NCF Nation: North Gwinnett

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Andre Jones had a gift for reading people. Just a few moments upon meeting someone, he could tell if he or she were destined for great things. He would make people comfortable around him, they would eventually open up and relationships would gradually build.

There's a story Andre would often tell one of his sons, Malachi Jones, about how he befriended Jon Jeffries when both were at DeMatha (Md.) High School. Andre told his new friend that he loved him after just a few exchanges, that they would both accomplish a lot in school. Jeffries at first looked at him like he was crazy, but before long the two were playing football at Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, respectively.

"If you ever had the opportunity to meet my dad," Malachi said, "he pretty much touched everybody that he met."

More than 20 years later, Jeffries publicly called Andre Jones a brother.

That's more than the role T.J. Jones, a sophomore receiver on the Fighting Irish, has had to take on since June 22.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Jones
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIT.J. Jones now understands why his dad, Andre, would get so emotional when he saw T.J. take to the field at Notre Dame Stadium.
One day before then, a Tuesday, North Gwinnett High School coach Todd Wofford was texting back and forth with Andre around noon, telling Jones that Malachi needed to be more assertive and more aggressive as a leader.

Andre told Wofford he had a headache and was going to take a nap.

"I kept our conversation on my phone for the longest time, looking back and forth at it," Wofford recalled, "because he was more than just one of my players' dads."

A few hours later, Malachi Jones called Wofford to inform him he'd miss his senior picture the next day. A day later, Andre Jones was gone, victim of a brain aneurysm at the age of 42.

He left behind 147 tackles in a Notre Dame uniform, a national title from 1988 and a brief NFL career. More importantly, he left behind six kids, the second-oldest of whom is walking in his footsteps in a No. 7 jersey at Notre Dame Stadium.

"He's sitting in my dad's locker, going to his alma mater and wearing his uniform," Malachi said of older brother T.J. "I don't think it can get any better than that."

Malachi, who wears No. 9, does his part by pretending to draw a No. 7 on his chest with his hands whenever he reaches the end zone.

T.J. was working out at his campus' Guglielmo Athletics Complex on June 21 when receivers coach Tony Alford pulled him aside and told him his father was sick. T.J. hopped on a plane to Georgia, joined his family and stuck around for about a little more than a week.

He wanted to stay until the following Friday, to try to be the man of the house for his family that his father had always been. His mother Michele, however, forced him out that Wednesday, getting him back to classes, to practices, to pursuing his dreams.

The family was on the Notre Dame Stadium field together Sept. 3, before the Irish's opener against South Florida, for a ceremony honoring Andre.

"It was hard. It was real hard," T.J. said. "Seeing my mom out there for the first time in six weeks, and she was crying. So that made me more emotional. And definitely just, it hit home that he wasn't gonna be standing there in the tunnel when I came out this year."

Andre always told T.J. how special it was to walk out that tunnel, to hear the roar of all the fans cheering you on. T.J. never understood why his father would tear up or cry seeing his son enter the field, but now he does, as does Malachi.

"I have three younger siblings, and unfortunately they won't get to experience the same experiences we did with our dad because he's gone," Malachi said. "So looking back, we're extremely grateful to know we got to spend a significant amount of time with him during football season and off the field in a short span."

Two springs ago, during T.J.'s first semester on campus, Andre took the family to the Grotto at night, a sight illuminating enough for Malachi to call "beautiful."

It's a place Andre tried to stop by before every home game, and when he wasn't in town he would often tell T.J. to light a candle for someone else who asked.

T.J. tries to go a little bit more now, though the fall is a busy time for a football player at Notre Dame.

Instead he will think about his father before each game, say a prayer and talk to him. Malachi will read the two Bible passages his dad texted him during a pregame meal a year ago: Matthew 10:16 and Psalms 18: 32-38.

Malachi drew connections from the readings to the football field, though a message in the latter may resonate a little bit more in his everyday life:

You have also given me the shield of Your salvation;
Your right hand has held me up,
Your gentleness has made me great.
You enlarged my path under me,
So my feet did not slip.

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