A little guidance, a lot of talent take Jones from Compton to NFL, Green Bay : Packers Insider

A little guidance, a lot of talent take Jones from Compton to NFL, Green Bay

May 5, 2013 by  
Filed under News

By Wes Hodkiewicz, Green Bay Press-Gazette

~Datone Jones, the second-youngest of Shondra Hall’s six children, never disobeyed his mother.

Except when it came to football.

Before the 6-foot-4, 283-pound defensive lineman became the first-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago, Jones grew up in one of the roughest parts of notoriously rough Compton, Calif.

As a single parent, Hall had to be the family stone. She set the curfew. She found activities for her kids to keep them out of trouble. She made the rules, all while also making sure food was on the table each night and the lights stayed on.

The one thing Hall didn’t have time for, however, was football.

“I told him, ‘Do not go and try out for football,’ ” Hall said. “He told one of his sisters, ‘I’m going to go anyway because I want to see what it’s like, but don’t tell Mama.’ ”

Jones wasn’t one to give into peer pressure, but Compton football coach Calvin Bryant was persuasive about the sport. Jones was an A student in Bryant’s physical education classes, and the football coach was vocal about the kind of football player Jones could be.

The only problem was Jones was strictly a basketball player. It was the only sport he’d played since a third-grade teacher told his mom that she should check Jones out for hyperactivity.

The following year, Jones’ fourth-grade teacher told Hall to pay that no mind. He was just a growing kid with an insatiable desire for recess, so she signed him up for basketball.

In high school, with Jones hovering around 6-1 and 180 pounds, Bryant knew he had something special on his hands. But the coach was about to give up when Jones finally came to him to tell him he was coming out for football his sophomore year.

Bryant laughed, not believing him at first, but it was true. It was the first step in Jones’ journey to the NFL.

Datone Jones works against Oregon State offensive tackle Colin Kelly during a Sept. 22, 2012 game against Oregon State. Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Seven years later, football is what defines Jones. On Thursday, he’ll make the trip to Green Bay for rookie orientation to start his career with the Packers after being taken with the 26th overall selection in the 2013 NFL draft.

“I often say that that’s the best disobedient move he made ever,” Hall said. “I don’t tell a kid to disobey their parents, but that’s what he wanted and that’s what he did. Now look, all of this.”

Brotherly bond

There’s a stark reality to being born and raised in Compton.

Bryant has experienced the extremes: He spent the Thursday of the draft celebrating the selection of the first player he coached into the NFL. Two days later, he attended the funeral for one of Jones’ teammates, a victim of a drive-by homicide near his Compton home on April 16.

Jones walked a fine line growing up in one of the nation’s roughest neighborhoods, but he always seemed to have someone looking after him.

After Hall moved the family out of Compton during Jones’ junior year, Bryant begged her to let him stay at the school. He had developed a passion for football and became a critical part of the program’s resurgence. The college recruiters already had started calling.

Hall typically doesn’t budge on these matters. She wanted to keep her children safe and is the kind of mother who makes up her mind on something and sticks to it.

This proved to be an exception. Like his recruitment of Jones, Bryant kept chipping away at the matriarch of the family, eventually agreeing to drive Jones home from practice and games if she’d let him stay.

The arrangement went off without a hitch with the exception of the first time the two were driving back to Hall’s new home in Los Angeles. Compton had played a game up north and Jones’ cell phone had died.

“It was like 3 a.m. in the morning and he’s trying to take me home and figure out where I live,” Jones said. “Finally, I was like, ‘Oh, I live right there.’ I lived 45 minutes from Compton, so it was OK.”

In the mornings, however, it meant Jones would have to get up early, hop on the bus and commute back to the school. Hall never liked the idea of her kids riding the bus. She didn’t want her children getting hurt or robbed.

Plus, the family didn’t have a lot of money. A prideful woman, Hall never wanted anyone to get the idea the family was lacking financially.

But with the help of one of his friends on the Compton football team, Iyshun Tornero-Bennett, things worked out. Tornero-Bennett’s father worked for the city transportation system and helped supply Jones with handfuls of bus passes for his treks back to Compton.

Tornero-Bennett was a good player, too, but not as good as Jones, who was so naturally gifted he registered two sacks in one of his first varsity appearances shortly after joining the team.

When Jones eventually made his way to UCLA, he never forgot what Tornero-Bennett and his family did for him. He always wanted to pay back the favor in some way.

Then, a few weeks ago, Jones ran into Tornero-Bennett and thanked him again for his help from when they were younger. Now, he wanted to repay him.

