The people who helped Jack Jones, the Moorpark College student
One day, Jack Jones popped into Ashley Lajoie’s office. He was a regular. This time, he wanted to chat with the Moorpark College counselor. She couldn’t at the moment, she told him. There was a paper that needed to be hung on a teacher’s door.
Jones demanded the paper and the room number. It was odd, he never initiated much. But she handed over the paper and Jones darted off. He stuck it on the door and hurried back. Then, he plopped into the chair so the duo could begin to work. At that moment, she knew. Jones trusted her.
“I will never forget thinking, ‘Ok, we just peeled another layer back.’” Lajoie said.
On another occasion, the two sitting in their same chairs, Lajoie asked Jones if he thought she was a millionaire. It was rhetorical. He answered anyway. She then asked Jones if he thought she was still making a difference, despite not being a millionaire. He said yes.
Earlier, in what became a three-hour conversation in Lajoie’s office, the Moorpark counselor tried to brace the student who most-frequented her office. He was climbing a mountain that rivaled Everest -- and he had zero room for error. It was going to be hard.
The conversation turned. She asked why he wanted it so bad. Football, he explained. Or rather what he could do with football. If he got back to playing college football, then made the NFL, he’d be a millionaire. And if he was a millionaire, he’d be able to give back to the kids in the same low-income area in LA he came from.
“He’s like, ‘I want to make a difference and I need money to make a difference’” Lajoie remembers Jones saying before she asked if he thought she was a millionaire. “I was trying to get him to see past this stereotypical idea that this is the only trajectory that you can take.
“I said to him one day, ‘You’re more than just interceptions and tackles.’”
Years ago, Johnny Conley attended USC and picked up his Master’s degree. Jack Jones was also once a Trojan, he just didn’t leave with any sort of diploma. No matter -- USC was good enough. The pair bonded over it. They talked about the expanding campus and Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll.
And they spoke of their journeys. Of course, there was a duality -- but somehow two African Americans ventured from USC to Moorpark College. That doesn’t happen. Just two percent of the college’s enrollment is African American.
Naturally, the pair connected. Conley, the Director of Student Equality and an Adjunct Counselor at Moorpark had heard of Jones -- he did keep up with his alma mater’s football program, after all.
But he was skinny -- like really skinny -- when Conley met him. This is that guy? Conley thought. The five-star? The dude who can run 40-yard dash in 4.2-or-whatever seconds? The guy who announced he was going to USC in an interview with Snoop Dogg?
Conley needed proof. He hopped on YouTube for both confirmation of the football player and clarification of Jones’ as a person. He watched Jones’ highlight reels. But he also watched his interviews and paid close attention to his speech and mannerisms.
“As part of that mentorship is just making sure he can speak and articulate certain things and be professional and do his job,” Conley said. “What I did learn, which is like most student-athletes at his level coming out, is you kind of get that privilege. I think he was on a pedestal.”
Tim Lumas lined his class shoulder-to-shoulder across the room. He stood there, too. He told them for the exercise, he’d answer everything as he would when he was their age. Then he read his questions aloud.
“If you’ve never been at home and had nothing to eat, take a step forward.”
“If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take one step back.”
He kept rattling off situations. His class kept pacing. It’s called the privilege walk, and Lumas wanted his class to experience the message it provides. The goal, he noted, is to help them understand that everyone comes from a different environment.
At that moment, all the class members converged into the same room in the same community college. To get there, some of them had it easy. Others had to navigate a dark and rocky path. The discrepancy mapped out visually, it becomes clear who falls into what category.
Eventually, the final scenario came from Lumas. The group’s eyes swiveled, they stared at their classmates. When most peaked backwards, they noticed a pair that had only taken two steps.
Tim Lumas and Jack Jones.
“Everybody else was way out ahead,” the part-time criminal justice professor said.
Antonio Pierce and Jack Jones were laughing -- just like old times. ‘Old times’ was three years prior. Jones was bigger. Pierce may have been slimmer. They were both in Long Beach. For better and worse, their situations had transformed.
But just as they did then, the coach and his star player both still laughed, their full, charming smiles radiated in the glare of an Arizona sunset.
