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Nebraska strongman easily carries brother's hopes


MIAMI -- In his four years at the University of Nebraska, Donta Jones has made his reputation as much in the weight room as on the football field. A 6-foot-2, 215-pound outside linebacker, Jones has either won or shared the team's prestigious "Lifter of the Year" award two times.

"Pound for pound," assistant coach Tony Samuel said this week, Donta is the strongest guy on the team."

Said safety John Reece: "If you look at Donta, you wouldn't think he's that strong. But he's a monster. When he hits you, you feel it."

There might be a reason for this show of strength. Ever since he left La Plata, Md., for Lincoln, Jones has been playing for two people: himself and his older brother Thomas, a former defensive back at Howard University.

An all-conference player and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference defensive player of the year as a sophomore and junior, Thomas Jones saw his career ended by torn ankle ligaments before his senior year. He later was denied a medical ** redshirt for a fifth season when it was discovered he played briefly as a freshman.

"He was really looking forward to playing his senior year, and possibly going on to the NFL," Donta Jones said. "He got a raw deal. But he carried the torch to where I would get a look [from college scouts] and now I'm trying to carry the flame for both of us."

Jones, a redshirt junior who starts for the No. 2-ranked Cornhuskers, hopes that flame won't be extinguished when Nebraska (11-0) takes on top-ranked Florida State (11-1) tomorrow night in the Federal Express Orange Bowl. And neither does his older brother.

But what Thomas Jones would like to see even more is his little brother playing in the NFL, joining some of his former Howard teammates, Jimmie Johnson and Sean Vanhorse, in what Donta Jones calls "The League."

"I didn't fulfill my dream," said Thomas Jones, now a youth correctional officer in Alexandria, Va. "But it would be the greatest thing in my life to see my little brother run out on the field one day in an NFL uniform. That would make me proud."

For now, Donta Jones' big brother will be happy to see him run out on the field at the Orange Bowl tomorrow night -- and maybe run into Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward a couple of times. In what was the breakthrough game of his career, Jones had a sack among his five tackles in last year's 27-14 loss to the Seminoles here.

Jones hopes the same opportunities arise this time, with a different result. It would certainly be a happy ending to what has been, from an individual standpoint, a frustrating season for Jones. After spraining an ankle in Nebraska's season opener, Jones missed four games and is just now at full strength.

"I came back to practice too soon," said Jones, who finished the season with 25 tackles and one sack, while being credited with 10 quarterback hurries. "I should have sat out a couple of more weeks. I was disappointing, but I still have another year to look forward to."

It's not just his strength that has helped Jones become a starter at a school known for turning out NFL-caliber linebackers. When the Cornhuskers switched to a 4-3 alignment before last year's Orange Bowl, the move was designed to improve the speed and athleticism of the defense.

Though Jones might not yet be in the same category as Nebraska All-American Trev Alberts, his 4.5 speed is impressive. And though he doesn't often get to use it on the football field, so is his reputed 38-inch vertical leap. He has broken two backboards during pickup basketball games on campus.

"The first one I cracked, I caught the ball coming off the rim and just two-handed it back in," said Jones. "The glass went everywhere. I had to pick it out of my hair, I had cuts on my arm. The second time was during the summer. When you do something like that, it kind of gets everybody fired up."

That, too, is part of Jones' personality. As laid-back as he seems, Jones has a habit of picking up balls after Nebraska has recovered fumbles and, once he's out of the officials' view, spiking the ball in celebration. "He even does that in practice," said Reece. "We're trying to get him to stop doing that."

But the exuberance Jones shows on the field pales in comparison to what he demonstrates at the Pentecostal church in Charles County where his father, Thomas Sr., is the minister. Donta has been playing drums in the church's choir band since he was 12.

"When he was about 11, I had bought him a guitar," said Thomas Sr., who along with several family members and friends was expected to arrive by van here sometime today. "Then we were watching one of his brother's games and he saw the drummer at halftime. The guitar has been in the closet ever since."

Said Donta Jones: "We really get fired up in church."

The elder Jones stressed the value of education to his two sons, and threatened his own kind of ineligibility if their grades slipped. He once prevented Thomas Jr. from playing basketball at McDonough High School, but he never had that problem with Donta.

Admittedly, Donta Jones learned more from his brother's struggles than he did from his successes. When his injury ended his dream, Thomas Jones Jr. decided to help troubled youth. He also is an assistant freshman coach at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria.

"My brother has given me a pretty good perspective on things," said Donta Jones, who is expected to get his degree in business administration this summer. "He's shown me what it takes. When I come back next year, I can focus on one thing."

Fulfilling the dream. For two.

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