By Harry Minium
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Terry Jones repeats the same ritual before every Old Dominion football game and will do so again when he is warming up for Monday’s Myrtle Beach Bowl game against Tulsa.
He writes the names of the most important people in his life on his right arm sleeve and will wear their names throughout the game. Headphones cover his ears, but no music is playing, as he focuses not only on getting ready to play, but on those for whom is playing for.
He kneels in the end zone and prays just before kickoff in silence for everyone he loves, those still with us and those who have died. Invariably, his mind wanders back to a day almost a decade ago filled with indescribable grief.
The Jones family was headed to Disney World to escape inner-city Baltimore for a week of fun and fantasy. A large group of parents, kids, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles left Maryland in a caravan for the 14-hour drive.
It’s a close-knit family that has its own church and does every vacation and every holiday together. His mother, Giselle, is an ordained preacher.
Terry Jones and his older brother, Vlezqurez, were riding in the second row of a van, and Terry could not have been happier. He was set to spend a week with his older brother, whose nickname was “Wink.” Terry simply looked up to Wink.
“He looked at his brother almost as he was the parent,” Giselle said. “What we said didn’t really go. His big brother had the last word. They had such a tight bond.”
The family’s nightmare began shortly after they crossed into South Carolina. Vlezqurez had been asleep for hours and didn’t seem to want to wake up. Terry thought his brother was playing a practical joke.
But then his father, Terry Sr., got concerned and reached back and touched his son’s face. His head slumped and fell to the side.
Vlezqurez wasn’t sleeping. He was in a diabetic coma.
They were able to hail a police officer, who helped lead them to a hospital. Emergency room doctors worked on him frantically.
“But by the time we got him there, he was already gone,” said his mother.
Terry had just turned 11 and didn’t really understand what was going on until a doctor came out and talked with the family and informed them his brother had died.
Like so many young people who’ve suffered immense loss, Terry Jones wears his grief on his arms. His brother’s name is tattooed on his right arm, with a clock showing his time of death and roses. “NLMB,” which stands for Never Leave My Brother, is on his left arm along with a broken heart.
His heart was indeed broken, and the loss sent him into a long slide downhill.
“I started getting in trouble in school a lot,” he said. “I was a problem child. I feel like I made it harder on my parents.
“I was just going crazy.”
Terry Jones said football, his two years at ODU and the desire to make his brother proud finally helped turn him around. So, especially, did the support of his parents, whom he said dealt with his anger patiently and lovingly.
Terry Jones with older brother Vlezquerez
He enters Monday’s game not only as a starter, but a team leader and a Dean’s List student, a far cry from where he was even just a few short months ago.
“He’s one of the major success stories that our program has had in our first couple of years,” coach Ricky Rahne. “I’m so proud of the effort he’s made.”
It was not an easy path for Jones, whose story is one of a young man’s determination to overcome tragedy and all that’s right with college athletics.
Jones was raised on Baltimore’s East Side in a neighborhood where crime became such a problem that his family left a home where they had lived for more than a decade and moved north of the city.
“The crime, the shootings were getting a little too close to home,” Giselle said. “I told my husband it was time for us to move.”
Terry Jones has searing memories of his years there.
“It was crazy,” he said. “My neighborhood was like a red zone. People getting shot, people getting robbed.
“As a kid, you don’t pay it no mind. You just go outside and go play basketball or take your bike and ride downtown.”
He said he’s had six friends die, but none was more traumatic than the loss of his best friend, Nijuan Barbour. He lived next door to the Jones family with his mom and grandparents.
Barbour was shot in September of 2019 and was the 251st murder victim in Baltimore that year. Police reported that he was not the intended target but was instead, an innocent bystander. He was an only child.
“They were porch buddies,” Giselle said. “They would sit on the porch and talk for hours.
“They remained good friends even after we moved.”
He was shot and killed in front of the family home when Terry was a freshman at ODU.
Terry had Nijuan’s name tattooed under his right ear.
So many of Terry’s friends took the wrong path. He says that’s a result of so many of them being isolated in a city where crime, drugs and gangs sometimes rule the streets. He was fortunate to live with a family that took vacations and exposed him to the outside world and with two parents who loved him.
“A lot of my friends are locked up. My best friend is locked up now,” he said.
“I had to stay away from that, from people I care about. So many of them don’t realize there’s a whole world outside of Baltimore.
“Some people never get out of the city. They think what’s happening here is all that exists. They get caught up in it.”
