Still performing like champions

Sun reporter

It's a quiet, uneventful afternoon at Edmondson-Westside High, except for one thing. Dante Jones' cell phone won't stop ringing. And ringing.

And ringing.

Every few minutes, Jones - the football coach at Edmondson and a physical education teacher - apologizes because he has been interrupted in mid-sentence or mid-thought yet again. When it isn't his cell phone, it's his office phone.

Sometimes it's his wife or another coach, but mostly it's current or former players. Even when he turns his phones to silent, someone ends up ducking his head into his office, hoping Jones will have a few words of encouragement, reassurance or guidance. Rarely is his world still for more than a few minutes.

It has been a year since Edmondson won its first state championship in football, a victory over McDonough that, for Jones and the Edmondson-Westside community, had a meaning beyond sports. It was a journey that highlighted Jones' mission to keep his teenage players from being swallowed up by the temptations of the drug game, as well as to steer many of them away from violence and poverty and toward a college education.

That memorable season and the team's run to the state title was chronicled by The Sun in a five-part series, "The Big Game."

The four captains on the 2006 team - Sterling Jones, Kyle Jackson, Tariq Jones and Dionta Cox, whose lives and families were the focus of the series - are still in college and performing well academically.

Every one of the 20 seniors on the 2006 football team graduated from Edmondson and enrolled in college this fall, an impressive number for a school that sends only 35 percent of its students to a four-year college, according to the Maryland State Report Card.

"I still feel the impact of all of it," said Dante Jones, still easily recognizable for his soft, firm voice and shoulder-length dreadlocks. "It inspired our kids, but it also inspired kids around the city. A lot of people understand now that it was about more than just football."

Jones said winning a state title and the attention the school received made a tangible difference, too. College recruiters who were reluctant to offer scholarships to Edmondson players for fear they couldn't handle the academic requirements are showing more interest, Jones said. Nick Speller, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior offensive lineman, recently received a scholarship offer from Syracuse.

"Coaches come talk to me now and they say, 'You have pretty good academics, too,' " Jones said. "It's about our children and our future. [It] gave me a chance to talk to people I wouldn't have been able to talk to otherwise. It had a tremendous impact."

Edmondson did not quite repeat the success it had on the field in 2006, losing this season in the Class 2A quarterfinals to Eastern Tech, but Jones already feels that next year's team, if it continues to mature, could be poised to make another title run.

On to collegeThree of the captains on the 2006 championship team, Sterling Jones, Tariq Jones and Jackson, were members of the Bowie State football team and live in the same campus dorm, while Cox, Dante Jones' nephew, was a member of the football team at St. Augustine College in North Carolina. Each took time away this month from studying for finals to reflect on how their lives have changed in the past year.

For Jackson - the shy, imposing linebacker from a middle-class, two-parent home who dreamed in high school of owning his own business - football success came quickly at Bowie State. He started eight games at middle linebacker, finished second on the team in tackles and was named to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association all-rookie team.

Jackson, who was so focused on earning a scholarship his senior year he broke up with his girlfriend to avoid distractions, said the transition to college life was a challenge, but a smooth one.

"In high school, you've constantly got your coaches and your teacher on your back, making sure you get your work done," Jackson said. "In college, you've got a lot of time on your hands, and you have to keep up with your own work. But it's easier than I thought it would be. I always had good study habits, and I always worked hard in the classroom, so it wasn't a hard adjustment."

For Sterling Jones - the vocal, emotional, charismatic strong safety who grew up in one of the city's more dangerous neighborhoods and dreamed of making his mother, a single parent, proud - it was a year of learning patience. Occasionally hot-headed and easily frustrated, Jones learned to wait his turn on the football field. He started a handful of games, but also humbled himself and tried to help the squad on special teams.

"I went through a stage when I wanted to stop playing football," Jones said. "I was so stressed because I didn't know why I wasn't starting. But [the coaches] just had to grow and feel they could trust me, and once they started trusting me, I started playing more. I've grown a lot."

Making his markSterling, whose mother, Venita, swore she wouldn't let him get a tattoo until he was living on his own, now sports several on each of his shoulders. On his right shoulder is a picture of his Edmondson football helmet, with the words "State Champions" stenciled above it and his old jersey number, 16. On his left shoulder is a portrait of his mother and his sister.

"They're my two guardian angels," Sterling Jones said. "Everything I do is for them. ... I still talk to my mother daily, and I have Coach [Dante Jones] check in on her, too. I miss her."

For Tariq Jones - the ruminative, humble running back who transferred from an Islamic private school, struggled with his self-confidence and eventually carried the Red Storm to a state title - it was a year of little football and plenty of contemplation.

Because the private school he attended in the ninth grade was not accredited, the NCAA didn't grant him eligibility in time for this season. He sat out the year, redshirting, and expects to play in the fall. When he isn't in class, he spends much of his free time playing video games and talking on the phone with friends. His room, which he keeps impeccably clean, has a poster of New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush above his bed for inspiration.

"It was difficult," Tariq Jones said. "It was the first time I haven't played in 10 years. But I got to take a seat and just analyze the game. Next year, I've got to show them why they paying me."

'A transition year'Dionta Cox - the hard-working but undersized defensive back who once wondered if he'd be good enough to play football after high school - didn't have his core group of friends to lean on during his first year of college. Determined to make it on his own, he enrolled at St. Augustine and redshirted this season as a member of the football team.

"It was a transition year for him," said Dante Jones, Cox's uncle. "He went through the same ups and downs any college freshman does. It was a struggle because he's so used to playing. He's a hard worker, but when you redshirt, you can work as hard as you want and you're still redshirting. But he did well in the classroom, and he's excited going into spring ball. ... He always wanted to get away for college, and now he's getting a chance to flap his own wings."

Many players from last year's team made a habit of returning to Baltimore to watch Edmondson play each week. Dante Jones said he feels, in his gut, a few of them might even return to the city to coach someday, helping the cycle of progress to continue.

You cannot put a price, Jones said, on the value of strong, positive male role models in urban communities.

"At 14 years old, you're not looking at all the positive things that can happen for you," Jones said. "That's always going to be the most difficult part of our job, making kids realize their own potential. But the sooner they realize it, the more good things can happen for them."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad