By BRAD KEITH
STPEHENVILLE (September 21, 2017) — Over the public address speakers, the game announcer made sure everyone at Memorial Stadium was aware Stephenville had made a change at quarterback.
Coming off the bench in his No. 3 jersey was Easton Jones, and not just to punt or catch a pass.
This time, it was no tease. Jones was back at quarterback for undefeated Stephenville.
Back, and after the growth experience he endured to reach this point, quite possibly better even than before suffering what is often a career-killing or at least career-defining injury. And that’s saying something after 4,100 passing yards the past two seasons.
It’s okay if you thought the days of Easton Jones playing quarterback at Stephenville High School were done and gone.
Easton will forgive your doubt, not only because he’s the forgiving type, but because he, too, feared his final football season, perhaps even his entire senior year of athletics, had gone up in smoke.
Or, to be more accurate, they appeared to have gone out with a pop.
That’s the sound Easton says he heard even before the pain set in. Pain that was physical, don’t be mistaken, but what hurt worse was the belief he had lost something special, even while out in the heat working to make it more so.
Jones wasn’t just pitching for whatever select team offered him the opportunity to spend the summer traveling with them and playing in front talent scouts. He was working with his high school teammates on bettering their future. They were out there together, competing as their own summer team on June 12, working to make next March, AprIl and May even better than that of this past spring.
Jones started on the mound that day less than two months after being named 8-4A district pitcher of the year. It was also less than two months before he was to begin preseason practices for his third and final year as the starting quarterback at a school with a rich tradition of producing some of the state’s very best to play that position.
Six pitches into his outing, he was honing his craft as the top pitcher scheduled to return to a high school baseball team that had just reached the Region I-4A quarterfinals. He was being one of those “boys of summer” you hear about while he wasn’t busy putting up monstrous numbers for Stephenville’s talented 7-on-7 football team that very nearly won the consolation bracket at the Division II (2A-4A) 7v7 Championships in College Station almost a month later.
But after pitch seven came a loud pop, followed by the pain.
The story book comeback would have had Jones riding a white horse into the stadium, jumping down and trading a knight’s head protector and sword for a helmet and football before unleashing flaming passes all over the field to produce a 28-or-so-point comeback.
But Jones did none of that. He punted twice early in the game, but that was business as normal. Most fans in attendance weren’t even aware Jones had received full medical clearance;, had met with head coach Gregg Winder, spent the week practicing as if he were coming back and had been informed he would absolutely enter the game as a backup quarterback behind sophomore Cole Stanley.
But even Easton didn’t know when he was coming in. Winder probably didn’t know exactly when he would pull the trigger himself, but things seemed to be kind of choppy, with no real offensive rhythm early on. The Jackets led 7-0, but it was more like 0 to negative seven with Stephenville not doing much and Everman handing over a gift-wrapped touchdown.
The Everman punter took a low snap with a knee down, giving Stephenville the ball at the Bulldog 15. A couple plays later, an offsides penalty against Everman wiped out an interception and put Stephenville in position to score on a couple power plays by Caylor.
Everman answered that score, and Jones was soon called on to punt the ball back to the Bulldogs. And even as the Dogs of War – who have returned to their fury of old, by the way – were taking the field, Jones heard the words that just three months earlier, maybe even as recently as six weeks earlier, he thought he may never hear again.
“Next series,” Winder told him.
“I was probably more nervous before that series than I was before my first game as varsity quarterback when I was a sophomore,” Jones admits.
What if something went wrong? What if he turned the ball over, the one mark against the strong numbers he has posted in prior seasons? Even worse, what if the ligament tears again?/
“Tommy John,” are perhaps the two most dreaded words in a pitcher’s vocabulary, let alone a pitcher and quarterback. And for someone with one season, just that one last chance to try and meet the approval of college recruiters, “Tommy John” sounded like an athletic death sentence.
Winder didn’t just call a play to begin a series, he made a statement about his physical, run-first football team, a statement that seemed to pay homage to everything they had accomplished without their senior leader, like remaining undefeated with wins by an average of 30.5 points until he could return long before anyone without the last name Jones was expecting.
As the public address announcer said, “Now at quarterback for Stephenville, number three, Easton Jones,” and the crowd applauded… Jones simply took the snap, turned and handed the ball to Krece Nowak.
