I remember it like it was yesterday.
There I was sitting in the pressbox at Ron Poe Stadium, and the McKinney High football team was going through warm ups before its district contest against Denison. It was a big game so I arrived early to secure my usual seat up front next to the power outlet for my laptop. Unfortunately, someone else beat me to it and I wound up sitting on the second row instead. I didn’t catch his name but he introduced himself as being a reporter for the Herald Democrat. He was a nice guy. I could tell he had worked in the Sherman-Denison area for a while.
This was the first time McKinney was playing against District 9-4A newcomer and traditional powerhouse, Denison, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Yellowjackets and I wasn’t at all familiar with their roster. In the fall of 2008, the quarterback and receiver combo of Zach Lee and Matt Lipka was unstoppable as the pair of juniors took the area by storm. But the most talented player on the field that night was donned in black and gold and went by the name of D.J. Jones.
“That’s him right there,” the man said.
He pointed to a young man wearing a #21 jersey and taking a practice hand off into the endzone. This was the first of many times I would see him run into the endzone that night. Any time I covered a road game and the home town reporters knew I was from McKinney all they would ask about was Lee and Lipka and I would give them the inside scoop on our two most talented players. It was kind of cool because I felt like everyone wanted to know more about these guys and they saw me as the best source for that information, whether it be about recruiting or simply wanting to know if they were classy individuals. When I told the reporter I had never heard of D.J. Jones, his face lit up at the opportunity to fill me in and all of his accomplishments since he was in seventh-grade.
“He’s being recruited by Texas and OU and Florida. This kid can go anywhere he wants.”
The reporter assured me that I had never seen a player like him before and he was pretty much guaranteed to score any time he got his hands on the football. I was hoping for a McKinney High win that night but the look on his face told me all I needed to know. This guy had seen this player dominate on the field in a town where football is religion and I knew he wasn’t yanking my chain. So I got comfortable, sat back and watched the kid they called D.J. put on the most spectacular football clinic I’ve ever seen and likely ever will see.
Simply put, he was incredible. Everything he did seemed so effortless, almost as if playing on the field with high school players somehow bored him because he was at a much higher level than anyone who dared to try to tackle him.
By the end of the night, Mr. Jones shattered every Denison High single-game rushing record with a 434-yard, 8-touchdown performance in a 65-64 victory over the Lions. Words can’t even describe how stunned I was to witness such a performance. I’ve watched a 5-foot-7 Daryn Alves dart past defenders and cut across field and spin and twist around and somehow land in the endzone. I’ve seen Lee and Lipka connect on long passes and go the length of the field for a score in less than 20 seconds without breaking a sweat. Last year, I watched Boyd sophomore Bryan Driskell escape five defenders on his way for a go-ahead touchdown in the district championship game against South Garland. As great as all those plays and players were, D.J Jones rushing display that night at Ron Poe Stadium was a legendary moment that, honestly, I still can’t believe I witnessed.
When the fourth quarter clock ticked down to zero, I gathered my stuff together and prepared to get on the elevator and go down onto the field. The Herald Democrat reporter had a huge grin on his face and made a comment about how he already had his article written because the game was decided early on and now all that was left was to talk to Mr. Jones.
D.J. was only a junior at the time but that sports writer was convinced that he would be following his career past the next two years of high school, into college, and throughout his NFL career.
He was fully convinced and so was I. That was until I heard the news.
My dad was in the stands that night as well and we had a long conversation that night about how incredible a rusher D.J. Jones was and how he would definitely be a big star in college. From time to time, my dad would ask me, “Have you heard anything about that kid from Denison?” I would let him know what recruiting news I heard and even show him some of D.J’s videos on YouTube. But this past weekend, it was my dad who broke the most shocking news of all.
With the start of football right around the corner, we were discussing the playoff chances of each high school team when he suddenly remembered something he had read.
“Did you hear about that Denison player who was murdered?” he said. “It was that running back that played against McKinney High.”
Sure enough when I googled the name “D.J. Jones” the front page turned up numerous results, but not of a local running back whose football future was bright but of a young man who was gunned down in Oklahoma after a drug deal gone bad.
D.J. Jones was just 19 years old and last Friday between 6 and 6:30 a.m. he was shot and killed. One of the suspects in the murder claimed that he gave Jones $550 for a pound of marijuana and after the former Yellowjacket star failed to deliver the drugs – he was set up and shot behind a Lucky Stop convenience store in Cartwright.
A friend who was with Jones said that he attempted to run away when he realized what was going on but before he could get too far he was shot in the back with a shotgun.
That’s the only word that came to mind after reading the police report on my way home from Florida. A young man who once dazzled not only me but also thousands of local fans with his running ability on the football field was using his legs to run for his life before being killed. A young athlete, who at one time had a bright college football career on the horizon, was instead laying face down in a parking lot as the sun was just starting to rise that Friday morning.
I didn’t know D.J. personally but my heart went out to his friends and family because I witnessed first hand just how special an athlete he was and how much that meant to his town. At the end of the day, I’ve heard enough and read enough about the kid to determine that he had a good heart but simply made bad decisions that would eventually cost him his life.
In this job, I get to see so many great, collegiate caliber athletes and I’ve covered more college signings than I can remember. But one thing I never forget is how proud the parents, coaches, and teammates are when they gather to celebrate what the future holds for their friend and loved one. I imagine that was the same atmosphere in the room when Mr. Jones signed on the dotted line to play at Texas A&M and I doubt any person at that signing would have believed that his life would end this way.
The sad reality is that several high school athletes use and abuse drugs and alcohol. I’ve not only read about it and heard about it but I’ve seen it firsthand. Five years ago, I was still playing high school football and I had several friends that were involved in that sort of stuff. You can’t convince me that things have improved with time. If anything, I’m sure it’s worse.
I hope this column doesn’t come off as preachy because that’s not my intention. I just think it’s terrible that a young kid with tons of potential would risk and lose his life over something like this. It’s my hope that local high school athletes would learn from this tragedy and avoid a similar fate.
-Joe Arriola, TownSquareBuzz.com