When Cyrus Jones Jr. was 8 or 9 years old, everyone around him thought he would be a basketball player.
A gifted athlete learning sports from a father who played basketball on Dunbar's last national championship team in 1992 and then at West Virginia? Of course, he would play basketball.
At 2, he toddled around the West Virginia court before games chasing the ball and trying to emulate his father, Cyrus Jones Sr., who now coaches the Poets.
"Naturally I gravitated toward basketball, because he was a player and a coach," said Jones Jr., now a senior at Gilman. "Football wasn't really my favorite sport until I was 9 or 10. Up till then, we used to play one-on-one basketball. Of course, I would lose all the time. I was always kind of advanced athletically for my age. I could take the ball between my legs when I was 3 and dribble. I was advanced because I was around him."
At 5, Jones Jr. started playing organized basketball, football and baseball, but the wide-open nature of football, a sport that showcased all of his natural gifts and his athletic IQ, finally took hold. Initially a running back, he was always one of the fastest players, eventually emerging as a threat running, receiving and returning.
It's those skills that have led Jones to tonight's Under Armour All-America Game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. During the game — which will be televised live on ESPN at 7:30 — he plans to announce where he will play football in college. He is expected to choose either Alabama or Virginia Tech, although Ohio State, Auburn and Maryland also rank in his top 5.
"I don't really know how football took over," said Jones Jr., who is rated the No. 33 recruit in the nation by ESPNU. "I was always kind of an aggressive kid and physical and that's the more physical sport of the three. There's just something about football. When I'm out there, it's just better than anything else."
Once he committed to the sport, he was on a fast track that's still rolling, a track he hopes will eventually take him to the NFL.
This fall, Jones Jr. was the big-play guy for the No. 1 Greyhounds, scoring on a 97-yard punt return with three minutes to go to beat No. 2 Calvert Hall during the regular season and then scoring all of his team's points in two overtimes — two touchdowns and the decisive conversion run — to beat the Cardinals in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship game.
Selected as The Baltimore Sun’s Offensive Player of the Year and the Gatorade Maryland Player of the Year, he totaled 2,365 yards and scored 24 touchdowns this season. Gilman coach Biff Poggi called him the best player he has ever coached.
Poggi had so much confidence in the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Jones Jr.'s ability to make good decisions that after the game-winning punt return against Calvert Hall in October the coach said, "He has no rules. All he has to do is come in his uniform. That's all that we require."
As a sophomore, Jones Jr. showed he could already play with the best of them when he ran a late-game kickoff back for a touchdown to beat Bear Creek (Colorado).
To his father, that play showed Jones Jr.'s great potential in the sport. Even though he excelled at basketball and baseball too, it was clear by then that football would be his future.
"Gilman was winning the whole game and Bear Creek ended up scoring and taking the lead," Jones Sr. said. "They kicked it off to Gilman and he ran the ball about 80 yards for the touchdown. That right there said a lot in reference to where his career was actually going. That was his first highlight tape."
The following year, Jones Jr. made the U.S. Air Force Junior All-America team, which his father said triggered his national reputation and sparked loads of college interest, culminating in more than 40 scholarship offers.
Although Jones Sr., whose Dunbar boys are ranked No. 3, certainly would have enjoyed seeing his son follow in his basketball footsteps, he had no problem with him taking his talents to the gridiron.
"I would say back when he was playing somewhere between 7 and 9, that's where we really started to see his ability athletically with football," Jones Sr. said. "I actually thought baseball would be his primary sport. He was a great baseball player, but for some reason, he didn't really have as much love for the game and decided to focus more so on football."
Even though he didn't pick basketball, Jones Jr. credits his father with nurturing an interest in sports that gave him the opportunity to excel in whichever one he chose. He still plays basketball for the Greyhounds but hung up his baseball mitt to run track.
From playing with the stuffed balls he had in his crib to making a toddler's effort to emulate his father's home workouts to going one-on-one with his dad (who still wins), Jones Jr. took it all in. One of his earliest memories is watching his dad play college basketball.
"I remember just watching him and being around his teammates," Jones Jr. said. "Without him, I don't know what I would be doing now. He kick-started everything, just being around him and taking his love for basketball first and getting introduced to sports as a whole. That's how it started, just having fun."
In addition to his talents, Jones Jr. has a strong self assurance that also helps him succeed on the field and off — where he has a 3.1 GPA. Through the years, his parents have instilled in him the need to work hard, something he learned on the field at about 12, when he started to meet other athletes with similar talent.
"I think that's when the light bulb went on that he couldn't just go through the motions anymore," his father said. "He really started realizing this is what I've got to do and he continued to work."
He's still working to excel at each level he reaches and is looking forward to getting on the field in the Under Armour game.
"This is a great week," said Jones Jr., who has been practicing in St. Petersburg since Sunday. "Very few times do you get a chance to get out there with that level of competition and have fun and meet new people, meet guys and develop relationships with people you're probably going to play with and against in college and if you make it to the NFL. It's a great time to enjoy everything. It's a big game but I'm just going to go out there and have fun."