“I told him, ‘Man, I have to get you a jersey when I get drafted. I’ll get you a jersey. You looked out for me a lot,’ ” Jones recalled. “He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, man, I forgot all about that.’ I told him, ‘I never got you any UCLA tickets, so I want to get you a game jersey.’ As I was thinking about that, I was like, ‘Man, let me get him a jersey.’ ”

Soon after, however, Jones heard the bad news. Iyshun was dead, gunned down by an unknown assailant during a friend’s birthday party.

“The next day it happened. I couldn’t believe it,” Jones said. “I was sick. To my stomach.

“You have to understand my buddies I played with in high school, those are my brothers just like at UCLA. That’s where I started playing ball. I started with the same guys. The commitment I made with them is just as sacred as the one I made at UCLA, so that’s a family brother that I lost.”

Moving up

To understand Jones is to understand Compton football. During his time playing the defensive and offensive lines for Bryant, the football program won its first playoff game since 1974 and went from 0-10 to 7-3 his sophomore year.

When Jones was a junior, a few of Compton’s players earned the program’s first athletic scholarships in decades when cornerback Anthony Wright signed with Colorado and defensive tackle Porter Hill with Fresno State.

It all fueled Jones to the point where Hall would go to wake up her son in the morning and he’d already be on his way to school for mandatory study hall at 7 a.m.

He eventually gave up basketball to concentrate on football. In the offseason, it was mandatory to take part in track and field, where Jones competed as a sprinter to help with his conditioning and speed.

During his junior and senior seasons, Jones recorded 151 tackles with 11 sacks, including nine quarterback pressures as a senior, and colleges began to take notice. Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis and Oregon’s Mike Bellotti visited.

“He never was the same guy. Every year we saw some improvement whether it was rushing the quarterback or bull rushing guys or getting fast,” Bryant said. “His body started catching up with his personality. He still is a young man at heart. He hasn’t tried to outgrow himself. He’s still that same hungry young man he was when he was in high school.”

Accompanied by Bryant, Jones took his first visit to USC to meet with Pete Carroll, who offered him a scholarship after a tour of the campus. Stunned, Jones didn’t know what else to say other than OK.

A couple of days later, UCLA called from down the street. They were recruiting a group of area kids, including Rahim Moore, Akem Ayers and Johnathan Franklin, who all wanted to represent their roots and signed onto Rick Neuheisel’s Bruins.

At first it was challenging at UCLA. The Bruins went 15-22 in his first three years and he missed his entire true junior season after breaking the fifth metacarpal in his right foot during fall camp.

This past year, things changed for Jones when Jim Mora Jr. replaced Neuheisel and assistant coach Angus McClure was reassigned to coach the defensive line.

The Bruins beat USC for the first time in Jones’ college career while the team formed what Jones termed the “UCLA way.” The focus? Throw individual statistics out the window. The Bruins just needed to start winning games.

“Most of my career I’ve coached offense and I’ve coached offensive linemen, and there really aren’t a whole lot of stats for offensive linemen,” said McClure, who’s spent the past six years with the program.. “I wasn’t used to all this talk of stats, so I kind of convinced these guys that wins are going to get us more accolades than the statistics. Datone was certainly a believer in that and became a believer in that.”

What transpired was a nine-win season and the most productive year of Jones’ career, posting highs as a fifth-year senior in tackles (62), tackles for a loss (19), and sacks (61/2) while primarily working outside in the Bruins’ 3-4 defense and moving inside in the sub-packages.

Next chapter

Coming to Green Bay will be a new venture for Jones, but McClure has no doubt he’ll fit into Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense. Personally, Jones sees himself being tailor-made for the scheme that’s sorely lacking a three-down pass-rusher.

Back home, Hall has had to overcome some of her own health struggles, including a recent cancer scare and prolonged illness that kept her from watching the first few games of Jones’ senior season in person.

The journey wasn’t always easy, but Hall never wavered. It was simply her duty as a proud mother.

“It was hard, but I felt like I made the decision to have these children and so I had to take care of them,” Hall said. “I just really believe you have to go through a little something to have something. I feel like there’s nothing in life that’s free. I feel like I gave him the tools, he used it and he built this empire.”

Jones laughs about his bankroll these days, but still plans to be smart when the rookie contract comes in.

The new collective-bargaining agreement slots draft choices by the position in which they’re drafted, likely putting Jones’ contract in the range of last year’s 26th overall pick, defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who inked a four-year, $7.6-million deal with Houston last summer.

According to those closest to him, Jones will be worth it because the Packers aren’t just getting a defensive lineman. They’re getting a 22-year-old man, a son, a brother, a college graduate with a degree in history and an unwavering sense of where he comes from.

“He certainly knows the environment where he’s from and he knows the culture, and he’s very prideful about being from Compton and certainly everything he’s accomplished so far,” McClure said. “That includes the degree he’s earned this last December graduating early. He takes a lot of pride in that and I think he’s going to carry that wherever he goes.

“When he needs to lean back on that support, it’s there for him.”

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