SOUTH BEND, Ind. — TJ Jones’ smile lit up the room as he talked about what might have been.
How once he finished dancing in the downpour following Notre Dame’s 20-13 overtime takedown of Stanford on Saturday, the best part of the celebration would have unfolded.
“He would have been jumping up and down, yelling,” the ND junior wide receiver said of his late father, Andre. “He probably would have been on the sideline waiting to hug me when everyone rushed the field. I definitely thought about that.”
And then the pain came flooding back, and the smile turned to a faraway glance.
“It’s still tough,” TJ said, 16 months after a brain aneurysm claimed the life of Andre Jones, a former Irish football player himself, at the age of 42.
“I can talk about it a little bit, but long conversations about him are not what I can do. It’s more short, little comments. Then I need to try to be normal.”
Normalcy looks different now for TJ Jones, the oldest of six children of the former defensive end on ND’s 1988 national championship team. It includes a dramatic uptick in TJ’s prowess and production on the football field.
Heading into Saturday’s clash between fifth-ranked Notre Dame (6-0) and BYU (4-3) at Notre Dame Stadium, Jones is second on the team in both receptions (19) and receiving yards (235), and those numbers have tended to come this season in big moments. One of his two TDs was the game-winner against Stanford in overtime.
“Without question. I think if there's one guy singularly who has brought his game to a new level ... ,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said of Jones. “He's developing that mental and physical toughness, and he would tell you that.
“But more importantly, he's really focused on his craft, and the skill of route-running — all of those little things that go into being a better football player.”
The focus has been a long-time coming. Ultimately, Irish All-American linebacker Manti Te’o, who dealt with his own personal tragedies last month, helped Jones compartmentalize his feelings.
“I really tried to make this leap in my play last year,” Jones said. “As much as I wanted to better myself on the field, it was more than I could deal with, and it became more about just getting through the games.
“This year, with Manti’s help, I’m still not used to my dad not being here, but I’ve had a chance to cope with it. So when I’m on the field, I can be on the field. And when I’m off the field, I can go think about what I need to think about.”
He thinks about his family a lot, though neither mom, Michele, nor any of his five siblings who live in Roswell, Ga., have been able to make it to a game this year and probably won’t.
“Maybe Wake Forest,” Jones said of ND’s Nov. 17 home finale. “Big maybe.”
Brother Malachi is busy with his own football career. The freshman wide receiver for Div. I-AA (FCS) Appalachian State is his team’s third-leading receiver (23 catches, 267 yards).
“I’ve got a sister whose team is in the middle of the Georgia state high school playoffs for softball,” Jones said, “and another one, who’s 10, who is big into equestrian. She looks so funny, her little body on top of these grown-up horses, but she’s really good and she’s all over the place riding, so it’s hard to get the family all in one place.”
Jones also thinks a lot about what life after football might look like. He wants to be a sportscaster or sports commentator someday.
“But I’d do the news if I had to,” the film, television and theater major said. “I’m open to it all.”
Except, that is, collaborating on Irish nose guard Louis Nix’s pet project, Chocolate News, and its cult following on YouTube.
“You know, I haven’t even seen an entire episode,” Jones admitted. “I’ve seen clips.
“I guess I’d rather focus on football. I’m learning what it takes to be considered one of the best and how hard you have to work every day. You can’t take days off.
“Manti kind of showed all of us that. Regardless how you feel, regardless of what you’re going through, you have to set that aside. I can do that now. Even if it’s not your best day at practice, you can still get better, help the team get better. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Notre Dame No. 1 quarterback Everett Golson passed his final post-concussion hurdle, a computer-based cognitive test on Tuesday that allowed him to practice Wednesday for the first time this week.
The sophomore was a spectator at Tuesday’s practice session after not being able to pass the cognitive test on Monday. The sophomore suffered a concussion Saturday with 3:24 left in regulation of ND’s 20-13 overtime victory over Stanford.
Junior Tommy Rees, who finished the Stanford game, took 60 percent of the practice snaps Tuesday with the first team in Golson’s absence, while fellow junior Andrew Hendrix got the other 40 percent.
Holy spinout powerbomb
Professional wrestling superstar John Cena recently tweeted about ND middle linebacker Manti Te’o to his roughly 2.9 million Twitter followers, calling the Laie, Hawaii, product “a class act.”
Te’o was working out at the time when teammate Tyler Stockton broke the news to him.
“He's like, ‘Bro, you're an American hero.’ I'm like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He was like, ‘John Cena tweeted at you. I immediately sprinted into the locker room to check it out.”
South Bend Tribune staff writer Eric Hansen:firstname.lastname@example.org
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