Life for his parents has hardly been easy, either. His mother suffered from a rare disease that caused her to become partially paralyzed. She walks with two canes, but when she has to go more than a few dozen steps, she does so in a wheelchair.
“Terry never got to see me in a normal state,” she said.
Both Terry Sr. and Giselle suffered immensely when their son died. It is normal for you to lose your grandparents, your parents and perhaps even a sibling. It is not normal to lose a child.
The grief parents feel can’t be understood by those who haven’t walked in their shoes.
His parents went into counseling with young Terry, but for the most part, put their grief aside and plowed all of their efforts into their only living child.
“When something like that happens, as a parent, when you still have other children, you try to protect them and nurture them and try to make sure they’re OK,” Giselle said. “You don’t begin your grief or mourning. You’re focused on your other children.
“In some ways, I think we still haven’t fully been through the grieving process. It still hurts so much.”
Terry Sr. has an especially close bond with his youngest son.
“Terry was a premature baby,” Giselle said. “He turned blue three times.
“When he finally came home from the hospital, I don’t think his dad slept for the entire first month.
“They’ve been close ever since. I remember the first time Terry went out of town. He went on a field trip for a week. When he came back home, you would think he’d been gone for a year.
“His dad snuggled with him and kept saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re home.’ He loves his son so much. I don’t see how a father could love his son any more.”
Terry Sr. said it broke his heart when Terry approached him at the hospital in South Carolina.
“I’m the guy who fixes things around the house,” he said. “My son came to me and said, ‘Can you fix my brother?’
“That made my heart sink because I couldn’t fix that.
“His grief comes and goes. I know there are times when his friends walk around a corner and he expects his brother to be with them.”
Terry Jones Sr. works in a warehouse. It’s a backbreaking job and his son respects his dad not just for working hard, but for his dedication to his family.
“My Pops, that’s what I call him, he never missed a game of mine,” Terry Jones said. “He was there for every game I played.
“He was always the loudest person there. He still is. We’ve got a big stadium, but he’s going to let everyone know he’s there. My mother, too. She’s just as loud.
“My mom couldn’t be at my games, but I can’t imagine having a better mother. She means the world to me.”
His father preached academics first to his son. Football won’t be there forever, but your education will, he said.
As with most teenagers, it was a message that at first didn’t resonate with Terry Jones.
No one from the family has graduated from college. Mergenthaler Vo Tech, a high school with a powerful football program, has become the family school. As the name implies, no one leaves Mergenthaler Vo Tech without a trade skill, but it does not necessarily prepare you for college.
Terry graduated from Mergenthaler Vo Tech as a carpenter. While in high school, he built his mom a stool, with her name engraved on it, for her to step on to get into bed. He is licensed and certified to do carpentry work.
But Terry had the foresight to realize he could do more than work construction after an uncle took him aside and told him about college football scholarships.
“At the time, I didn’t realize there was such a thing as a football scholarship,” Terry said.
“I realized then that I had to change things. One day at a time, I started making changes. I stopped getting in trouble inside and outside at school.”
He took two summer school courses before his senior year in order to meet NCAA eligibility guidelines. He had to make “A” grades in both classes, and he did.
He didn’t attend any camps that summer, the usual way to get recruited, and was unrated as a prospect. ODU was the only Division I offer he received.
He enrolled at ODU in July of 2019. But his path was far from set. He was still, as he said, “a problem child.”
Remington Rebstock remembers Jones coming into his office shortly after he was named assistant defensive coordinator and safeties coach in December of 2019.
ODU’s previous coaching staff left after the 2019 season.
“I could tell he was trying to figure me out,” Rebstock said. “Terry’s got a lot of reason not to trust people.
“I let him know I was someone who really cared. It took time, but those walls were broken down. We built a trust, a bond.”
As the bond became closer, he opened up about his childhood.
“It’s astonishing what that kid has overcome,” Rebstock said. “He had so many opportunities to get knocked off his path.”
Alex Rebstock, Remington’s wife, recalls her husband coming home at night and talking about Jones.
“When we first got here, he was wracking his brain,” she said. “He was trying to figure out how to break through with this kid.”
Rahne has an open-door policy in his office and Jones stopped by frequently to talk. Jones said that made a huge impression on him.
“I haven’t been around other college football programs, but I don’t think most head coaches have close relationships with every player,” he said. “But coach Rahne, he’s different. Coach Rahne, he’s my guy.
“You can go in and talk to him about anything. Not just football, but anything.”
