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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mature beyond his years

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps Jahmai Jones was miscast, being a part of the 2013 Perfect Game Junior National Showcase that opened Tuesday morning on Mall of America Field at the downtown Metrodome. Perhaps he would have been better cast playing a role in the 2013 Perfect Game National Showcase that begins its five day run Thursday, also in the Metrodome.

Jones, a lights-out shortstop prospect from Roswell, Ga., who is ranked No. 34 nationally (No. 8 shortstop) in his class of 2015, certainly carries himself with a maturity and confidence usually not found in your typical 15-year-old. He also knows that the PG Junior National Showcase for underclassmen is where he belongs this week and he'll gladly step into his rightful spot on a roster at the 2014 PG National Showcase, the event for that year's incoming seniors.

"I'm just glad that I was fortunate enough to be invited to go to this showcase, and it's just a blessing to be here," Jones said Tuesday morning after running the 60-yard dash and competing in the outfield and infield throw portion of the showcase's workout. "I just thank my parents and my coaches and everybody that's been around me for helping me get here right now."

Jones is quick to flash a brilliant, playful smile while he speaks and that's when it's most easy to realize that he is, indeed, 15 years old. He is a member of a close and athletic family: his father, Andre, was a defensive end on Lou Holtz's 1988 national championship team at Notre Dame; older brother Tai-ler (TJ) Jones is a standout senior wide receiver at Notre Dame; another older brother, Malachi Jones, is a junior wide receiver at Appalachian State.

Jahmai has another older brother, Kerry, 24, and sisters Dacia, 17, and Jayla, 10.

"My whole family has had a great impact on me," Jones said. "TJ has been that older brother role model for me -- both of them have, Malachi and TJ. Tai-ler always pushed me to get better and strive to be better than him, and Malachi was always there behind me and making sure I was doing the right thing and not getting into any trouble.

"Just having them there and pushing me in both sports, especially football, really shows the impact they've had on me," he continued. "It's always been 'Who can do this, who can do that' or 'I'm faster, I'm bigger'. It's a great sibling rivalry and I love it."

But perhaps no one had a bigger impact on young Jahmai than his father. Tragically, Andre Jones -- big and strong and full of a passion for life -- passed away in June of 2011 at the much too young age of 42 after suffering a brain aneurism. The family was devastated.

"Every second, when I'm not thinking about schoolwork or football, I'm thinking about him," TJ Jones told the Chicago Tribune's Brian Kelly in a story published in September, 2011, about three months after Andre's death. "It has put a toll on me. I just think to myself every day, I have to push myself that much harder to make sure I make it for myself and also my family because they're counting on me."

Jahmai Jones was 13 years old when he lost his father, and he was crushed. In the two years since that tragic day Andre passed, Jahmai has come to terms with the loss, or at least as much as should be expected from a teenager just coming of age.

"My dad was a great guy," he said. "I guess it was his time to go; God needed him in heaven -- I was just fortunate to have him for the years that I did. He taught me a lot and I had to grow up a little bit faster than I expected."

Tom Haire is the founder, director and a hands-on coach of the Alpharetta, Ga.- based Georgia Roadrunners Baseball program that Jahmai Jones has been involved with for the past five years, since he was a 10-year-old.  He brought Jones and a couple of other members of the Roadrunners' 15u team here this week and was watching them perform from a choice box seat inside the Metrodome Tuesday morning. He also got to know Andre Jones pretty well in the three years before he died.

"(Jahmai's) dad was the driving influence on all the boys," Haire said. "He was just such a great guy and his kids all have the same quiet confidence that you see in Jahmai. ... The whole family is very tight-knit -- they have six kids -- but Andre was the guy who taught the kids that polite confidence. To me they are amazing; they want to be up when the winning run is on third and the rest of their teammates want them to be up because of the way they are. The confidence is incredible but it's not cocky."

Jones' mother, Michelle, would have been inside the Metrodome on Tuesday as well, but she chose to remain in Georgia so she could support Dacia at an equestrian event. It was left to Haire to describe the immense heartbreak -- but also the immense fortitude -- all of the Jones children experienced when they lost their father.

"At their dad's funeral all the boys spoke, and with Jahmai, I just couldn't believe it," Haire said Tuesday. "I told him, 'No wonder you hit the ball so far, I think you're really 21 instead of 13.' It's what Andre would have wanted -- they were as sad as they could be to lose a great guy like that but it was amazing how great all the boys were (when they spoke at the funeral)."

Jahmai's greatness really stands out on two fields of play: baseball and football. He stands 6-foot-even and weighs in at 205-pounds and he will be a highly sought after prospect by not only the nation's college baseball coaches but its football coaches as well.

A wide receiver like his older brothers, Jones caught 70 passes for 1,071 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore at Wesleyan High School last fall after getting a small taste of varsity action as a freshman in the fall of 2011. His statistics from his just completed sophomore baseball season at Wesleyan were not immediately available.

"I really like balancing the two right now," Jones said of the baseball/football dance. "Being the athlete that I am, I'm fortunate to play football and be successful at that and I think that gives coaches and other scouts (an idea about) the athleticism that I have. It shows that I'm able to play two sports at the same time; football helps me for baseball and vice-versa, baseball helps for football. It's a good balance."

Jones said if a school were to give him the opportunity to pursue both sports at the collegiate level that would definitely be something he would consider. "I think that I could play both baseball and football in college; it would be a challenge but it's something that I would have to take into consideration," he said.

The Georgia Roadrunners were co-champions with the East Cobb Astros 14u at the 14u/15u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational in Marietta, Ga., last week. There wasn't a Most Valuable Player Award given out at the rain-shortened event but Jones certainly would have been a favorite: he hit .684 (13-for-19) with a double, three triples, three RBI, 11 runs scored and four stolen bases in five attempts while posting a .714 on-base percentage and 1.053 slugging percentage. He was named to the event's all-tournament team.

"We were missing a couple of players, but most of our team was there and we were meshing really well together," Jones said. "When that happened we came together as a team and you saw what we were able to do. It was a great experience and we played some really good teams and we showed them what we could do."

Jones plans to play with the Roadrunners throughout the rest of this summer and into next summer, as well.

"It's just a great group of guys, great coaches," he said. "They really build a relationship with you outside of baseball; they really want to get to know everything that's out there -- school life, how you're doing with your grades, keeping those up and just doing everything that they can to put you at the next level."

Haire will welcome Jones with open arms for as long as Jones is eligible to be a Roadrunner.

"He's a terrific kid who seems like a man already; he's really a mature, nice well-balanced kid from a great family," Haire said. "He's a good ballplayer who has all the tools -- he's a big, strong, fast kid who loves to play baseball."

Jahmai Jones is mature beyond his years, forced to grow up a little sooner than perhaps he had planned. His father was part of his life for only 13 years, a far too short span of time. Yet Jones, with a platter full of promise and a productive life in front of him, will always hold dear the lessons his father passed on to him.

"I learned that every day, you just can't take it for granted," he said with a sense of urgency in his voice. "Every day is not given; it's definitely a blessing to wake up the next morning and be able to do the things that others might not be as fortunate as you to do. Sometimes we take for granted just walking. My dad taught me that I've got to value everything I have and work as hard as I can to become the man that I want to be and the role model for my children and setting an example for everyone, even my little sister.

"I've got to do things to make ends meet for my family and everything I do reflects back on him," he concluded. "God blessed me to have the man that I did as my father and I'm just happy that I was able to call him my dad. He taught me a lot and I miss him."

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