The slick junior scat back bounced outside the left tackle, made one quick cut and was gone, leaving Jones with nothing else to do but hold two arms in the air as he approached the sideline.
One play at QB. One offensive touchdown. That’s about as efficient as it gets.
“I just handed it to Krece and he went all the way, it was perfect,” said Jones. “I don’t even need my arm, I’ll just keep handing it to Krece the way he’s playing, and as long as we keep winning, you will never see me any way but happy.”
On June 13, word was out, so there was no sense hiding it. Tory Jones, an associate athletic director at Tarleton and a former coach, is Easton’s father, and spoke to The Flash Today on his son’s behalf regarding the injury, a torn ulnar collateral ligament, the main ligament running through the elbow, to be specific.
“We’ll get a second opinion from the Texas Rangers team doctor and then we’ll have the surgery as quick as we can,” said Troy Jones, whose wife, Pam, Easton’s mother, is a longtime teacher and girls coach at Henderson Junior High. “
So a day later, the Jones family was not even aware there existed an alternative to Tommy John surgery. When they heard there was, it was like a breath of life had been breathed into a family as tight as one will find in Stephenville or anywhere. Grandfather Don Jones along with wife and grandmother Patty Jones are retired educators. Don Jones, in fact, started the girls soccer program at Boerne, who Stephenville beat in the state final to win the 4A girls soccer title, their first, in April.
Don and Patty aren’t mere regulars at the grandkids’ sporting events, they are constants. The family travels together, and lives and breathes athletics with full understanding how the lessons learned on those playing fields and courts, and the relationships molded in those locker rooms and coaches offices will impact their children and grandchildren probably even more than what they are learning in the SISD classrooms.
Even Don Jones, while checking out a Tarleton men’s basketball scrimmage that was really just a exhibition for boys basketball campers, had new life to him after hearing of this alternative to Tommy John. Critics probably pictured any Jones with hope as the guy in Dumb and Dumber who hears his odds of dating a certain attractive female were one in a million and responds with, “So you’re saying there’s a chance.”
At some point it was bound to happen. The fact it went so well probably meant the man upstairs had been involved from the start and planned the whole thing.
Sooner or later, and it came sooner, Greg Winder was going to have to tell the QB to deliver a pass.
And deliver it he did. Jones whizzed a strike over the outstretched arm of one Everman safety and inside the coverage of another, hitting perfectly one of those “windows” of which you hear QB coaches and critics speak, and the sure hands of leading receiver Clay Krause outside that window, softly cradling six points on the first pass thrown by Jones since the pop in his arm back in June.
“He was running an inside vertical route, but he kind of broke it inside almost like a skinny post, I’m sure because that’s where he saw some space to work in between the safeties. I saw the safeties were split and it was there so I went with it,” said Easton.
So it turns out a UCL tear doesn’t have much effect on game IQ.
Jones was still in charge after halftime, when he and Blu Caylor each scored on short runs to cap a stretch of four touchdowns on four drives directed by the senior quarterback. A Caylor interception highlighted the defense’s shutout effort during that stretch as the Stephenville lead swelled to 34-7.
Winder and staff shrugged off late Evermnan TDs to make the final score a respectable 34-21. All that mattered on the Stephenville side was the Jackets are 3-0 for the first time since 2014 just the second since starting 9-0 in 2007.
It was a relaxing finish to one week of work before preparing for their toughest test to date – upscale Decatur with all it’s spread formations and offensive wizardry on the road this week, on homecoming night for the Eagles, no less.
Decatur beat Stephenville twice last season, dominating a weather-shortened shootout in at Memorial Stadium early, and eliminating the Yellow Jackets in the bi-district round of the Region I-4A playoffs, just as the Jackets had done to the Eagles each of the two post seasons prior.
Spending the fourth quarter celebrating another victory with his teammates and friends, this time after playing a significant role in the win, was especially rewarding for Jones, a special night indeed before getting back to business as usual.
The week-to-week routine of quarterbacking the Stephenville Yellow Jackets.
Jones doesn’t know a lot about stem cell treatments, but he does remember his doctor explaining what was being done as they went through the procedure.
“They took bone marrow out of my hip, shook up the blood to get the thick blood platelets and injected it straight into the ligament,” he said of he process.
Growing up in a family of devout members of Graham Street Church of Christ, Easton does know a lot about the power of prayer.
