Oct. 7, 2009
If only Greg Jones' opponents could meet him off the field. Then, maybe, they might have a different opinion of the tenacious preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. It's hard to get to know him while he's tracking you down, tripping you up, and slamming you to the turf.
Which is too bad. Because he has a lot to offer.
What they would find is a soft-spoken, humble and mild-mannered man with a quiet determination to succeed and the growing ability to lead. It's hard to imagine a player named on national award watch lists and preseason All-America teams as unassuming as Jones. But it all stems from his upbringing in Cincinnati.
Jones' unrivaled work ethic was instilled in him by his parents, who showed him nothing is given in this world, but earned. Greg Sr. still works multiple jobs at all hours of the day, and his mother, Beverly, was a nurse when Greg was growing up, and now works for Neighborhood Health Care.
"My parents mean everything to me," said Jones. "Those two taught me everything I know. I feel like I get my mental toughness from my mom. She was the one that taught me you have to keep going no matter what, that's just the type of person she was. My dad is an up-front guy that always gives a good first impression."
Beverly might have given Greg his mental edge, but she did not get him started on the football field. His long journey to being an All-Big Ten performer at Michigan State started at the ripe age of 8. And the passion that drives him? How about age 12. It's safe to say he's always been one step ahead of the competition.
"I had to beg my mom to play football," Jones recalled. "My mom wouldn't let me play when I was 7, but I played the next year.
"When I was 12, one of my coaches told me, `Greg, you're just way too nice on the field.' I mean, at that point, everyone that you played with were your friends. But he just kept telling me that, over and over. That's when I changed on the field, starting to play with a little anger. My coaches always said you have to learn how to use that on the field, and when you get off the field, that's when you can calm down and relax."
Some points of advice you just never forget.
Jones, who started working out in the weight room as early as the seventh grade, blossomed at Ohio prep powerhouse Archbishop Moeller High School. With several of his teammates going on to play at Division I programs, Jones knew the amount of work required to earn a scholarship.
"By the ninth and 10th grade, I was starting to understand the difference of the players that played at the next level," said Jones. "That made me just want to push that much harder. I started to figure out where I wanted to be at, that I wanted to play with the best.
"Another thing that motivated me was that I wasn't the highest recruited guy," continued Jones. "I wasn't even close to anybody's top 10 or anything like that, but that wasn't going to hold me back."
When Jones arrived at Michigan State in 2007, he was just another freshman looking for a spot on the field. It was hard to see then that he would soon embody the new tough, physical brand of Spartan football embraced by first-year head coach Mark Dantonio.
"Greg Jones has developed into not just a great playmaker, but a leader for us," said Dantonio. "He does everything a hundred miles an hour and wins with effort, whether it's the winter conditioning program, studying film, or practice on a spring day, he's going to give everything he's got - it's important to him."
"When your teammates can rely on you, and expect you to do well, on and off the field, that's the biggest thing you can have."
Jones made an immediate impact on special teams, and found himself as one of the starting linebackers in an emerging Spartan defense by just his sixth collegiate game. His coming out party, however, was at No. 1 Ohio State, where he collected 14 tackles, the first of his 12 career games with double-digit stops.
"After that game at Ohio State, that's when I realized I could actually do it at this level," said Jones. "It didn't matter if I was undersized or who I was going against, that's the game I got my confidence."
Since that point, Jones has taken his game to a level few have ever reached at Michigan State. He finished his freshman season with a team-best 78 tackles, becoming the first true freshman to lead the Spartans in that category since 1976. He improved upon that effort with 127 tackles in 2008, landing him on the All-Big Ten first-team as selected by the coaches, a first for a Spartan linebacker since 2001.
"Greg is a humble kid, he's smart, and he's athletic," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "I think he has the whole package. He's as good as a linebacker as I have coached in 20 years."
Jones' outstanding work ethic has only increased since his time in East Lansing, in part due to last year's senior class, led by All-American Javon Ringer. This season, Jones is the one leading the team. The players are looking to him. And it's more than simply outworking everybody.
"The captains last year were tremendous," said Jones. "I think about those guys a lot, and what they would do in a certain situation, and what's the best decision and how should I go about this. And now I'm in that situation. I honestly have to think a lot more about what I say. I think about what would be best for my teammates, because ultimately, what's the best for my teammates will be best for me. I do like that responsibility, but it's not easy. Getting voted captain means so much because you have the respect of your teammates. When your teammates can rely on you, and expect you to do well, on and off the field, that's the biggest thing you can have."
Football is deeply embedded within Jones, but there's also room for a little creativity, as he is often reminded by his mother.
"My mom told me that eventually football is going to end, and that you can't keep tackling everybody," Jones, a media arts major, said. "I'm really interested in sports commercials. For me, it's just thinking about how you create stuff like that; it challenges my mind a whole lot when I see it."
Jones still has a ways to go before producing commercials. In fact, he may be closer to being in one than conceiving one.
Until that point, Jones will continue to do what he's always done best - aim for excellence through hard work. Because in the end, it pays off.
"When we got to the bowl game my first year, I thought about all the early-morning conditioning sessions and all the times leaving late at practice - literally, blood, sweat and tears," said Jones. "When you finally get that end result, when you finally make that play when it counts most in the fourth quarter, you realize how long it takes to do that. That's what means everything to me."
By Ben Phlegar, MSU Athletic Communications
GETTING TO KNOW Greg Jones:
Favorite TV Show: Sports Science on FSN, and Monday Night Football: "My dad worked on Sundays, but we watched Monday Night Football all the time - until he fell asleep or I fell asleep."
Pre-game song: "On to the Next One" by Jay-Z.
Favorite Sports Teams: Cincinnati Reds, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Cavaliers.
Favorite Athlete: Walter Payton.
Favorite Food: "My mom's mac & cheese."
Favorite spot on campus: "Walking by the giant schedule outside of Spartan Stadium. It motivates me every day, to know what I have to do."
Favorite movie: Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "Eric Gordon tells me I have a problem because I watch it all the time."
This feature was originally published in the Oct. 3 edition of Michigan State Football Gameday Magazine.