ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones remembers his last conversation with his older brother.
In the early-morning hours of Jan. 9, 2005, Jones and his older brother, Darcell Kitchens, were standing down the street from their mother's home in tiny Richland, Ga. It was Kitchens' 19th birthday. A car stopped in the road, and a friend asked Kitchens if he wanted to go celebrate at a bar.
"Do you want me to stay with you or go?" Kitchens asked his younger brother.
"I told him it was his birthday and that he needed to go have fun," Jones said. "I told him I'd see him in the morning."
Jones would never see his brother again.
Less than an hour later, Kitchens was shot and killed during an argument outside of a bar. According to Georgia Supreme Court records, Nakiedrian Garrett accused Kitchens of breaking into his grandmother's home. Kitchens denied doing it and told Garrett they needed to take their argument outside. Garrett and another man beat Kitchens in the parking lot, and then Garrett pulled out a gun.
According to court records, Garrett fired twice in quick succession, striking Kitchens in his chest and back. Garrett told police he only pulled out a gun to scare Kitchens.
"I don't know how the hell he saw it," Garrett told police, according to court records. "I pulled it out, so we started fighting over it, so it went off. I am really telling the truth; I don't know how in the hell that second shot went off, man. I did not plan that. I just wanted to talk to him and ask him, 'Why? Why? Why?'"
After Kitchens was shot in the parking lot, he managed to walk back into the bar, where he collapsed on the floor and died. Garrett was convicted of felony murder and aggravated assault in October 2005 and is serving a life sentence at Autry State Prison in Pelham, Ga.
"It was devastating because me and my brother were very close," Jones said. "He was my best friend. We'd been together that whole day. He'd only left me an hour earlier."
On the day after Kitchens was killed, Jones and his family didn't even return to their home. It was already decorated for his birthday party. A birthday cake was even waiting in the kitchen.
The family spent the night in a motel.
It was devastating because me and my brother were very close. He was my best friend.
”-- Georgia LB Jarvis Jones on the murder of his brother
"We'd set up for a birthday party and he never came," said Leon Dowdell, Jones' stepfather. "It really affected all of us. It was a shock."
Jones, who was 15 when his brother was killed, struggled to cope with Kitchens' death. For a long time, Jones was overwhelmed with guilt for not telling his older brother to stay with him on that fateful night.
"It stuck with me for a long time," Jones said. "If I had just stayed there with him, he might still be here. I really struggled with it. It took a toll on me. It killed me inside. I'd completely shut it down emotionally."
Jones, 22, is now drawing inspiration from his older brother's tragic death. In high school, Jones reluctantly learned to channel his anger through football to become one of the country's top prep recruits. He signed with USC and was one of the Trojans' top freshmen until a neck injury ended his season in 2009. When USC's doctors refused to medically clear him to return to the team, Jones transferred to Georgia, where he became one of the country's most feared pass rushers in his first season with the Bulldogs in 2011.
This season, Jones ranks third in the country with 7½ tackles for loss and fourth with 4½ sacks going into No. 5 Georgia's game against Tennessee at Sanford Stadium on Saturday. ESPN NFL draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay rank Jones, a junior, as the top-rated player eligible for next year's draft, and he is even being mentioned as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, a rarity for a defensive player.
Jones said he tries to honor his deceased brother every time he takes the field.
"He's who motivates me now," Jones said. "I feel like he gives me all my strength. He walks with me everyday. It killed me for a long time. If I'd just said, 'Stay.'"
Kitchens' death nearly sent Jones into a path of self-destruction. In the months after the shooting, Jones argued with his eighth-grade teachers, skipped classes and was eventually expelled from Stewart County (Ga.) Middle School. After Jones was kicked out of an alternative school for fighting with classmates a couple of months later, he was banned from attending school in Stewart County altogether.
"It was a crazy situation," Jones said. "I got into a lot of trouble after that at school and couldn't control my anger. I was so close to my brother. I was so angry he wasn't with me anymore. I didn't want to go to school or anything."
Jones found his savior in Shelley Stephens, a mother of two young boys, who befriended him while she worked as an academic counselor for his basketball team. Jones moved into her home in Columbus, Ga., about 35 miles northwest of Richland, and enrolled at Carver High School. During the summer before his freshman year, Stephens, a district supervisor for an after-school program and educator in the state's prison system, tutored him and helped him catch up on his academics.
