A week or so after Julio Jones—arguably the best wide receiver in the world right now, and certainly the most important skill player stepping onto the field in Sunday's Super Bowl—committed to play football for the University of Alabama, he found himself in a high school basketball playoff game.
His Foley High School Lions were in Mobile to face the LeFlore High School Rattlers. In addition to being the greatest football player to come out of Foley since Ken Stabler, and a state champion in track, Jones was also a high-flying rebounder and shot-blocker in high school. His gifts were already well known on the Gulf Coast of Alabama: size, speed, strength, vision, a sort of preternatural calm that made even his most insane athletic feats appear as if they were happening in slow motion.
But Foley was a football school, and they were overmatched on the basketball court by LeFlore—in particular, by the Rattlers' center, a highly recruited junior named DeMarcus Cousins. Jones, however, was not overmatched. There remains some question as to whether Cousins was standing under the basket when the dunk happened, or even whether he was on the floor at all. I heard varying accounts. But witnesses agree that in the first half of the game, Jones plucked a rebound out of the sky and tore down a vicious dunk that brought the opposing LeFlore fans out of their seats for an extended applause.
The point isn't whether Julio Jones did or did not dunk on DeMarcus Cousins. The point is that nobody would have been surprised if he did. Steve Cluck, who coached Jones in youth football, was in the arena, and he recalled that Jones leaped from near the free-throw line. "The whole damned gymnasium went crazy," he says. "It was wild. They expected DeMarcus to do it—DeMarcus dominated basketball in Mobile, and Julio Jones dunked right over him."
Clark Stewart, who was calling the game for WHEP radio in Foley, doesn't remember whether Cousins was on the floor. But the dunk was a special moment, he said. "They had to stop the game for like three minutes to get the crowd settled. They were so hyped up about Julio's dunk."
Foley lost that game to LeFlore, but Jones had made his mark. That's what he always seemed to do in big games. A few months earlier, in a football game against rival Daphne High School that was televised nationally by ESPN, Jones had battled through an ankle injury to catch two touchdown passes, including a spectacular grab in the end zone through a double team.
The people who knew Julio Jones back before he was even called Julio are confident that the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver will do the same thing in Sunday's Super Bowl. He will step up. Just like he did against Daphne on ESPN. Just like he did against Cousins and LeFlore in basketball. It's simple, says Cluck: "Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games."
Talk to people who knew him growing up, and you get the sense that Julio Jones was born a fully formed athletic phenom—that he appeared one day in Foley and, without saying much, immediately started embarrassing his peers in every sport he tried. He was a star in everything: football, basketball, track, baseball. Cluck, his youth football coach, remembers Jones playing games in which he never even got his uniform dirty because nobody could tackle him.
"Julio Jones at 11 years old, I thought could start for Foley High School then," Cuck says. "He was one of those kids who was so gifted as an athlete, with speed and balance and power."
"He was always a good athlete as a young boy," recalled his mother, Queen. "He was five years old, he and my older son were out there in the yard playing. He said, 'Hey, when I get older you're going to put me in city league.' He said, 'I'm going to play pro football.' I said, 'For real?' So I said, 'I'm going to put you in there.' So he went into city league and he made all-stars."
Julio was still going by his birth name then. He was born Quintorris Lopez Jones, in Foley, in 1989. Quintorris is the Latin word for gladiator, but that isn't why Queen picked it. "The reason I gave him Quintorris is because they told me he was going to be a girl," she said by phone from her home in Foley. "He wasn't a girl, and my name is Queen, so I gave him Quintorris."
She found the name Quintorris in a baby book. There wasn't much to it. She simply liked the way it looked and sounded. But in a way it didn't really suit her son. He was a gifted athlete, of course, and from childhood he was tough and determined—but he was not exactly gladiatorial in his everyday demeanor. Just the opposite, really. He was quiet, he was shy, and he did everything his mother asked him to. "Julio was amazing," Queen said. "Julio never gave me any trouble at all."
When he was about twelve, he was playing outside with a cousin when Queen decided that she wasn't going to call her son Quintorris anymore. She was going to call him Julio. Why Julio? There were some reports when Jones was at the University of Alabama that she had nicknamed after a deceased friend. But that wasn't it. There was nothing to it, really.
