Datone Jones fueled to fight
GREEN BAY—Expectations will stalk Datone Jones with each snap, each pass rush, all training camp long. And rightfully so. Jones is a 6-foot-4, 285-pound rarity, and the Green Bay Packers are counting on him in 2014.
He’s the guy who dares to drop Reggie White’s name as the standard.
Jones brought White’s name up on draft day in 2013. He doesn’t retreat today.
“Why wouldn’t I want to model myself after a Hall of Fame player?” Jones said. “That’s what we want to be eventually.”
So on this day, 85-degree rays frying 90 players, Jones karate-chops his arms through drills. Sweat pours as he rarely takes a knee. From the bleachers, one fan shouts his name repeatedly and from the back, the Mike Trgovac soundtrack is heavy-metal loud.
During a half-line drill—the daily separation of boys from men—Trgovac is demanding.
“C’mon, Datone!” Trgovac belts. “Get over there!”
He lines up incorrectly.
“You’re not a ‘5,’ you’re a ‘3!’”
Much is expected, much is demanded, much must be delivered. The defensive line coach has a good reason for the hoarse vocals. He sees something in Jones.
“Datone is very focused right now,” he said. “He’s not a finished product yet. He’s working hard, very focused.”
Focused because of the first 18 years in his life. Focused because Datone Jones lived a harrowing childhood of murders and drugs and true chaos in his periphery 24/7.
Stress isn’t competing for a starting job in the NFL; it’s growing up in Compton, California.
At 10 years old, Jones was approached by gang members. At 11, he watched life leave a man’s body. He lived apartment to duplex, duplex to apartment. In this world straight out of “The Wire”—one of his favorite shows—Jones avoided the clutches of the streets.
Seeing it, living it, however, gives him all the context he needs this critical summer.
“A lot of people don’t know who I am,” Jones said. “A lot of people don’t know where I come from. A lot of people don’t realize. Yeah, I went in the first round. But I had to work for this.
“This wasn’t easy.”
Riddled with bullets
Start at the Sega Genesis.
Jones was the only kid on the block who needed to blow into video-game cartridges. Friends owned Playstations and Nintendo 64s—his family was always a few pixels behind.
Still, buddies piled into Jones’ apartment this day for a game of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. It was July 5 and he was 11 years old when a ricocheting, rhythmic clatter made him pause the game. Today, Jones buzzes the tip of his tongue against the back of his teeth to imitate the sound.
The boys weren’t scared. In Compton, people were always shooting fireworks off in the streets all July. They assumed this machine-gun blast was a day-late celebration.
And that’s the scary part about Compton. Celebration can disguise devastation.
Jones heard screams, looked outside and everyone was running. He rushed to the front yard and, right there, was a man he recognized from his neighborhood. Horizontal. Hopeless. Shot up “at least” 15 times.
“We saw a body riddled,” Jones said, “Riddled with bullets.”
Only, the man wasn’t dead yet. Blood gushed from the wounds as he fought for his final breaths. One … two … three … four exhales felt like four hours. Standing over the man, Jones couldn’t look away.
“Still alive, fighting for his life, fighting to live,” Jones said, “it’s a scene you can’t blank out. It’s something you see in movies—there’s nothing like it. It’s real life. You see the life leaving somebody’s body.”
It was the first murder Jones would witness. It wouldn’t be the last.
Jones never strayed into harm’s way, though harm’s way was calling. Since Jones was always tall for his age, gang members assumed the 11-, 12-year-old was 19, 20. He was approached often. What’s your neighborhood? Your gang? Want to join? Each time, Jones says, he told them, “I don’t gangbang. I live right here and I don’t gangbang.”
As Jones played tackle football in the streets, he saw other kids holding guns for their superiors. Several childhood friends were jailed by middle school.
And even then, he couldn’t live in a bubble. Even at a carnival, tragedy was a bullet away.
A few years after that July 5 murder, Jones and his friends were about to ride the bumper cars at the Compton Christmas Carnival. They heard gunfire, saw a man hit the deck and a swarm of people tidal-waved the opposite direction.
