While in Baltimore to visit Leith Walk Elementary/Middle, former Gilman star Cyrus Jones Jr. expresses disappointment in rookie season with Patriots.
Some day this summer, Cyrus Jones will receive a diamond-encrusted ring coveted by every player in the NFL.
After one professional season, the Baltimore native turned New England Patriots cornerback will receive the same Super Bowl jewelry as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Whether Jones, 23, will wear his prize with pride is a more complicated matter.
Even as he witnessed the pinnacle of team success, achieved in the most remarkable Super Bowl comeback ever, Jones suffered through the most disheartening year of his football life. In a matter of months, he went from the team's top draft pick to persona non grata with Patriots fans, who lashed him for a series of flubbed punt returns. He was embarrassed by his play and felt like a useless bystander during the Patriots' postseason run.
"I'll never take credit for something I don't feel I contributed to," the former Gilman star said this week. "I was part of the team, but I didn't feel a part of it."
Jones made a rare trip to Baltimore on Thursday to visit his old stomping grounds at Leith Walk Elementary/Middle School. He shook hands with Mayor Catherine Pugh, received a proclamation from Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and delivered a message of hope to kids who remind him so clearly of himself.
"I was in their shoes some years ago, and I had a dream to do what I'm doing now," Jones said. "I want them to know that it won't be easy, but they can achieve anything they want to do."
It was a proud moment. Jones had yearned to become a role model since he was in grade school.
"This is just all about a hometown kid making good," said Young, a longtime friend to Jones' parents, Tomika and Cyrus Sr. "I want kids to see what can happen if you stay focused. I want them to see this young man who's still in his 20s, playing on one of the most prominent teams in the world. He did it."
Yet Jones still feels raw from a season that left him hurt and mystified by his inability to tap into the old confidence that carried him through Gilman and a decorated college career at Alabama.
"I honestly felt cursed," he said. "I reached a point where I didn't even want to play. I just didn't have it."
When the Patriots selected Jones in the second round of the 2016 draft, the match seemed perfect — an intelligent, versatile player trained by the most successful coaching staff in college football going to a franchise legendary for getting the most out of intelligent, versatile players.
But after leading the NCAA with four punt-return touchdowns as a senior at Alabama, Jones fumbled five times and averaged just 4.2 yards on 11 punt returns for the Patriots.
His season hit a low point in December, against the Ravens of all teams. With the Patriots leading 23-3 in the third quarter, Jones allowed a punt to bounce off his toe. The Ravens recovered inside New England's 5-yard line and scored rapidly. The game became a nail-biter from there, though the Patriots ultimately won.
Jones was already under fire from fans, and the criticism intensified rapidly.
"What I did this year was not me," he said. "I don't care how anybody tries to sugarcoat it. Yes, I was a rookie. But I feel I should always be one of the best players on the field, no matter where I am."
Jones found it especially galling that his reputation was torpedoed by mistakes he made as a punt returner. He considers cornerback his primary job and felt he played well there in practice and games. But he understands his return ability helped him become a second-round pick.
"It was like a blessing that turned into a curse for me," he said.
Belichick refused to criticize his player publicly, but Jones, who also suffered a knee injury, was active just once after the Ravens game and not at all in the playoffs.
He hopes that one day, he'll grin as he tells his kids about Super Bowl LI and New England's miraculous comeback. He was happy for his friends as he watched it unfold.
"But honestly, it was hell for me," he said. "That's the only way I can describe it. I didn't feel I deserved to be part of anything that was happening with the team. I felt embarrassed that these people probably thought they wasted a pick on me."
When ESPN published a recent feature on players who need a change of scenery, Jones was New England's representative, even though he was the team's top pick just 10 months ago.
He'd like to say he ignores all the naysayers.
"But honestly, it pisses me off," he acknowledged. "You can say shut it out or don't listen, but I know people are talking, and it's negative. I'm not a dumb guy. It definitely affects me. What it should do is piss me off in a way that I want to shut them all up."
For all his pained words about last season, Jones said the experience did not break him. He has leaned hard on his parents — his dad is the boys basketball coach at Dunbar — and on other longtime mentors. They've urged him to get out of his own head, where he tends to beat himself up for his poor performances.
"This kind of experience can break you," his mother said. "So my whole thing was, bend but don't break. You have to have a short memory."
Jones is already planted at an offseason performance center in New Jersey, where he's determined to get his mind and body right for 2017. He even canceled a planned vacation with his parents.
"No such thing as an offseason for me," he said. "I didn't earn it."
He endured a more modest version of his current predicament as a freshman at Alabama, when the Crimson Tide won the national championship but he felt he contributed little. From that relative low point, he rose to become a key contributor for the most dominant college program in recent memory.