Sept. 3, 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.
Greg Jones stands on the field where he first played football beginning at the age of 8.
The story of Greg Jones' football career begins at the corner of Rockdale and Harvey Avenues in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio.
After bringing home a flyer to his mother, Beverly, promoting tryouts for the neighborhood team, the Avondale Warriors - and ultimately convincing her - he learned the game of football on this modest playground field starting at 8 years old.
"At first I didn't want him to play, but I thought, if this is what he wanted to do, it must be right," Beverly said.
Jones made sure of his opportunity. In his first-ever game, he was an instant star, recording seven sacks.
"I'll never forget that game for as long as I live," said Jones' father, Greg, laughing.
But although he found instant success playing football, Beverly and Greg Sr. didn't want that to define their son. They wanted that to be his character. Along the lengthy road of learning values, friendship, and the importance of education, Greg found a place early in his life that provided him lessons and guidance throughout his childhood.
Across the street from the football field, just a block away, is the U.S. Bank Boys and Girls Club of Avondale, a center that truly made an impact on Greg. He spent countless hours on the dusty fields and basketball courts on the outside, and even more inside the walls playing games with his friends. Beverly and Greg Sr. credit the Boys and Girls Club for providing the vehicle for Greg to showcase his multiple talents.
"It's the place where I grew up," Greg said.
And he has never forgotten.
Despite all his success as an All-American linebacker at Michigan State on the football field, Jones is grounded, and he knows where those roots were born - in his hometown of Cincinnati, with the love of his parents, family, friends and coaches. It's why he took a break from his intensely busy summer workout schedule and came back home on a late, muggy July afternoon before preseason camp started to speak at the club.
"I had been thinking about it for a long time, probably going back all the way to my sophomore year," said Jones. "I just wanted to kick it with the kids for a little bit and have fun. I just felt like it was important to go back and let people know I didn't forget where I came from."
A collection of photos Greg's father put together for his visit to the Boys and Girls Club.
Before the highlight of the day at the Boys and Girls Club, Jones took time to reflect on his childhood and family, going around the Queen City and pointing out the places that meant the most to him.
The daylong journey began at his house on the northwest side of town. He moved here in ninth grade after living in the Colerain Township in Cincinnati for a couple of years, and before that, he spent his early youth in the Bond Hill neighborhood. It's not hard to spot the Jones' residence. A Michigan State flag waves proudly beside the front door, a "Spartans Street" sign hangs over the deck, there are multiple bumper stickers on the cars, and maybe most impressively, one of the outdoor floodlights is tinted green to match the natural white.
Inside the Jones' living room, Greg Sr. gathered photos, articles and trophies for the presentation at the Boys and Girls Club. He proudly displayed a retrospective of his son's first 21 years on three poster boards, a wide-ranging gallery of Greg's first football and t-ball games, father and son playing catch, basketball team photos, high school accomplishments, and right on to his time of becoming a star at Michigan State.
His wide-ranging collection of Greg's awards is not limited to just middle school and high school - Greg regularly gives his father keepsakes from Michigan State, including his bowl ring from the 2008 season, a bowl watch, and a glass-encased football honoring his All-America recognition. On Father's Day this past June, Greg Sr. came to visit his son in East Lansing, and the following day he was able to see Greg's All-America plaque put up in the Skandalaris Football Center.
It's obvious the relationship between Greg and his father is a special one.
"I probably do it because I remember all the times growing up where I would beg him for a football or a basketball, or gloves or cleats, just equipment in general," said Greg. "So when you get something that looks nice and shiny, I want him to wear it. I want him to enjoy it because he worked for that too, and so did my mom. I feel like it's important for them to have that. It's all of our hard work paying off, it's not just me."
"I just felt like it was important to go back and let people know I didn't forget where I came from."
Growing up, Greg's father worked multiple jobs all throughout the day and wasn't home as much as he would've liked. But one night they always had together was Monday, when the two would watch Monday Night Football every week.
"It was a special feeling for me, even though I was so busy, to take time and spend Monday nights watching football with him," Greg Sr. recalled, sitting on his couch, looking at all of the photos.
Before heading out to Avondale, he shared a few more thoughts on his son's day.
"It's exciting to go back where Greg came from as a kid," he said. "The experiences he had there have carried him for the rest of his life. I think it's great for him, the kids and the city to do this program."
