Jones following in father's footsteps
MIAMI -- More than anything else, Notre Dame wide receiver TJ Jones misses the long conversations with his father, the ones that sometimes would last until the early-morning hours in the family's living room.
Andre Jones, a starting defensive end on Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team, often relived the moments of his own playing days with his son and shared the lessons that would someday help TJ become an important player for the Fighting Irish.
Father and son often dreamed of TJ also helping the Fighting Irish win a national championship, which TJ will have a chance to do when No. 1 Notre Dame plays No. 2 Alabama in Monday night's Discover BCS National Championship at Sun Life Stadium.
"I just miss the talks we had, whether it would be in the car or on the couch until 3 a.m., talking about what it would take for me to achieve my goals," TJ said.
Andre, who played at Notre Dame from 1987 to 1991 and was a seventh-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1991 NFL draft, was there to see his son sign a national letter of intent to play for the Irish after a standout career at Gainesville (Ga.) High School. Andre also was there when TJ started seven games for Notre Dame as a freshman in 2010.
But two months before TJ's sophomore season began in 2011, Andre died of a brain aneurysm at his home in Roswell, Ga. TJ's mother, Michele, had left the house to take his older brother to the airport. When Michele returned, she found Andre unresponsive in the bathroom. Andre was rushed to a hospital, where he died on June 22, 2011. He was 42.
At the time, TJ was enrolled in summer school classes at Notre Dame. Running backs/receivers coach Tony Alford pulled TJ out of a summer workout and delivered the devastating news.
TJ returned to Atlanta, where he helped his mother and five siblings cope with his father's death. He also considered staying home and not returning to Notre Dame so he could help his mother financially until she found a job.
"I contemplated whether I should go back to Notre Dame," TJ said. "I almost stayed home. If my mom hadn't forced me to go back to Notre Dame, I might have stayed home. I was going to enroll in a college at home, get a job and not play football."
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But Michele Jones told her son to return to Notre Dame because that's what his father would have wanted.
The first few weeks back on campus were difficult. Every time TJ entered the Fighting Irish's locker room or weight room or walked across the campus, he thought about his father being in the same places so many years earlier. Notre Dame honored his late father before the 2011 opener against USF, and TJ's mother wept on the field.
"Every time we brought up Notre Dame, it brought back thoughts of my dad," TJ said. "Being there definitely didn't speed up the healing process. With time, I've been able to deal with it and cope with it."
TJ also learned to endure after his father's death with the help of some of Andre's closest friends and former teammates from the 1988 national championship, who put their arms around TJ and helped him get through the tragedy.
TJ's godfather is former Irish star receiver Raghib "Rocket" Ismail. Jones visits former Irish safety Pat Terrell in Chicago whenever he can, and former Irish running back Reggie Brooks, who works for Notre Dame's athletics department, offers him advice and home-cooked meals.
"They take me in a lot," TJ said. "They're family I've known since I was born. They want to give me advice when I need it and where my dad would have given it. But they're not stepping on toes, either."
Former Irish quarterback Tony Rice takes TJ to dinner whenever he's in South Bend. Most of Andre's teammates are in Miami this weekend for a 1988 national championship reunion and to attend Monday night's game.
"I would love for Andre to be here to see it," Rice said. "But TJ has us as his fathers. The players that played with his dad, we're all behind him. And we want to see him succeed."
Rice recalled how happy Andre was when TJ decided to play for the Fighting Irish after he originally committed to play at Stanford.
"I was happy, too, because [Andre] was like, 'He's going to Notre Dame,'" Rice said. "Andre was very happy about that, and we were happy for him. We wanted to keep it in our family. We wanted to keep it going."
Like Andre, TJ will be wearing a No. 7 jersey when he tries to help the Irish win their first national championship since 1988 on Monday night. He's Notre Dame's second-leading receiver with 43 catches for 559 yards with four touchdowns.
Before the biggest game of his life, TJ might even remember a few of the words of advice his father offered him during their long conversations.
"He always talked about not letting pressure get to you and making the big play," TJ said. "He always told me great players make big plays."