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Nothing could stop Daniel Jones from saving the Giants

Elias Gurure

Sept. 21, 2019

The plan had changed. The decision was made. Daniel Jones was QB1.
The 5-foot-11, 148-pound high school sophomore had watched the start of Charlotte Latin’s 2012 season-opener from the bench, playing behind a 6-foot-4, 200-pound upperclassman from the Midwest.
“He looked the part. He was supposed to be this hot-shot quarterback, and we found out pretty quickly he wasn’t,” then-coach Larry McNulty said of the transfer. “So, I put Daniel in the second half — this skin-and-bones kid who never played varsity — and he sparked us, and just competed like crazy, and had a complete grasp of our offense. I brought the older guy in on Monday, and said, ‘Daniel’s going to start at least the next game, and we’ll see where it goes.’ On Wednesday, the dad pulls the kid out of school, and that was it. I had Daniel. I didn’t have a backup. I had an emergency guy.”
Soon, emergency arrived, taking the form of defensive end — turned Georgia tight end — Jeb Blazevich.
“God almighty, he hit Daniel from the blind side, and I thought Daniel was dead,” said McNulty, who coached Charlotte Latin for 32 years. “He was laying there in a heap.”
Opposing coach Jason Estep contends his other mammoth defensive end — turned Minnesota Vikings center — Garrett Bradbury was responsible.
“It was like a bull charging,” the Charlotte Christian coach said. “It was a major hit. He just got unloaded on.”
Consensus comes in the aftermath.
Jones’ helmet was knocked off. His mouthpiece knocked out. His facemask destroyed. His chinstrap broken.
“I didn’t know if he was gonna move,” McNulty said of the 15-year-old Jones. “Then he comes over to the sideline, and he says, ‘Get me a damn helmet!” and went back to the field, and never missed a beat.
“I looked at my assistant and said, ‘We got something here.’ ”
They called him Daniel Stephen Jones III, the second of four children born to a pair of former college basketball players, Steve (Washington & Lee), and Rebecca (Davidson).
The couple worked together at First Union Bank in Charlotte, until Rebecca left to care for her growing, and gifted, family. The eldest, Becca, played four years of field hockey at Davidson, where younger brother Bates currently plays basketball. The youngest, Ruthie, recently arrived at Duke as a soccer goalie, and recently a member of the U-17 national team.
“Daniel’s definitely not the most athletic. Don’t let him lie to you,” high school teammate Melvin Rouse said of the Giants quarterback making his first career start Sunday at Tampa Bay . “Ruthie is the most athletic Jones. You heard it here.”
Supremacy would swivel. Redemption was readily available. A partner always easy to find.
It was in their backyard where footballs were thrown, and races were run, and basketball felt as important as breathing. It was where Jones could be Jake Delhomme, where rivalries first developed, where the audience didn’t measure the magnitude.
“The games got pretty competitive, especially when I started to be able to beat him. He didn’t want to give that up,” Bates said. “Whatever activities were constructive, my parents would support us. We started playing basketball early, and it was the most fun thing to do.”
Weekends were rarely free. There was always another game. There was always another child to shuttle, and support.
“They’re some of the best parents, and people, in the world,” Rouse said. “Steve Jones is a just a real honest, respectful man you aspire to be like. It’s no surprise where Daniel gets his work ethic from. His mom is one of the sweetest, most understanding people in the world. I don’t remember a game where she wasn’t there.
“Him and his family just really embraced me. I lived 40 minutes away from school, and every Sunday Daniel would come out to get me. I transferred over, and he really took it seriously for me to bond with the team and get to know the guys. He would come to get me no matter what. The effort he put in as a friend, he didn’t have to do that.”
They called him “Bambi” after a local reporter said he ran like a deer. They called him “Hospital Jones” after a dangerous throw resulted in Rouse getting wrecked.
But one high school nickname reigned supreme.
“Even the girls on campus called him, ‘Swag,’ ” McNulty said.
Jones was “Swag,” even if he was short on words.
“Because he could be that humble and let his game walk around with a certain swagger,” high school teammate Alex Massardo said. “He had it like that. He didn’t talk. He let his game talk.”
Jones was “Swag,” even if the jury was deadlocked on why.
“It was fitting because Daniel didn’t really have any swag. He didn’t have any flash,” classmate Kanyon Tuttle said. “He always had a basic polo shirt, khaki pants. He still dresses pretty basic now. He’s the type of guy, if his shirt’s real wrinkled, he’ll pick it up, smell it, then be like, ‘Yeah, it’s clean.’
“It’s a unique swag.”
It was born from doubt, shaped by the sophomore’s unimposing frame.
“My first thought when they told me this scrawny kid was the quarterback, I’m like, ‘Oh, no. I’m never gonna get the ball. He won’t be able to throw it 20 yards down the field,’ ” Tuttle said. “After a couple of workouts, I saw he was a baller. He took some hits like I’ve never seen. There were so many times, where I’m pretty sure he had a concussion, where he took shots and was calling crazy plays in the huddle. Some of them were his own fault, though. We’d say get out of bounds, slide, do something. But he thought he was Superman.”
The coach — who’d win 11 state titles — saw Clark Kent, and shrunk his playbook, restricting the undersized quarterback from throwing deep. At the end of a season Jones spent getting hammered on zone-reads, the Hawks had lost seven straight games.
“He wasn’t prepared for what was coming at him,” Massardo said. “He got put under a lot of pressure to do well, and the season didn’t go so great, and that’s when you saw him being so overly prepared for every game, knowing every player on defense by name.”
Teammates spent free periods with their friends. Jones spent them with McNulty, studying film.