That was August. Jones was in the middle of his first Arizona State football practice and familiar faces kept checking on him. Pierce, ASU’s linebackers coach, knew Jones since he was 13. As Long Beach Poly’s head coach, he mentored Jones as the Jackrabbits’ best athlete blossomed into a sensation.
Before that practice, Jones reunited with ASU offensive lineman Roy Hemsley, a USC transfer, in the medical room, the pair’s second chance in football coinciding in Tempe. Then, of course, there were more Long Beach Poly connections.
The Sun Devils’ roster already boasted six players who played under Pierce in high school, including Jones’ good friend Kobe Williams.
“He’s coming back to family,” Williams said that night.
He was. That was the good news for Jones. But “family” always sees you in your best light. They know the person. And truly know him, his personality, his character, his traits, his flaws. In this case, they also knew what Jones had done.
It was an outlier, a mistake, they thought. But it didn’t -- and shouldn’t -- define who Jack Jones was and who Jack Jones is as a person.
In May 2018, Jones was dismissed by USC after being declared academically ineligible. The Trojans had sat their cornerback out spring practice, giving him no choice but to focus on school. Even still, his grades weren’t revived.
The five-star, who declared he’d win the Heisman Trophy as a freshman was out of USC after two forgettable seasons. Soon, that would become the least of his worries.
Less than a month later, police found Jones and a friend inside of a Southern California Panda Express at around 3:45 a.m. Jones was arrested on two felony charges. That October, a plea agreement reduced the crime to a misdemeanor, and Jones was placed on unsupervised probation -- which meant no jail time.
At that point, it seemed more likely he’d step foot on the moon then the grass of a Division I college football field. But Pierce kept in touch with his former player. As best he could, he tried to help him, tried to give him hope.
At one point last spring, he brought up the possibility of bringing Jones to ASU’s coaches. There were both concerns and hurdles involved, but Pierce was practically Jones’ spokesperson, ushering assurances about the person he knew Jones as.
“AP came to the meeting one day and said, ‘Hey we have this situation here where we can get an elite athlete. Some stuff happened.’ And he explained it to everybody,” ASU defensive coordinator, and then-cornerbacks coach, Tony White said. “AP knew him the best, so it’s like, ‘If you’re going to bring this guy in here, you have to tell us how he is.’
“And (Pierce) stood up on a table for him.”
Before anything was final, coach Herm Edwards, ASU Athletic Director Ray Anderson and school president Michael Crow had to sign off on Jones. Arguably three of the most powerful and influential people at Arizona State University were briefed on this once-prized cornerback.
Eventually, the trio gave their blessing.
“We felt, knowing his background and taking a hard look at this, that this was a place that he would be given an opportunity,” Edwards said in August. “In this case, we felt he deserved a second chance.”
But, as Pierce is always quick to point out, it didn’t matter if the Queen of England gave her blessing, Jones needed to become academically eligible before he could join a team. And not take a few tests and, poof, you’re all set.
“He basically had to get an AA (Associate of Arts Degree) in one year,” Pierce said following the aforementioned practice. “He had to handle his school work and all that. There was no need to talk until he handled his business academically.”
Lajoie insists. There’s no other explanation. It was fate -- it had to be. She didn’t meet Jones by sheer coincidence. It sounds crazy, so she gives evidence.
It was August 2018. She left her office later than she wanted, walking toward the part of the Fountain Hall one would only enter through if they had an appointment. Jones was standing there. He was pissed off. He was frustrated. He was confused. In some ways, he was depleted.
He also didn’t have an appointment. But he needed help -- a lot of help. So for the first time in what would become many occasions, Lajoie welcomed Jones into her office. An instructor had reached out to Lajoie days before and told her Jones may be coming. She said he would surely need extra assistance.
But she only offered only a name and details of the situation, no picture. Fifteen minutes into their conversation, Lajoie (pronounced luh-joy) realized Jones was the student mentioned. And, the instructor was right, he needed support. His task was treacherous.
To become academically eligible to the point he’d be able to play DI college football again, Jones needed his total grade-point average to be 2.50. Problem was, he didn’t even cumulate a 2.00 GPA at USC. That meant Jones, in one year, would have to take around 30 credits and maintain a GPA above 3.00 at Moorpark.
