Razorbacks' Rock Star

FAYETTEVILLE -- The fans flocked from around the state and stood in a line that might've winded north to Missouri, just to have their idol ink his name on photos, jerseys, posters and birthday cards.

He signed close to 2,000 signatures on Fan Appreciation Day last month, according to senior Dowell Loggains' rough calculations. The quarterback stood close and watched curiously, counting the hundreds that beamed while the state's resident rock star scribbled the year's most coveted letters: M-A-T-T J-O-N-E-S.

South Florida has a new center of attention in larger-than-life NBA star Shaquille O'Neal. The Democratic Party has optimistic thoughts because of presidential candidate John Kerry. Teenagers have role models like pop stars Justin Timberlake and Jessica Simpson.

But Arkansas has Matt Jones for all of the above.

The athletic marvel, who was escorted to and from the two-hour autograph session by security guards, begins a senior season at quarterback with an entire state casting its eyes -- and hopes -- on his talents. Legends like Bill Montgomery, Ken Hatfield and Lance Alworth hold folk hero status in football-mad Arkansas, but few have meant as much to the Hogs on and off the field since Jones' arrival in 2001.

"He has an affect over a lot of people," Loggains said. "People are naturally drawn to him because he has such a presence about him. I've never seen anything like it. Of all the players that I've seen here, there has never been another player that has had this much attention.

"But it's well deserved. He's the most exciting player in college football."

The 2004 season kicks off against New Mexico State at 6 tonight in Reynolds Razorback Stadium and, rest assured, Jones will command full attention from the Aggies as well as 72,000 spectators in attendance. It sounds like a heavy burden for a reluctant star, but those that know the 6-foot-6, 237-pounder from Fort Smith said Jones' personality helps him shoulder the obligations.

Arkansas' lone returning offensive starter probably explained it best when he was surrounded by reporters during Southeastern Conference Media Days in Birmingham, Ala., in July. He looked around, shrugged his shoulders and described the hoopla with three words: "It's all good."

"It's just something that comes with playing for Arkansas," Jones said. "I'm not worried about all the attention, good or bad. It's just football. It's just a game. In two or three years, they're not going to be talking about me. They're going to be talking about the next quarterback and all the attention will be on him.

"As soon as I'm gone it'll be over with so I'm not too worried about it."

Poster child

But that's impossible to imagine after soaking in a summer of Matt mania.

His impact on the 2004 season is inescapable. He's the focal point of newspaper clippings, television pieces, photo spreads and magazine articles.

Jones is the only individual player to grace the cover of Arkansas' 2004 media guide. His appearance on other publicity pieces like magnets and calendars leave little doubt he is the Razorbacks' poster child.

"The thing about Matt, he's not only a talented player, but he doesn't fit the mold of some other quarterbacks," said sports information director Kevin Trainor, who is in charge of fulfilling media requests. "He's kind of a mystery to people. They want to know more about Matt and what makes him tick and his unique approach to things."

Robert Mann, who is general manager of Hog Heaven merchandise stores, said fans also want to wear his number.

Hog Heaven recently received its latest shipment of No. 9 jerseys and Mann expects to have trouble keeping children's sizes on the rack. This is the second year his store has carried No. 9 jerseys and Mann estimated they sell four times as many as Arkansas' other jersey, No. 1, which is produced every season.

"The only thing I can compare it to would be (former basketball Hog) Corliss (Williamson)," Mann said. "We did sell a lot of No. 7 when (former quarterback Barry) Lunney was here. We did a lot of No. 4 when (former tailback) Cedric (Cobbs) was here. But the only one I can say that has had (Jones') kind of run was Corliss' No. 34 jersey back in 1994-95.

"He's probably the most visible football player we've had in years."

Teammate and close friend Jared Hicks said that carries over to campus, where Jones can't walk around without students asking for autographs. It's impossible for Jones to slip into a restaurant without being recognized and golf outings are often interrupted by curious onlookers.

Jones' father, Steve, said family trips to Wal-Mart are even complicated.

