Here's a story written a few days before the 2011 SEC Championship...
ATHENS - Ben Jones' father has always been on his mind during his long, four-year journey to the SEC Title Game.
The line was very long. But people were seeing something they don't normally see – a player making a name for himself late in the recruiting process.
Ben Jones was chopping his way through every prospect lined up in front of him in May of 2007 at a Scout.com combine at Georgia Tech. A slew of big-name prospects, including highly-touted A.J. Harmon and Toby Jackson, just couldn't do anything to get around or through Jones.
Jones' passion made scouts giggle – a sort of strange combination of: "Wow, this is happening." And "Who is this guy?"
It was a sight to see.
Ben Jones wasn't a well-known four-year Georgia starter at the time. No, he was far from that indeed. He was an unheard of three-star prospect from the middle of nowhere in Alabama with offers from lowly Troy and Air Force. No one else seemed interested in him – certainly not Alabama, which was only a short hour drive from his home in Centerville.
"It was really after the Scout.com camp at Georgia Tech. That's really when it took off," Vickie Jones remembered of her son's recruiting arc.
"Ben called me on the way home from the camp, and he thought he had a good camp. He was excited. My brother in law had already called me saying that he's was whipping everyone."
The trip to Atlanta for the combine was seen as a necessity for Jones, who hadn't played spring football going into his senior season because his high school, Bibb County, was making a run into the Alabama state baseball playoffs with Ben playing first base. Jones not playing spring football did little to help his limited exposure with college coaches. That's the reason the camp circuit would be so critical to his recruiting.
"Ben knew that he would need to do well at some of these camps to get his name out there and get people interested in him," she said. "I really don't know what would have happened had he not gone to Atlanta that day. I think that camp really did make a difference. He did have interest from other schools, but I think they wanted to see how he would matchup against bigger players."
His performance at Georgia's camp a few weeks later wasn't surprising to anyone who saw Jones perform earlier in the year. In fact, Jones' camp performance at the Mark Richt Camp was pretty much exactly the same as his Scout.com Combine performance earlier in the year. This time, however, Richt was there to see it first hand. Richt had been at the Scout.com Combine at Tech, but was only there to see his son Jon compete – not to run the camp. In Athens Richt was there to make sure that if Georgia offered Jones that he was as good as he looked in Atlanta.
"Line them up Coach G," Richt said to defense line coach Rodney Garner, whose campers were trying their best to knock Jones off his pedestal.
One by one defensive linemen took their shot against Jones and lost. Jones did his usual high-energy psych out celebration before he'd have to go again – without rest. Defensive linemen didn't know what to make of Jones – some seemed hesitant to line up against him. Eventually, about ten defensive linemen into the drill, Jones lost – which set off a huge celebration for the young defender who beat him.
"Relax," Richt said with a smile. "That's your first turn – it's his tenth."
After the camp Jones got an offer to play at Georgia – the first big offer of his recruitment.
"We came home from the Georgia camp on Saturday and we went to Alabama on Monday," Vickie Jones said. "But I knew from talking to him on the way back from Georgia that he wanted to go to Georgia. They had a lot of young linemen, and he thought he would play early at Georgia. But he told the coaches at Alabama that he wouldn't commit before coming there to camp."
Jones held to his word – he didn't commit to Georgia after the Mark Richt Camp. He wanted to compete at Alabama, too, and see if the Tide would offer him. After all, Jones had promised Alabama that he would wait.
See, it was hard to escape the shadow of Alabama for Jones – he'd grown up in the heart of Tide country. His brother was on track to play baseball for the Tide. Alabama was all around Jones, and as a native the state will always be his home.
Jones went to Alabama – performed, but didn't get an offer from the Tide. Shortly thereafter he committed to play for the Bulldogs.
"I left the final choice up to Ben. He sat down and made a list of pros and cons for each team. The only negative for Georgia was the distance of travel for me and my parents. But I told Ben that I didn't mind making the trip – I told him that wasn't a problem," Vickie Jones remembered.
"I hope you are not calling me to let me know that you have committed to Georgia," Tide offensive line coach Joe Pendry told Jones after he'd picked up the call. Alabama was set to offer Jones a scholarship, but it was too little too late – Jones was headed to Athens.
Tide fans were critical of their coaching staff's strange recruiting strategy for Jones, but it might not have mattered.
"Even if Alabama had offered him earlier I don't think it would have made a big difference," Vickie Jones said.
Jones' heart had always been with Georgia – likely because that's where his late father's heart was, too.
