When former Gilman star Cyrus Jones Jr. finished sorting through his 40-plus football scholarships following his senior season, he concluded Alabama was the right place for him.
This time of year, the big game in front of him, is why.
"One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Alabama was to have a chance to play at the highest level and compete for a national championship every year," said Jones, who has made an impact in his freshman season as a return specialist. "I'm not too surprised we're in this position, but it's definitely a blessing and I can't wait to step on the field in Miami."
"It's definitely an unbelievable story," said Cyrus Jones Sr., his father who is also the boys basketball coach at Dunbar. "To continue to have the success after the great year he had at Gilman, to have the opportunity to play at Alabama on that stage and reach the national championship game as a freshman is almost unheard of. I told him he's very fortunate, he's blessed and I told him to enjoy it because it doesn't happen on a regular basis."
After accounting for 2,365 all-purpose yards and 24 touchdowns to lead the Greyhounds to the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship last year, earning The Baltimore Sun's Offensive Player of the Year honors, Jones could have chosen a number of Division I schools and would have likely started immediately for most.
But Alabama, which has won two national titles in the past three years under coach Nick Saban, presented a challenge Jones couldn't pass up. The 5-foot-11 wide receiver has played in 11 of the team's 13 games, catching four passes for 51 yards and getting one carry for 2 yards. On special teams, he has returned a team-high 10 kickoffs for 250 yards and six punts for 61 yards this season. In the Crimson Tide's 32-28 win over Georgia in the SEC championship game on Dec. 1, he ran back four kicks for 89 yards.
"Playing at Alabama, it definitely forces you to play at your highest level because you're always being watched. The coaches always demand the best from you, no matter who you are," Jones said. "Even if you're a freshman, Coach Saban coaches you like you're already a senior. It's not like you're coming in and they're taking it easy on you because you're just getting there. Once I took my first step on campus, there was definitely high expectations, and that goes for everyone."
Jones was back home in Baltimore recently to enjoy Christmas with his family, but, after a four-day stay, he headed back to Alabama to start preparing for the Fighting Irish.
"Throughout the season, I continually gave him words of advice," Cyrus Sr. said. "I always told him to realize what you did to get to this point, but don't be happy with where you are and that you have to continue to work hard at that level and have to earn it."
Cyrus Sr. and Jones' mother, Tomika, attended five games in Tuscaloosa, Ala., this season, as well as the SEC championship game. They will travel with their younger son, Khari, to the national title game.
Dunbar's basketball team was scheduled to face Edmondson on Tuesday in a matchup of two of the Baltimore area's best teams, but the game was moved to the next day so the elder Jones could attend the national championship game with his family.
A three-sport standout at Gilman (he also led the Greyhounds' basketball and outdoor track and field teams to MIAA championships as a senior and was named The Sun's 2011-12 Male Athlete of the Year), Jones said the biggest adjustment to college football is the longer season. At this time last year, he was in the midst of his fourth varsity basketball season at Gilman and on his way to becoming the program's all-time leading scorer.
"With how much longer the season is compared to high school, I'm definitely feeling it now. I would have been done in early November, where now I'm still playing —that's definitely been a big change," he said.
For Jones, any added aches from his first college season are well worth it as he gets set for the big game that is the reason he came to Alabama.
"It's definitely a great challenge, and I'm trying to step up to it as much as I can," he said. "I'll be used pretty much on special teams and try to make plays and be effective when I can, try to make a spark for my team. Just having a role in the championship game is great."
Boys' Latin represented in title game
Boys' Latin will have two former players suit up for Monday's BCS championship game -- one on each side.
Michael Newsome, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound defensive lineman, is a sophomore walk-on at Alabama. The son of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, he's a 2010 graduate of Boys' Latin.
Dennis Mahoney, a 2007 alumnus of the school, is a 6-7, 294-pound offensive lineman at Notre Dame. Also a walk-on, Mahoney is a graduate student in his last year of eligibility.
Both are reserves for their respective teams.
Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.