As his father drives off one way, Greg goes the other, heading toward downtown. But first, he's adamant about going by his church. All day, he's quick to point out the places that mean the most to him.
"This was another place I grew up, and I still come here," he said. "Faith means a lot to me, especially when you're going through some tough times and you have that belief in something else that's bigger than you. It helps out a lot."
Passing some basketball courts, Greg talked about constantly hooping on the playground growing up. At one particular court in town, Greg struck up a friendly rivalry with current Ohio State wide receiver DeVier Posey - who also happens to be Greg's cousin. Not that the two knew it at the time. It wasn't until a family cookout where Greg noticed Posey and put the pieces together.
"I came in, and he was right there," said Jones. "Growing up with him, I feel like he's a brother. His older brother, Julian, plays corner at Ohio U. All three of us talk a lot."
Upon reaching downtown, Greg pointed toward an office building that had the lights reading "C-I-N-C-I-N-N-A-T-I."
"There's definitely a sense of hometown pride here," he said. "I always have a Cincinnati Reds cap wherever I go."
Walking around Fountain Square in the center of downtown, Greg gazed up and glanced around at the city. He spoke fondly about the Reds and the "Big Red Machine" with the Great American Ballpark in the distance. Not only are they his hometown team, he went to the same high school - Archbishop Moeller - that produced Reds' all-stars Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr.
Greg then rattled off some of his favorite places to dine in Cincinnati, but there's no time to eat. His appearance at the Boys and Girls Club was coming up soon, and he wanted to get there early. This was the whole reason for his trip home.
Greg Jones with his parents Beverly and Greg outside of the U.S. Bank Avondale Boys and Girls Club.
PART TWO - 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 - MOELLER HIGH SCHOOL
Greg Jones speaks to the freshmen football team at Moeller High School before a conditioning session over the summer.
Although Greg enjoyed his middle school years at God's Bible School and College, he also knew he wanted to pursue his promising athletic career during high school, something he couldn't do fully in the intramural programs offered by his existing school. Several high schools in the Cincinnati area showed interest in him, but he ultimately chose to attend Archbishop Moeller, a Catholic school of nearly 1,000 students on the opposite side of town from his house.
Known as a football powerhouse, the Crusader program has won five national titles and seven state championships, including five under Coach Gerry Faust, who went on to become Notre Dame's head coach from 1981-85. Moeller has also developed talents such as Notre Dame All-America linebacker Bob Crable and Michigan State All-Big Ten linebacker Shane Bullough. It was a perfect fit for Greg to develop his football skills.
But it wasn't the easiest path to success.
The car ride across town along State Highway 126 on this summer afternoon was much like the ones Greg took countless times with his father in the early hours of the morning of every school day. Although Greg Sr. worked multiple jobs all hours of the day - and still does - he made sure to have his morning free to drive his son to school.
"We wanted the best for Greg, and we felt like going to Moeller would give him the best education," Greg Sr. said. "It was tough. Being a parent to your kid, you always have to be behind them. His mother was behind him, I was behind him, and that's important, because we all worked together and all stuck together as a team and did the right thing. It wasn't easy, but nothing comes easy in life if you want to get where you need to be."
"It was hard, seeing him work all the time," said Greg, a thankful son. "After dropping me off in the morning, we wouldn't talk until real late at night when he got back, and then he would have to go to bed to get up the next day. Getting up in the morning is real easy for me now because he was always telling me we have to go do this and do that. I feel like I'm an early riser because of him."
After driving into Moeller's campus toward the athletic complex in the back, Greg took a slow walk up the stairs from the parking lot to the new football practice field. He strolled over to say hello to the coaches on the field, many of them who were there during his high school career.
"We need to teach these boys how to block guys like you," one of the coaches on the field told Greg.
Before the team - a group of wide-eyed freshmen - began their conditioning drills, Greg gave them a talk on what it meant to play at Moeller.
"We need to teach these boys how to block guys like you," one of the coaches on the field told Greg.
"Moeller has been tremendous to me," he said. "You guys will realize that, maybe not right now, but later on down the line, you realize what you have. Take advantage of every opportunity you have here."
When asked if the youngsters had any idea of what they were getting into, as they started up conditioning drills in the heat on the smoldering field turf, Greg said, "A little bit. For a lot of guys, their older brothers and their dads have been through the program, so they have an idea what's going to happen to them. I think they realize it's being a part of something that's bigger than them."