Ben Jones' father Steve passed away when he was ten years old. He never got to watch his son play football in college. He didn't get to witness Ben struggle to get noticed until late in the recruiting calendar. He wasn't there to see his son play in his first college football game – or to watch him get his first start for his beloved Bulldogs. Ben has risen to be a captain of the Bulldogs – something his father is almost certainly most proud of when he looks down from above.
"My dad was a godly man," Jones said. "He always put his family first – even though he had three businesses. That was big to me because I'd go to work with him some days. I saw how hard he worked, and how he communicated with people. He treated everyone the same, and that's what I try to do. No matter if you are the wealthiest man or the low man on the totem pole – I'm going to treat you the same."
Vickie Jones remembered that young Ben knew what had happened, but said that no one knew what would happen as a result of the death of her husband.
"Ben was in fourth grade. He understood about death, but I don't think anyone would foresee what effect it would have on his life. At the time it was devastating – particularly for a child because they depend on their parents so much. And his father spent so much time with him. Ben would go with his brother to work with their father. They spent a lot of time together. But I don't think anyone could fully understand."
Steve Jones spent time with his sons – equipping them with backpacks as they roamed the forests of central Alabama. Steve Jones started and ran multiple companies. He'd gone to the University of Georgia and gotten his forestry degree – finishing up his last two years there with his new wife Vickie. The Joneses then moved to Bibb County, Alabama, which is known for logging, chipping and other forestry-related industries.
Steve Jones thrived in Centerville, Alabama. He worked on forestry planning, land management, harvesting trees and chipping trees. Forestry was in his blood, and it was all around him in Bibb County. He also took a big interest in both of his sons' development – coaching Ben and his brother before he passed away.
Young Ben, always big and therefore an offensive lineman, had been number 60 his entire time playing football – including when his father coached him.
"The last year his father was alive he coached Ben," Vickie said.
Steve Jones' death put the chance to play at Georgia in sharper view for Ben. His father had always watched his alma mater play on TV. If the Bulldogs were playing Steve Jones had the TV on watching them. Vickie and Steve were both Georgia natives having met one another in high school in Thomasville. Their Georgia roots have always been strong.
But growing up in Centerville, Alabama – only a short drive from Tuscaloosa – Ben didn't see many players from around Bibb County play football at Georgia. The concept of playing out of state was difficult for most form around his home to imagine.
"I think he grew up thinking that he wouldn't have a chance to play at Georgia – most people from our area don't play for Georgia," Vickie Jones said.
The chance to live out a "dream" was too much for Ben to pass up.
"Ben has really enjoyed his time at Georgia," Vickie Jones said. "He loves Georgia. He's made tons of friends outside of football, too. I think he likes it even more than he thought he might. I don't think he knew what to expect."
Many people who know Ben Jones don't know what to expect from him from time to time. Jones' passion for Georgia can be summed up with a rather strange photo. Following Georgia's upset win over Georgia Tech in 2009 Ben Jones made the cover of many newspapers and the cover of this magazine with a huge piece of sod from Bobby Dodd Stadium in his mouth.
Jones felt Georgia Tech's destruction of Georgia's hallowed hedges was uncalled for in 2008 after Tech's first win in eight years. Tech's stadium is limited in terms of horticulture, so Jones did the only thing he could do – he dug up some of the turf in the end zone at Georgia Tech and put it in his mouth like he was taking home a prize.
"It was Ben – you never know what to expect from him," Vickie Jones said. "He gets real excited during football. To me, that was just him being excited to win. People over here, when they saw the pictures of him they said: ‘That's just Ben.'"
Ben Jones wanted to honor his late father Steve by wearing the number 60 his final season at Georgia. It was the last number he'd worn when his father was alive. It would be Jones' tribute to the person most likely the reason he was playing with Silver Britches on each Saturday.
When Clint Boling, who wore number 60 the first three years of Jones' career, heard of what Jones was doing he called him.
"Why didn't you tell me that before your final year?" Boling, a close friend of Jones', said.
Jones would have none of it.
"It could wait," Jones told Boling. "As long as I wore a Georgia jersey it doesn't matter."
"He knew he would have to wait to wear it," Vickie Jones said. "But he was glad to have the chance to do it."
The long journey to Athens will end this winter for Jones, but his mother thinks the jersey he wears each week is only one way of uniting father and son. The other is the institution that is Georgia itself. It is another connection that will not be broken between Ben and Steve Jones.
"Maybe going through the hard things have made him as tough as he is, and his father is probably the reason he went to Georgia," she said. "That's the reason he had a passion for Georgia – when his father passed away I think he became a bigger Georgia fan. It was a way to honor his father."