T.J. Jones and the Dad Who Lives With ‘Touchdown Jesus’
Watching the game last Saturday in the upper level of Notre Dame Stadium, I had an inspiration about Notre Dame’s T.J. Jones as he scored the Irish’s second touchdown.
Maybe it was the fact that I was sitting across from the famous “The Word of Life” mural — better known as “Touchdown Jesus” — depicted on the Hesburgh Memorial Library. Maybe it was due to the inspirational interview I had just concluded with Father Thomas J. Jones, C.S.C., or maybe it was the fact that Jones was the only wide receiver in Notre Dame history to catch a touchdown pass in each of his first two games.
But it certainly had something to do with his father.
You see, Andre Jones was a starting linebacker for the 1988 Notre Dame championship team. T.J.’s dad was also his biggest critic and biggest fan. They spent hours together, T.J. living his Notre Dame dream, his father reliving his time on the Irish sidelines through his son. But, suddenly in the summer between T.J.’s freshman and sophomore years, his seemingly invincible father died of a brain aneurysm at the age of forty-two, and the dreams all came crashing down.
No more post-game debriefings followed the intentionally long drives home from the airport. No more requests to light a candle in the grotto for someone his father knew. No more emotional moments by his father when he ran out on the field.
“I know a lot of times it would make him tear up or cry when I ran out of the tunnel,” T.J. Jones said. “I never understood it until I ran out of the tunnel for the first time, knowing he wasn’t there.”
Consumed with sorrow, Jones at first balked at returning to school after his father’s death, but his mother finally prevailed. There were four younger siblings viewing him with grieving and expectant eyes. Plus, he knew that’s what his father would have wanted.
Said Irish coach Brian Kelly: “He pushed on because he needed to push on. He needed to be a rock for his family.”
Certainly, his father would have been happy with T.J.’s increase in receptions last season (38, up from 23 his freshman year), but it’s what he does for his family that must make his papa the most proud.
“He just tells me to stay focused and that we both need to use this as motivation,” said younger brother Malachi, “[b]ecause my dad wouldn’t want us to shut down and give up on our dreams. Then he tells me
‘Just go ball’ — exactly what dad would say.”
“If I can make it through Notre Dame and go to the next level and get a job after college and be that example my siblings would follow — and hopefully do better than I will — then we won’t have to worry about what-if,” Jones said.
For all this, I think Jones deserves a special nickname, and I think I’ve found it. As long as he plays for the Irish, I think the “T.J.” should stand for “Touchdown Jesus,” not because he’s making a cocky comparison of himself to the Savior, but because his closest friend, his dad, now lives with Touchdown Jesus Himself. And then, whenever T.J. scores, the crowd will look up at the mural and think not only about the Christ, but the Notre Dame linebacker who defends Him. And his fathers — both his heavenly Father and Andre — will, in the words of George Gipp, “know about it…and will be happy.”
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