“The phase I used was him was, ‘You have no room for error,” Lajoie said. “I just had a conversation with a student earlier today. I was like, ‘Just get a ‘D’ and we can still use the class.’ That was not an option for him.”
At the beginning of their journey, Lajoie printed out the syllabus from each of Jones’ classes. Together, they filled in his planner, mapping out every assignment, every test and every due date for the entire semester. Jones’ eyes grew to the size of golf balls.
His task on paper was simple. Take these classes, maintain a certain GPA and you’re good. Then it was actually written on paper. In its entirety, it looked closer to impossible -- like that first day of an arduous quest to lose weight.
But people at Moorpark wanted to help Jones. They wanted to help Jones, of course, because they knew he could have a bright future. But they were willing to help Jack Jones because he wanted to help himself.
“I will show up, I will bend over backwards, I will do anything I can to help our students, but I won’t show up alone,” Lajoie said. “He made it so easy to keep showing up. If I asked him to jump, he’d say, ‘How high?’”
Added Jones: “Each day you have to think, ‘How am I going to get better? What am I going to do today to help my future in two, three, four years from now?’”
He came in to work on homework. To print things out. To check on his grades and his schedule. To say “Hi.” Or sometimes, he just needed to talk. And Lajoie was always honest with Jones about his situation -- in school and life.
Everyone at Moorpark was. It was a team effort, Conley said, but one spearheaded by Jones. He put in the work, he continued to show up, he kept his grades up -- and so they continued to help and mentor him.
“Ashley, Johnny, Tim, shout out to them,” Jones said. “Without them, I’m pretty sure the process would have been 20 times harder.”
“He busted his butt to get where he’s at now. Obviously, with some support and love, it made it a little easier,” Conley said. “He was surprising at first. Then you see him consistently show up day in and day out, I’m like, ‘OK, he’s serious. He’s hungry. He wants to see his situation change.”
Lumas calls it a mission. “As we say in the hood,” he added. It’s about 35 or 40 miles to drive from Ventura to Moorpark. Add in traffic, that might be a two hours. When he heard it was the route Jones took via bus to ensure he made it to class, the part-time criminal justice professor became confident.
“When he wanted to get a bus pass to make that mission, I was like, ‘My man, he’s ready. He knows what he wants to,’” Lumas, who retired as a Sergeant with the Oxnard Police Department, said.
Jones took three of Lumas’ classes -- Intro to Criminal Justice, Community Policing class and a tactical patrol class. The two saw each other often. Like he and Conley, Jones bonded with Lumas as two African Americans at Moorpark.
Lumas was once a police officer. He was also, “Once a black kid, too.” He understood Jones’ situation -- not the whole football part -- but the adversity aspect. The part of walking into a room and being the only person that’s not white. The part of seeing a helicopter and taking cover. The part of not trusting cops.
Unsurprisingly, the rest of the class in a predominantly white school didn’t understand. So Lumas would call on Jones often. One student in the class would say something wasn’t fair. Jones would rebuttal. “That’s life,” he’d say.
And, at that time, nothing was easy in Jones’ life. Before he was willing to take the bus, he racked up absences. After a few misses, Lumas question him. Jones told his teacher he didn’t have a ride. So ask for one, Lumas responded.
“He’d give me a call once, maybe twice a week,” Lumas said. “I picked up in Simi (Valley), in Moorpark, I picked him up in Ventura.”
Lumas saw Jones transform. As he became more mature, he became more self-aware. One night, Jones and Lumas went to a Moorpark football game together. They talked X’s and O’s. Jones described how much he missed the sport in which he boasted so much talent.
“That was what was fueling the fire. I was in a hotel my first semester and I’m telling myself like, ‘It’s either I can get right, get back to ball, or I’m going to go back to the hood. It’s my choice.’”
At that point, it was the fall, meaning he needed to keep up his grades for months. He had doubt. But Lumas assured him it’s not about whether or not he succeeds, it’s about the journey he took along the way.
And Lumas would lend a hand in whatever way possible.
He took him to school if he needed a ride. He’d take him out to eat if he was hungry. Because Jones was tight on cash, Lumas would pay him to do manual labor at his house. He got dirty. He never complained.