"I think it's very unusual to see because it's a statewide deal," said Steve Jones, who has signed autographs for fans because of his son's status. "It's unbelievable. I've had people call me or come to our house just wanting to see where Matt lived. I'm talking about prominent people. They'll call me and say, 'Would you call me when Matt comes in? I'd just like to say hi to him.' It's amazing.

"I'm not going to tell any names, but people that you wouldn't expect to do that."

Electrifying playmaker

But Steve Jones said he and his wife, Paula, are getting used to the notoriety.

They knew their son's unique combination of size and athleticism held the potential for a bright future in junior high. When it came time to choose a college, Jones had offers from big-time programs like Miami and Oklahoma. But he decided to stay at home and instantly became an in-state hero.

"We talked about that before he did it," Steve Jones said. "I said, 'Matt you can go off somewhere and play and you'll be successful. But you will never be loved or you'll never be held up so high as you would in your home state because you're a native son. If you choose Arkansas you can't go wrong.'"

Jones' on-the-field resume has done little to disappoint.

He led the Hogs to wins in the two longest games in NCAA history. He also completed a miraculous pass to DeCori Birmingham to give the Hogs a last-second win against LSU and trip to the SEC Championship game in 2002. He owns the school's all-time rushing record for quarterbacks (1,914) and is within reach of the SEC's all-time mark, 2,280, set by former Mississippi State quarterback John Bond.

More important, Arkansas is 24-12 in games Jones has played.

"I'd hate to think where we'd be without Matt Jones the last three years," said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. "He's going to be remembered as one of the winningest quarterbacks to ever play at the University of Arkansas. He's going to be one of the most electrifying playmakers in Arkansas history."

Jones has secured that place as one of Arkansas' most memorable quarterbacks, joining legends like Montgomery, Quinn Grovey, Joe Ferguson, Clint Stoerner and Ron Calcagni. But former quarterback Kevin Scanlon, who guided the Hogs to a Southwest Conference Championship in 1979, said the rest fall short of Jones' talents.

"There have been many of us that played the position," Scanlon said. "There are none of us that were that athletic and had that ability to make big plays like he does. He's a combination of a Scott Bull with the size and Quinn Grovey and Ron Calcagni with the running ability. It's an unbelievable combination.

"It may be a long time before we see another one like that."

Fun career

In fact, Arkansas quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke said it's rare to find a player that means as much to an entire state.

Wittke's best comparison to Jones' popularity in Arkansas is the folk hero status Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre holds in Wisconsin. Wittke, a Racine, Wis., native, said Jones has become that sort of sports icon in an area that doesn't have pro teams or other major college programs.

That's a hefty load, but Wittke believes it's easy for Jones to handle because of his level-headed personality. Jones certainly doesn't crave the attention, but willingly spends free time signing autographs and mingling with fans.

"What he means to the overall program and what he means to our fans and the people of this state, I think it is something special and unique," Wittke said. "You just don't see an athlete with his type of magnetism and his type of personality come along very often. He has a lot of qualities that allow him to be that type of person. The most endearing one is he really is a humble guy who really doesn't like the attention. The other thing that's striking about it is he's so even keeled.

"That's the thing that makes him a special player."

Hicks believes his teammate will be remembered 20 years from now for the records he broke and the calmness he displayed under pressure. Jones would settle for much less and "wants to be remembered as just a person who had fun playing football."

Steve Jones thought about his son's four-year impact on the program when he recently wandered into an Arkansas merchandise store with his wife. He came across a baseball cap that had the No. 9 imprinted on it.

"It's his senior year and I looked over at my wife and said, 'Maybe I need to buy one and just stick it back somewhere,'" Jones said. "I broke down and bought a No. 9 cap and put it away."

Wittke said that's exactly what Razorbacks fans will have to do with their memories as Jones' final season at Arkansas begins tonight. After three years of watching jaw-dropping plays and electrifying wins, no one knows what the state's rock star has in store for the next 11 games.

But Wittke is sure it'll include something they can remember for years.

"With Matt you never know what to expect," Wittke said. "I guess that's the best way to put it. You never know. You expect the unexpected. But, like I said, we all need to enjoy it each and every day.

"A year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, we'll only have those memories."

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