“We saw people run,” said Bryant Hayes, Jones’ friend, who’s now a cornerback at Utah State, “so we just ran after that—and didn’t look back.”
Gangs provided the missing family structure for teens. When 12-, 13-year-old kids saw sports cars with glistening rims, they were sold. There’s no one to advise otherwise. In his graduating class of “like 800, 900” kids, Jones said, only 99 graduated. Many other athletes with Jones’ talent, NFL-level talent, he said, disappeared into the streets.
You could make a movie out of his high school, Jones adds, and it’d be the “craziest movie ever.”
“To see that stuff as a kid,” Jones said, “it’s like you’re in a third-world country.”
Added Hayes, “You can’t think about next week. You can’t think about next month. You think about how am I going to get through the day?”
His voice is calm, eerily nonchalant.
“I never met my dad.”
Not only that, Datone Jones knows nothing about the man. Never did. Never asked. Doesn’t care. Most kids in his neighborhoods, he said, grew up fatherless. Unlike others, however, he did have a strong mother. Shondra Hall was the No. 1 force in Jones staying clean.
“I was more scared of my mom than the streets,” Jones said.
He did feel the snap of a belt as a child. By the time he was in high school, Jones rarely disobeyed his mom. She made him stay home many weekends; she knew which “friends,” which households, were bad news.
Jones was within arm’s length of drugs and gangs but always had this tough-love buffer.
Game nights were common. Jones is a self-proclaimed “unbeatable” Monopoly player. Fun to him was a trip to the scrapyard, where he’d scavenge for loose bicycle parts to piece together. He balled all day. Jones played with Compton native and future Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan and against the likes of Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson and James Harden on a traveling team.
Said DeRozan, “Reckless. He was just all over the place.”
Like Eddie Lacy, Jones never watched football. Initially a “terrible” player in high school, he began watching Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, mimicking pass-rush moves and copying sack dances.
And one day, Hayes made a pact with Jones. They’d stick to sports. Because their perspective was constant.
Following one Compton practice—after swimming at nearby Victoria Park—their teammate Raymar Chapman, 15, was killed in a drive-by shooting. Another car pulled up alongside his and opened fired. Police ruled it wasn’t gang-related.
No wonder Jones still returns to Compton. Unprompted, he drives through his old neighborhoods and stops to talks to teens in the offseason.
He saw what they see. Sure, gang members have money, he tells them.
“But then you see one of those guys get shot and killed,” Jones said. “Then what do you think? You can’t take that with you when you die.”
To date in Green Bay, Jones has been up and down. One moment, he resembles Reggie White with a riptide of a pass rush into the backfield. The next, in a 1-on-1 rep, he’s fanned into Appleton by David Bakhtiari.
That glimmer of greatness keeps the Packers intrigued.
Out are the behemoths—Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly, C.J. Wilson. In is Jones. At UCLA, he made a leap in Year 2 and he plans to do the same here. All summer, Jones is zeroing in on “getting off blocks,” on “shocking” linemen, on bringing “a certain violence” to the game. Unlike last season, Green Bay needs him against the run, too.
Trgovac sees signs. He wants more.
“Datone is working his butt off right now,” Trgovac said. “And I’m one of those guys, I’m on him and on him and on him because he could even be better at that. He’s not where he needs to be in that regard, but I like his resolve and focus.”
In Week 16, Jones played four snaps. In Week 17, five. If he can’t stay on the field into December again, chances are the Packers front line is cratering.
In “shocking” blockers, Jones describes the menace he can become.
“Initially punching a guy, getting him off you, disengage, shed, and making the play in the backfield, TFLs and explosive plays,” he said. “For me, it’s about being dominant.”
In Green Bay, he won’t forget about Compton. The upbringing shaped his worldview.
For starters, he promises to be an actual father—unlike the one who deserted him. And when Jones recently read about a string of murders in Chicago and Detroit, murders most of us often skim over on the news wire, he was genuinely hurt.
His voice speeds up.
“In Afghanistan, people are getting bombs dropped on them,” Jones said. “Why would you want to risk this? You have a chance to change your whole family’s history.”
Including Jones. This season in Green Bay.