Cyrus Jones Sr. still remembers the curious and disapproving looks, and the murmurs he heard whenever his young son threw a fit.
Sometimes, it was a missed shot or a botched play that sent the boy over the edge. Losing a game – basketball, football, baseball, whatever Cyrus Jr. was into that day – almost always did the trick.
"Some people on the outside couldn't understand. 'Why is he crying? Why does he want the ball all the time?'" Cyrus Sr. said. "Now, hopefully they can see why."
Even now, after starring at Gilman, after winning two national championships at Alabama and as he stands on the cusp of an NFL career, Cyrus Jones Jr. still laments the losses more than he celebrates the victories. The 5-foot-10, 200-pound East Baltimore native carries around perceived slights, reveling in each one he has already silenced, and relishing the ones he will get a chance to answer soon.
You think I'm too small to play cornerback in the NFL. You think I'll struggle covering slot receivers in the pros because I didn't in college.
"I always feel like I'm getting overlooked and not getting the respect," Jones said in a phone interview from Buffalo Niagara International airport last week after he completed a pre-draft visit with the Bills. "There are plenty of coaches saying that if I was an inch or two taller, I'd be a first-round pick. It hasn't affected me to this point, but it is what it is. I know what type of player that I am and what I can do. If you ask me, I'm the best corner in the draft. That's just how I carry myself."
Jones, a three-year starter at Alabama and one of the nation's most electrifying return specialists last year, says he's been told he'll likely go in the second round of the three-day draft, which starts on April 28. Most pundits project him as a third- or early fourth-round pick, but acknowledge that his punt return ability – he had four touchdown returns last season for the Crimson Tide – could thrust him higher.
"He's a really talented guy," said Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, who watched Jones work out at the Ravens' local pro day this month. "He had a good week at the Senior Bowl. He can return punts. He's probably best suited as a guy who can play outside or inside as a corner. He's tested very well. He's a smart kid and he's a talent."
Before his games at Alabama, Jones wrote "Baltimore" and its 410 area code on his wrist tape. It's only fitting that as he prepares for the draft and the realization of a childhood dream, Jones has been working out in the city.
"I think I represent the city to the fullest," Jones said. "Coming from Baltimore, most kids tend to have a different swagger about themselves, a different type of confidence. I just feel like we go out and play with a chip on our shoulders, especially on the football field. At Alabama, not a lot of people respect Maryland football or up-north football. I took it as an opportunity to go out there and represent where I'm from."
Jones credits his parents for teaching him to always go hard and earn respect. Cyrus Jones Sr. has coached the fabled boys' basketball team at Dunbar for 14 years. He's been around plenty of talented kids and he was an accomplished athlete himself, having played basketball for West Virginia.
In his son, he quickly recognized a talent and competitive spirit that belied his age. Cyrus Jr. followed his father everywhere; if Cyrus Sr. were on a basketball court, Cyrus Jr. would stand to the side of the court and imitate whatever dad was doing.
Kids weren't supposed to start playing youth football until age 6. However, Cyrus Jr. began when he was 4. When he was 7, Cyrus Jr. was playing with 9- and 10-year olds – and thriving.
"He always wanted to be the best and finish first in everything that he did," Cyrus Sr. said. "Just being here and seeing a lot of negligent things, how a lot of youth have to try and overcome all of this adversity, it really motivated him to make sure that he took advantage of every opportunity that came his way. He experienced success at an early age and it just continued on. It was great for him to experience that, but at the same time, it made it harder for him to handle any type of failure."
A quick study
As a senior at Gilman, Jones helped the Greyhounds to MIAA A Conference championships in football, basketball and track and field. In track, he won two individual running titles. In basketball, he became Gilman's all-time leading scorer with 1,734 points. In football, he played five positions, scored 25 total touchdowns in his final season and stockpiled scholarship offers from just about every top program in the country. In the classroom, he garnered recognition as a national merit scholar.
"He's the best athlete that we ever had," said Biff Poggi, the former Gilman football coach. "He could have played point guard at a lot of [colleges]."
Jones was a wide receiver and part-time return man in his freshman season at Alabama, but following the 2013 campaign, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban called Poggi with a proposition and a prediction.
Saban wanted to move Jones to cornerback, where he believed the player would develop into an NFL prospect.
Content with still carrying the ball on returns, Jones welcomed the switch. But for perhaps the only time in his athletic career, Jones played without confidence in his first year at cornerback. His junior year went smoother, despite a painful hip injury that required surgery. As a senior, he intercepted two passes and was an all Southeastern Conference cornerback, regularly matching up with opponents' top receivers.
"He certainly experienced some growing pains, but he proved to be a solid player – very dependable," said Phil Savage, the former Ravens and Cleveland Browns executive who is a radio analyst for the Crimson Tide. "His confidence level as a corner and a returner really grew as a player this year. You could see it tangibly."
The pre-draft process has been equal parts exhausting and exhilarating for Jones. Last week he visited three teams – the Bills, New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers – and he's met or worked out in front of representatives from just about every team in the league, he said.
The Buffalo visit was particularly memorable because he spent a day and a half with former Raven Ed Reed, now an assistant defensive backs coach for the Bills.
"He was one of the guys that I identified with as a kid," Jones said. "I grew up idolizing him on the football field and I'm sitting down having dinner with him. This game of football has definitely provided me with some great opportunities and some lifelong memories that I won't forget. I'm just looking forward to creating even bigger ones."
Jones makes it no secret he'd like to do it in his hometown. The Ravens need a cornerback and they are always looking to upgrade their special teams. After the No. 6 pick in the draft, the Ravens hold the No. 36 and No. 70 picks, as well as four fourth-rounders.
"It would be a dream come true to play for the team that I grew up cheering for," Jones said. "If I had that opportunity on the biggest stage to represent my city, I'd just try to help the organization win some games and get back on top. That would mean a lot to me, and I'm sure it would mean a lot to the people in the city, as well."