“Every time I turned around, he was doing what I was supposed to do, working hard,” Lumas said. “My wife said, ‘I don’t need you, I just need Jackie. He works harder than you do.’”
Lumas played a large role in Jones’ success. Was he just willing to aid a kid who worked hard? Was there an allure to supporting someone who was so athletically gifted?
Asked why he helped Jones so much, Lumas paused.
“I probably saw in him my son,” Lumas said. “My son has strayed the wrong way and is probably still straying that way. I’ve tried my best to help him. And if I can’t help my son, maybe I can help someone else and maybe that person was Jackie.
“So maybe in Jackie I found my own redemption.”
The call came early in 2019. Jones called Lajoie and asked if it was alright if he passed her number along to someone from Arizona State. She couldn’t say yes quick enough. Two minutes later, ASU Director of College Personnel Marcus Castro-Walker phoned Lajoie.
For the next few months, they kept in constant communication. As Jones grades held above the 3.00-GPA threshold, Lajoie kept those in Tempe informed.
She’ll never forget the final call she made to Castro-Walker this August.
It was a long, stressful Friday, she remembers. For five hours, she called and emailed seemingly everyone at the college. Lajoie frantically searched for former transcripts. Certain petitions needed signatures. She had to recover the spread-out paper trail Jones had accumulated. Finally, his degree was posted.
She then made the call she always hoped would come to fruition. Not yet to ASU. The one a year in the making, to the guy everyone counted out.
“I don’t know if he was more excited or I was,” Lajoie said, only half-jokingly. “If you’ve ever seen him smile, it’s the world’s biggest cheeser -- he was smiling so big … “I just kept saying, ‘You did it. You did.”
He navigated his academics with a surgeon's precision, it didn’t matter if there was no room for error. It was always about football, about playing football again. To make money, to help kids? Sure. But it was also for Jack Jones to prove to everyone else he could succeed, that through all his tribulations, all his failures, he could recover.
Especially in a situation where most would fold.
“That’s why you go to the local gas station and you’ve got a guy who can cover,” White said. “He bent and the weight of the world was on his shoulder -- and he fell but, to the kid’s credit, that dude has come along. And he has a chance to … end up where everybody thought he was going to end up.”
In the maroon and gold, Jones didn’t play up to his five-star potential in year one, but he was solid. Considering he showed up to practice three weeks before the season ... out of football for a year-and-a-half … injured … and at least 20 pounds underweight, most were willing to grade his season on a curve -- with expectations high for 2020.
He did, however, play in all 12 games this year, racking up 39 tackles, 16 pass deflections, a forced fumble and a trio of interceptions -- the latter two of which came in the Territorial Cup.
“I called Johnny and I said, ‘Turn the TV on, man. He’s got an INT,” Lumas said. “Then I turn around and he has two INTs. It was like watching the film again. I’m like, ‘Man, he has skills.’”
“It was just so rewarding for me because I knew where this kid was and now he’s on ESPN,” Conley said. “You just saw his progression and his confidence pick up.”
On the celebratory call, Lajoie informed Jones of his reality -- just as she had so many times before. This time, it was lighter. Yeah, he was headed off a few hundred miles away but he wasn’t getting rid of her.
Lajoie kept her word. He wasn’t popping into her office every other day, but she still checked up on him. She called and texted throughout the semester, asking how he was doing, how his classes were going, how he was doing in school, if he was happy.
Eventually, she found out for herself. Lajoie traveled to Arizona in late November, there to witness Jones’ best performance as a Sun Devil. After ASU’s win over Arizona, she waited for Jones in the family area near the Pat Tillman statue before the pair walked out together.
As they strutted along the field, she became awestruck. Was it tears? Was it an everlasting smile? It doesn’t matter. At that moment, it made sense why he worked hard and didn’t falter. It was to come back to this, back to where he was the king, where he was happy.
“These kids were like, ‘Can we please have your gloves,” and he’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t have gloves,” and he gave them his bands and they were taking pictures,” Lajoie recalled. “That, for me, when I think about a year ago, was the most -- I don’t know, I don’t even have words for it.
“For so long, our relationship was in my world … For me to be able to sit back and watch him, in his world, it was amazing … It’s why we do what we do.”
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