"I think it was critical because at that particular time he was at a point where he could go either left or right or right or wrong," Stephens said. "He was not where he should have been academically. I've always been a stickler for academics. That was always my focus with him. When he first came here we had to work on strategies and getting him organized. He's always been intelligent, but he just wasn't applying himself."
Before Jones played his first game at Georgia, the NCAA investigated why Columbus youth sports organizers paid for his plane tickets to and from Los Angeles while he was enrolled at USC. Jones and Stephens were cleared of any wrongdoing because of their pre-existing relationship.
Jones' biological mother, Gloria Dowdell, granted guardianship of her son to Stephens and Tony Adams, his AAU basketball coach. Jones lived with Stephens throughout high school, and now calls both women his mother.
"I respect and admire her in that she entrusted Tony and I to help him get over that hump," Stephens said.
Getting Jones to try out for Carver High's football team was an entirely different challenge. He joined the team only after coaches told him he couldn't play basketball without playing football.
As I got older, everything that happened I just turned into motivation. I know if my brother was here, he wouldn't have agreed with the decisions I was making. I decided I was going to make him proud in heaven.
”-- Georgia LB Jarvis Jones
"I hated playing football," Jones said. "I just wanted to play basketball. On the days I didn't want to practice, they made me run around the track. I was always trying to skip football practice to go to basketball practice."
Jones, 6-foot-3 and 241 pounds, was considered a potential Division I prospect in basketball. He played at Carver High and for the Georgia Blazes, a Nike-sponsored AAU team in Columbus. Jones spent every summer during high school traveling the country, playing against future NBA stars like Blake Griffin, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love and Brandon Jennings at national AAU tournaments.
Dowdell said his stepson loved basketball because it is the sport he played with his older brother. Dowdell recalled his stepsons knocking the spokes out of a bicycle wheel and nailing it to a tree for a basketball rim.
"When he converted to football, it was something new and different," Dowdell said. "Football was kind of his way out of what was really bothering him. He found out he could take out his anger by hitting people."
After playing tight end in his first two seasons at Carver High, Jones moved to linebacker before his junior season in 2007. He finished with 157 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, four sacks and two interceptions, leading Carver High to a Class AAA state championship. He had 77 tackles and four interceptions as a senior and then signed to play for the Trojans.
Moving across the country to California helped Jones escape the memories of his brother's murder.
"I told him to go and whatever he did was going to make me happy," Gloria Dowdell said. "I only wanted to make sure he was happy."
Jones was a backup linebacker and played special teams for USC during the first eight games of the 2009 season. Against Oregon on Halloween night 2009, Jones collided with a teammate while trying to tackle a Ducks receiver and sprained his neck. USC's doctors told him he suffered from spinal stenosis, a condition that is caused by narrowing of spaces in the spine. It can cause pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots, and paralysis is a rare risk for some people. Jones said he consulted three spinal specialists, who cleared him to play football, but USC wouldn't let him back on the field.
"When I got the call, it was one of the most difficult times in my life," Stephens said. "To just think that the dreams and goals we set for him were possibly not going to come to fruition was very difficult."
Jones transferred to Georgia, which put him through a battery of medical tests before offering him a scholarship, and then he sat out the 2010 season under NCAA transfer rules. Last season, Jones had 70 tackles, 19½ tackles for loss and 13½ sacks and was named an All-American.
Jones was a one-man wrecking crew in Georgia's 41-20 win at Missouri on Sept. 8, finishing with nine tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, five quarterback pressures and an interception.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Jones' combination of size, speed and strength allows him beat offensive tackles in many ways. Richt said Jones is also fast enough to tackle runners from sideline to sideline, and the Bulldogs even use him to mirror mobile quarterbacks.
"Some guys are just speed rushers," Richt said. "Some guys will beat them on the edge and show them an up-field move and slip underneath. That causes problems. There are some great speed rushers, but that's all they've got. Jarvis, every once in a while, he just decides to lift them out of their shoes because they're kind of on their heels, trying to worry about whether he's going inside or outside. Then he just runs them over, so he has a big bull rush as well. A guy with that ability and that kind of motor, you're going to make plays."
Even with his life in order again, Jones said he's not taking anything for granted. He now realizes he wouldn't be where he is today without enduring his past struggles.
"Looking back at it, it definitely made me the man I am today," Jones said. "It made me more mature and it made me open up more. As I got older, everything that happened I just turned into motivation. I know if my brother was here, he wouldn't have agreed with the decisions I was making. I decided I was going to make him proud in heaven.
"God blessed me with this opportunity. I'm just seizing the opportunity and giving it everything I've got."