ODU’s football program is different in another respect, too. Families of coaches, including their kids, are welcome inside the L.R. Hill Sports Complex as well as on the practice field. Few coaches have such a policy for family members and Terry Jones said that made an impact not just on him, but on his teammates.
“Family is everything to our coaches,” he said. “You see them with their kids. You play with their kids. It’s really something.”
Jones looks at Alex Rebstock as sort of a second mother on campus. She bakes snacks before every game and hands them out to all the safeties. Jones and the others go to the Rebstock home frequently for dinner.
Alex was at first timid to engage with athletes. She was a star softball player at Kansas and knows the boundaries that usually exist between players and families of coaches.
Tattoo honoring his brother
Remington encouraged her to engage with players and she does so not enthusiastically. As the team prepares to board a bus for a game, she always hands out cookies.
“Terry always hurries up his walk so that he can be first,” she said. “I don’t know whether it’s to get more cookies or be the first to get a hug.
“But it’s very, very humbling to me.”
It still took a long time for the “problem child” to turn things around.
“Terry was always going to play hard and practice hard and he loved football, but he didn’t always want to do things the way we wanted them to get done, in terms of small details that make the difference between winning and losing,” Rahne said.
“His passion, which is so evident on the football field, could also be a detriment.
“Quite frankly, we didn’t see eye to eye for a long time.”
Something clicked with Jones during spring practice earlier this year. Suddenly, the guy who was putting off classwork until the final minute began to turn in work early.
He was truly studying the playbook and listening, quietly, when coaches spoke.
He played mostly on special teams in ODU’s first six games but has started five of the last six games and emerged not only as one of the team’s best defensive backs, but also a team leader.
Jones is sixth on the team in tackling with 51 and has a blocked kick.
“I don’t know if I’m prouder of anyone on our team than I am of Terry,” Rahne said. “He’s become one of our most dependable players and a guy who’s not afraid to be a vocal leader for our team.”
Morgan Sumner, an ODU academic adviser who works closely with Jones, said the change he’s undergone has been breathtaking.
Terry Sr. with his son, Terry, holding a championship trophy
“If you talked to Terry when he first got here and Terry now, it’s like night and day,” he said. “I’m inspired by this Terry. He wants to get his master’s degree. That wasn’t a goal of his when he came here.
“When we first met him, we knew he was going to be a tough cookie to crack because he doesn’t show initiative.
“But now he does. I think he wants to make his mom proud. And at some point, he realized I can do football and school at the same time and be successful at both.”
Rebstock said “Terry is telling the younger guys to go to class, to go to the tutors. If they’re late, he’s telling them to be on time. It’s really cool to see that kid grow and become a man.”
Giselle said she’s seen a big difference in her son.
“He’s in a brotherhood at ODU,” she said. “I think that really helped him, especially around the holidays and Wink’s birthday. He has been open with them and talked about his brother.
“He told me that one time when he was sad some of his teammates came by to be with him. It’s made us feel so good that he’s developing those bonds.”
Terry Jones said he’s even surprised himself.
“Football is one of the things that kept my head on right,” he said. “I had so much family support and I’m so grateful for my mom and dad.
“But I never thought I’d be doing stuff like I’m doing now. ODU changed my life.”
His parents won’t be at Monday’s game. They try to make one home game a month and simply couldn’t get to Myrtle Beach. “But we’ll be watching and making so much noise at home,” Giselle said.
Much has been made of the dramatic turnaround ODU made this season. After going 1-11 in 2019 and not playing in 2020 because of the pandemic, the Monarchs lost six of their first seven games.
They won five in a row to qualify for a bowl bid.
And while he’s proud of that comeback, Rahne said he’s prouder of the how so many players like Jones have overcome obstacles off the field.
“One of the special things about our players is that so many of them have been through so much hardship,” he said.
“Everyone mentions the 1-11 record and the 1-6 start. But those hardships can’t compare with what so many of our guys have had to battle through.
“I think Terry’s story speaks to the power of intercollegiate athletics and speaks to the power of an Old Dominion education. A lot of people want to talk about all of the bad things going on in college athletics. But there are a lot of good things, happening, too.
“When I talk about Terry, I talk about him like he’s my son. That’s how much I think of him.”
Minium worked 39 years at The Virginian-Pilot before coming to ODU in 2018. He covers all ODU athletic teams for odusports.com Follow him on Twitter @Harry_MiniumODU, Instagram @hbminium1 or email firstname.lastname@example.org