Greg certainly knew that during his time at Moeller. The two-time All-Greater Catholic League selection learned it from Crable, the all-time leading tackler in the history of the Fighting Irish, who was also the head varsity coach for the Crusaders for eight seasons from 2000-07.
"I told Coach Dantonio when he was recruiting Greg two things," Crable remarked. "Number one, you're not going to find a kid who works harder than Greg Jones. And number two, as far as loyalty, character, he was a kid as solid as I've ever been around.
"There's no one more deserving, no one more involved in what goes on in the community, and no one more thankful," said Crable, regarding Greg's visit to the Boys and Girls Club. "That's one of the greatest attributes I think that he has, is his gratitude, and really his graciousness toward everything that's gone on in his life."
"That's really who Greg is," commented Barry Borman, athletics director at Moeller High School, on Greg's interaction with the youth in Avondale earlier in the day. "He's a guy who understands the struggle that kids have. You can have great success if you work hard and have a great attitude. I think you couldn't have a better role model than Greg Jones for young people today."
As far as on the football field at Moeller, Greg's game was described much like his career at Michigan State.
"An impact player," Crable simply said.
"Athletically, he was so superior that he just made play after play," reflected Borman. "He had great vision, he had great anticipation, and along with his great athletic ability, it really made him a superb football player. He was all over the field and made plays everywhere."
Greg's father put together a collection of photos from his high school days at Moeller High School for the Boys and Girls Club presentation.
The All-American certainly didn't go unnoticed by many at his former high school. Countless aspiring football players, undoubtedly following his successful college career, came up and had a conversation with him, from the practice field to the parking lot to the weight room.
"I see you on TV all the time," Greg heard from several players.
He began his tour of the inside of the high school in what most resembled an old field house. It's not only where he played basketball, but also music. At God's Bible School and College, he learned to play the flute for two years before moving on to the trumpet. He continued to play at Moeller his freshman year, even making a brief stint in the marching band, although he preferred to be in a "concert-type situation."
Once he reached the varsity football team as a sophomore, however, a decision had to be made.
"My freshman year, my coach would get so mad that I would be late for football practice from band," said Greg, laughing, as he thought back to those days. "Eventually, he was cool about it. But by my sophomore year, I made it to varsity, and Coach Crable didn't like that at all (being late). He made me choose, and obviously, I chose football."
After almost reaching the exit of the indoor facility, Greg stopped and pointed to the second level in the corner, which appeared to be nothing more than a dark, dingy storage area.
"That's where Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larking used to take (indoor) batting practice," he said.
Moeller is definitely not a hard place to find inspiration.
His walk continued to the football locker room, where he tapped the sign that read, "Your talent is your gift from God, How you use that talent is your Gift to God", and headed down the stairs. Greg shared a few stories with his old high school coaches before walking past the regular PE locker room and into the hallway of the school.
His first stop was upstairs to see his class picture. He also glanced into the gym, where his basketball career had a bittersweet ending.
He hurt his hand playing basketball his junior year, and that was that. Greg decided to focus on football his senior year. It just so happens the one year he didn't play, the Crusaders went on to win the 2007 state championship.
Greg knows there's more to his life on the road in front of him than in the rearview mirror. But he also knows the path ahead can be navigated more easily with the help of people along life's journey.
The school's rich athletic history is on display in the Gerry Faust Hall of Fame. Plaques of Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin, Bob Crable, Shane Bullough and several others greet the students of Moeller every day. Possibly someday, Greg will be added this to impressive list of standout athletes. But before he can even think what his plaque might look like on the wall, he heard a voice down the hall, and it's an old teammate.
After finishing up his conversation with a long-lost friend, Greg smiled as if to say, "Wow, what a day. But that's about it. It's time to go and move on."
Greg knows there's more to his life on the road in front of him than in the rearview mirror. But he also knows the path ahead can be navigated more easily with the help of people along life's journey. He has never forgotten his friends and family in his hometown upon becoming an All-America linebacker at Michigan State with a promising future in the NFL. His positive and faithful demeanor, which permeates into all facets of his interaction with others, continues to be a source of inspiration, especially for those who had the fortune of running into him that one summer day in Cincinnati.
Written by Ben Phlegar, MSU Athletic Communications. Videos by David Diffenderffer, MSU Athletic Communications.