this is that guy? The same guy right in front of us?"
When the lights came back on, the sense of perspective - and respect - started to take shape. Suddenly, it was apparent a star college football player was in their room.
Finally, it was Greg's turn to speak. And he delivered in the only way he knew how - honest, straightforward, genuine.
"As far as staying humble, I think the best thing to think about is that everyday you're not working on what you want to do, and what you want to be, there's somebody else that has the same idea as you do, that wakes up and works harder," he said. "He's out there, pushing weights around, catching footballs, shooting every day. There's somebody out there working harder than you. That's what I keep in my mind - that's what keeps driving me."
On the school side of things, he told the story of how during his first day of basketball tryouts at Moeller High School, he didn't do very well on a test. Beverly caught wind of his performance, tracked him down at school, and started to drive home. Greg said he was practically in tears, begging to go back. He ended up making it to practice - late - but learned a lesson he would never forget.
"It's about working together. If you see my jersey being worn, there are a lot of people behind that jersey. It's not just me...I didn't do it by myself."
"That's how it really started for me in how important academics were," he told the kids. "You have to find what you love to do. Never sell yourself short. Don't stop your dreams. Don't hold yourself back, ever."
He then spoke about his classes in media arts, and how he's learning to use a camera and eventually wants to be a director for music videos.
"You guys can do it," he stressed. "A lot of people think it's a far-fetched idea, but I believe I can do it. I believe I will do it."
His final message was about teamwork.
"As far as football, it's about working together," he said. "If you see my jersey being worn, there are a lot of people behind that jersey. It's not just me...I didn't do it by myself.
"I want to thank everyone for being here today and thank you for inviting me. You could have been anywhere else. I appreciate you for coming out."
Greg was in no hurry to leave, and stayed to answer questions and take pictures with everyone in the room before playing more games on his way out. He might have stayed the rest of the afternoon if his parents didn't ask him to come outside and take a few photos.
Posing with friends, family - and really, anyone who wanted a picture - Greg smiled for the camera every time. A couple of more people came up to him on the street, noticing he was back in the neighborhood, and stopped to say hello.
"I thank God he had the opportunity to come back to Cincinnati to speak to young people and let them know that if you continue to work hard, you can accomplish anything," said an emotional Beverly, outside of the Boys and Girls Club, as Greg continued to swap stories and laughs with his former Avondale coaches. "Just keep pushing, no matter what goes on around you, just continue to do the right thing. I saw some engaging faces, so I do think Greg touched some of the young people that were there...after all, they are our future, and they look to us to be a shining light for them."
A month after his visit to the Boys and Girls Club, in the midst of preseason camp, Greg had a chance to look back at his trip.
"I got an e-mail from one of the directors that worked there who thanked me, and I'm truly humbled by that," he said. "She said I impacted the kids, and I hope I did. It wasn't just me talking, but it was all the coaches talking, and I feel they don't get to hear that too much, not as often as they should. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it - kids easily make me smile. They're so excited, you can't help but be excited. The feedback I got from them made me feel great."
A student at the Boys and Girls Club checks out Greg's photos and accomplishments following the presentation.
Part three of this three-part series on Greg Jones will run on Friday, Sept. 3 on www.msuspartans.com.
Written by Ben Phlegar, MSU Athletic Communications. Videos by David Diffenderffer, MSU Athletic Communications.