"It was just a random thing that I did," Queen said. But Quintorris—now Julio—went along with it, because that's who he is.
Julio's father left when Julio and his brother Philip were just kids. Queen remarried and worked long hours at the KFC in town to keep her children fed. She was strict with Julio.
"She's a very good lady," said Todd Watson, who was Julio's high school football coach. "Hard-working lady. And I would say that's probably where he got some of his work ethic from. She was going to do everything she could to give him the best opportunity to be successful."
Jones' quiet work ethic was a good fit for the town he grew up in. Foley, Alabama, is located about halfway between Mobile and Pensacola, Florida. It's a low-key city of about 15,000 people, where one of the top tourist attractions is the Foley Railroad Museum, which features an elaborate model train setup.
"It's still a small world in these parts," said Clark Stewart, the play-by-play man who called Jones' high school football and basketball games for WHEP, the local AM radio station his family has owned since 1953. When Stabler was playing for Foley High School in the early 1960s, it was Stewart's father calling his games. "It's really something," Stewart said. "We had Kenny, then I guess, well, a half a century later, we had Julio."
In Jones' first year of high school, he played running back in a Wing-T offense. When Watson arrived and spread things out, Jones moved to receiver. He found that he had a knack for seeing the field. His height allowed him to go up and get balls that other high school players couldn't. And his strength allowed him to shake off tackles.
"I get mad if one person brings me down," Jones told the Mobile Press-Register in 2009. "Even two, I mean, I get mad. I'm really hard on myself. I think I got that way from playing running back. I played corner and safety, too. I mean, I'm not scared to hit nobody."
Like Stabler, who was highly recruited by college football programs (as well as professional baseball teams), Jones was a can't-miss prospect. He was the No. 1 wide receiver in the country according to ESPN, and the No. 2 player in his class. And like Stabler, he went to the University of Alabama. Unlike Stabler, Jones did not possess a propensity for getting tanked the night before games or kicking out the dome lights of cop cars.
"You didn't have to be a genius to figure out when you saw him that he was gifted physically," Watson, his high school coach, said. "When you really knew you had something special was when you'd see him work in the weight room. He loved to work out."
Jones had—and continues to have—not only the physical tools that playing wide receiver in the NFL demands but also the mental and emotional strengths that allow a player to maximize those gifts. He is focused and perpetually self-motivated. It feels sometimes like Nick Saban designed him in a lab. In an interview with MaxPreps while he was still in high school, Jones said, "I don't have any goals. I just compete against myself and try to make myself better."
Even now, Jones lives a simple life. He goes to work, he comes home, and he plays video games, his mother said. He doesn't party much with his teammates. Doesn't particularly like to go out. Watson remembered that some college recruiters saw Jones as stuck-up or arrogant because he spoke so little—but that was not the case. He just takes it all in.
"He's kind of a quiet guy until he gets to know you and you're in his circle of people," Watson said. "Once you're in the circle you find out he's got a great sense of humor, very funny, and a genuine care for his teammates and their success."
In the off-seasons, he still comes home to Foley to visit. He's the same person, Queen said. Humble. He stays with Queen in the house he bought her, and he has her cook for him.
"He wants me to do that home cooking for him. Mama's homemade macaroni and cheese and collard greens," Queen said. "He likes for me to cook him lemon pepper chicken. He doesn't eat beef and doesn't eat pork."
Queen, meanwhile, still goes to Foley High School football games. She takes care of her garden and takes life one day at a time. When the Falcons are playing at home, she drives the five and a half hours up to Atlanta for the games and stays with Jones at his condo. She loves the Falcons organization—they aren't stuck-up there—and loves the fact that her son plays so close to home.
"It's a blessing out of the sky," she said. "He's closer to me. I don't have to go way across the country to see him. But if I had to I would. I'm going to be there for him."
Queen is going to be in Houston on Sunday, too. You better believe it. And she believes, just like everyone else in Foley, that her son is a big-game player. She's seen it up close—from the time he was five years old and told her he was going to play pro football, to Foley High School, to Alabama, to the NFL. She knows it because she is the one who set him on the path.
"As long as he keeps doing what I tell him, keep God first, he's going to be all right," she said. "And we're going to get that ring. We're going to get that ring. I feel it."
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