“This is 100 percent all the power of God, the power of prayer,” he explained. “I know I had a lot of people say they were praying for me. I even went to different churches and learned their whole church was praying for me.
“It’s not just me or just our family, we had the entire community of Sephenville, and so many friends in our corner,” he said. “I’m so thankful for all of them, and I know it all came together the way it did because it was planned by The Big Man Upstairs.”
Jones was given the nod of approval to begin soft tossing while his teammates were in preseason practices preparing for the season without him, which Winder, their third year head coach after spending 10 seasons – in two stints – as the offensive coordinator here, wisely insisted they villigently continue to do.
Wise because his team found an identity without its quarterback. Those who played in his stead, junior Tyler Schouten and sophomore Cole Stanley, each had their big moments. Schouten was 13-21 and hit Kade Averhoff for a touchdown on a night that otherwise belonged to the prolific Nowak, who raced to four touchdowns and almost 300 yards rushing in a 53-20 win over Cleburne.
Stanley ran the option well enough to catch Springtown guessing and a defensive back getting lost on an option pass, the effective play action resulting in an open Krause and an easy 76 yard touchdown in a 41-13 stomping of Springtown in which Nowak had three first quarter TDs to provide a 22-0 lead.
Cole Pettit intercepted two passes at Springtown and had another last week, when an especially physical Stephenville effort produced the Nowak 45-yard TD, the two short TD bursts by Caylor, and, last but not least, the one-yard fourth-down plunge across the goal line by Jones that ended the 27-0 run.
It’s a physical team now. One Jones is especially excited to move forward with.
“I feel like all the weight really is off my shoulders. The way our offensive line has played is incredible, and the way Krece has been running behind them, that’s what we are. We’re a physical offense that is going to run the football. We’re going to throw it around some, but what we hang our hat on is our ability to out-physical our opponents and push them around.”
He doesn’t just mean O-line when he says physical, but the defense, too, with the complete starting unit allowing just one touchdown in each game, as opponents have waited to score the majority of their points each week until the fourth quarter. New defensive coordinator Cody Moore is an ex-TCU defensive lineman seems to embody just such an identity in all that he does.
“Our defense is our rock. That secondary is so good, it’s frustrating to practice against them. I’m glad they’re on our team on Fridays, because going against them in a game doesn’t look like a lot of fun, either,” Easton said.
“We’ve got the chance to be a great football team. We just need to take it one week at a time and focus on what is coming up next. The next play, the next series, the next game. The great teams, just take it one step at a time, one week at a time.”
Greg Winder said all the right things in a June 14 telephone interview, but it was the solemn voice in which he said them that was most memorable. He hated it for Easton but was confident in Tyler Schouten.
And he was worried about his football team.
Of course he was, he thought he had lost his quarterback. ‘Thought,’ in fact, may be an understatement. Winder new he had lost him,, after spending two years molding him in to the signal caller the quarterback training guru believed he could become.
Now 3-0, Winder and this physical squad have their leader back. And it’s a more mature Easton Jones, who grew through the process and learned to have a deep appreciation for the game and everything he’s blessed with health good enough to do.
It’s a quarterback who understands the team he is a part of and relishes his role on it, even if that means more handoffs to Krece Nowak followed by holding two arms in the air as he makes his way to siddeline.
It’s a physical Yellow Jacket team, one one ready to battle the way their quarterback did just to be a part of it all.
Jones still does not know a whole lot about stem cell treatments, or how injecting some of himself into another part of himself has made him better, seemingly magically so, months sooner – at the very least – than if he had gone under the knife for the Tommy John procedure.
“No I never thought we were going to get him back. I mean you hope that, and we definitely were praying for Easton and that he recover and get healthy first of all, but also that it be in time that he would get to do some of the things he loves, especially since he’s a senior.
“When I was told he was cleared and could play this early in the season, it was a total shocker to me,” said Winder. “I had already decided we were going to let Cole be the starting quarterback tonight, even if Easton was ready, so we went ahead with that as our agenda,” he said. “But if there’s one thing you know about Easton, it’s that he’s a great competitor who is always ready to go, opening kickoff fourth quarter, doesn’t matter. He knows there’s a job to do and he’s ready to get tit done. You could see that right when he went in there, just in his demeanor and in the way all our kids respect him. They know he’s been in the fire and he knows the way to where we want to be.”
Even if it took a second opinion to get there.
And the prayer of an entire community.
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