“Some teammates laughed at it,” teammate Jon Jennings said. “Some realized how big and important this was to him.”
Football was business, long before Jones inked a guaranteed $16.7 million contract from the Giants.
“I had the same lunch period as him and I never saw him. Not once,” Massardo said. “Sure, you wish he’d let loose, but this is what he loves. This is what he wants to do.”
As a junior, Jones grew several inches. His weight barely budged.
Surrounding envy awaited.
“He was just eating all the time. We’d be watching TV, playing video games, and he has a big tub of peanut butter beside him,” Rouse said. “He was dedicated to getting big. He never stopped. He was either eating or throwing.”
The postgame celebrations at McDonald’s helped. The Bojangles runs, too.
Jones bulked up to become a 6-foot-5, 200-pound dual threat, appearing in back-to-back state title games, and finishing as the school’s all-time leader in total offensive yards (8,344), passing yards (6.997) and total touchdowns (96).
Few colleges noticed. Basketball shares the blame.
Jones played on an AAU team coached by Jay Bilas, the former Blue Devils forward who believes Jones could have played under Mike Krzyzewski. He played alongside Celtics rookie Grant Williams, who watched Jones dunk on a 6-foot-10, five-star recruit.
As a junior, the varsity basketball star broke his right wrist, requiring a cast on his throwing hand for roughly four months, while high-profile camps and combines took place. When Jones’ senior year was through, he was a zero-star ESPN recruit, the 135th-ranked quarterback of 247sports, without an FBS offer and committed to Princeton.
“He didn’t talk. He let his game talk.”
A Duke assistant had seen Jones play. Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe watched him at a camp with more than 100 players. McNulty implored Cutcliffe — Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee, and Eli Manning’s head coach at Ole Miss — to take another look.
“I said, ‘Hey, David, this kid can play, man. Please. Sit down. Look at this highlight film. Not your assistant coaches. You,’ ” McNulty said. “He didn’t even watch two quarters.”
Cutcliffe called back that day.
“Oh my God,” the Duke coach said. “Whatever you do, do not send this film to anyone else.”
They called him “Future,” when it was still so uncertain.
Cutcliffe didn’t have a scholarship available, so Jones arrived to Duke as a gray-shirt, paying his own way until a spot opened.
Before classes began, linebacker Kelby Brown tore his ACL, and Jones started working as the scout-team quarterback.
“We nicknamed him ‘Future’ after that first practice,” linebacker/roommate Joe Giles-Harris said. “There was no waiting. That was it. Sooner or later he was gonna be the starter, and everyone knew it.”
The inevitable came the following summer, when starting quarterback Thomas Sirk ruptured his Achilles tendon.
In Jones’ fourth start, he led Duke to victory at Notre Dame, throwing for 290 yards and three touchdowns. He finished the season with the most consecutive passes thrown without an interception (173) in the country.
“After that first year, it was clear that was the direction they needed to go,” said Sirk, who transferred to East Carolina. “He took on a big responsibility early, and he handled it very well.”
Following a mediocre sophomore season, Jones began his junior season by undergoing surgery for a broken collarbone. He missed two games, then rapidly ascended up every mock draft, putting on a record-setting performance with 547 total yards — including 186 rushing — in a win over North Carolina.
“It was his show,” said Giles-Harris, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars. “And we knew it was his show.”
Scouts couldn’t look away. Students couldn’t recognize him on the basketball-crazed campus.
“Daniel’s a kid who doesn’t really like to go out and party. He’s a real humble, down-to-earth guy,” Jennings said. “He doesn’t tweet. He’s not on social media. People were forcing him in high school to get on it. He has like two pictures on Instagram. His first-ever tweet was Visa-sponsored.”
In December, Jones graduated with a degree in economics and led Duke to its second straight bowl win, throwing for a career-high 423 yards and five touchdowns. The NFL Draft Advisory Board gave him a first-round grade.
McNulty thinks about what happens if he doesn’t call Cutcliffe, if Jones becomes another anonymous Ivy League quarterback. “He’d be working on Wall Street now,” McNulty said. “It was pretty close to never happening.”
They called his name, when no one expected it.
Five players had been taken in the NFL draft in Nashville. The Giants were on the clock.
ESPN cuts to video of Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Defenders Ed Oliver, Devin Bush and Josh Allen are mentioned as possibilities.
Jones’ slice of the green room is oblivious to the hurricane’s path.
“We’re all expecting, hoping he gets picked 17th,” said McNulty, referring to the Giants’ second pick. “Nobody was paying attention. People were eating food, talking. Then, the phone rings, and all hell broke loose. We get descended on by about 12 cameras. It was emotional. It was exciting.
“And then the reaction in New York City was kind of a bummer.”
The draft party at MetLife Stadium responded to commissioner Roger Goodell’s announcement with boos, with gasps, with silence, with disbelief. Countless others cursed Dave Gettleman, John Mara, Pat Shurmur, God.
Jones had gone 17-19 as a college starter. He’d completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes. He was the first Duke quarterback taken in the first round, the school’s highest-drafted player in 32 years.
But he’d been victimized by the most dropped balls of any quarterback in the country. He’d never played with another player selected in the draft.
“It was kind of hard not to hear it,” Bates said. “People were texting me, calling me, and that was the big thing they were saying, that everybody hates him.”
Jones heard it, too.
Sunday, he responds.
“He’s not a Baker Mayfield, yelling, screaming, kind of guy,” McNulty said. “He’s a quiet leader. But underneath, he’s bubbling.”
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