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Friday, June 11, 2010
Jones finds support in family

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Whenever Alabama first baseman Clay Jones breaks in a crisp new Crimson Tide hat, he writes his father's initials under the bill.

Whenever Jones thinks about his father, who was killed in a helicopter crash in October 1999, he touches his tattoo, which features a cross, his father's initials and the words, "Pain gives one strength to succeed."

Clay Jones
Alabama senior Clay Jones embraced playing first base as well as his leadership role.

Chances are Jones will be thinking of his father this weekend, when Alabama faces Clemson in an NCAA Super Regional at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson, S.C.

The Crimson Tide, who beat national No. 8 seed Georgia Tech two games in a row to win the Atlanta Regional last weekend, are seeking their first trip to the College World Series since 1999.

"Sometimes after a game, you see the other players talking to their fathers and you wish you could do it," Jones said.

Jones was 12 years old on Oct. 5, 1999, when his father, Stephen Jones, was killed near his family's farm in Brent, Ala. A former college football player at The Citadel, Stephen Jones was working for the Alabama Forestry Department when he and a pilot, Richard Morris, were killed when their helicopter crashed while the two were spraying herbicide on trees.

As much as anything else, Stephen Jones, who coached his boys in baseball, basketball and football, instilled a love of sports into his two sons. Clay was a high school quarterback and baseball star at Bibb County High School near Tuscaloosa and was valedictorian of his senior class. His younger brother, Ben, was an all-state offensive lineman and is the starting center on Georgia's football team.

"Growing up, we were both really close to our father," Clay Jones said. "When he passed away, we had to depend on each other a little more. He was always there for us in sports and playing games with us. We had to figure out how to do it on our own."

Their mother, Vickie Jones, and her father, Hilburn Dunahoo, took on some of the duties of father and coach. Dunahoo did most of the coaching while Vickie Jones kept the team's statistics and organized car pools. Clay Jones said he still remembers his mother feeding him baseballs into a pitching machine in the family's barn. He remembers her sitting on a bucket in the yard, wearing catcher's gear while he pitched to her. When it was time to practice football, Vickie Jones wore a 15-inch softball glove to knock down his passes.

Vickie Jones also assumed the role of referee at home.

"Growing up, we always played Wiffle ball games in the yard and basketball games in the driveway," Clay Jones said. "It resulted in a lot of fist fights between us because we'd always argue about the scores and balls and strikes. Ben would always get mad when he lost, and mom had to explain to him that I was older and that's the way it was supposed to be. She even asked me to take it easy on him a few times."

Vickie Jones said sports helped her sons overcome the sudden loss of their father.

"I think sports were a good outlet for them," she said. "It was a chance for them to focus on something else and they were with their friends. We live in a very small, close-knit town and their friends were so supportive."

After their father died, Ben and Clay also learned to rely on each a little more. Ben also has a tattoo that features his father's initials.

"It was hard," Ben Jones said. "But we had sports and we had each other. I think sports were probably the thing that got us through it. We were always with our friends and didn't have much time to think about it."

After finishing high school, Clay Jones was a 36th-round selection of the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2006 amateur baseball draft. He enrolled at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, where he led his teams to the NJCAA World Series in each of his two seasons. In his second season there, Jones hit .412 with 12 homers and 62 RBIs.

Jones enrolled at Alabama as a junior in 2009 and hit .336 with seven homers and 37 RBIs. He struggled, however, making the transition from catcher to first base.

"It just took me some time to get used to first base," Jones said. "The ball comes off the bat a little different when you're playing on the corner. I'd never really taken ground balls before and it just took some time."

This season, Jones is hitting .329 with a team-high 17 homers and 65 RBIs. In the winner-take-all game of the Atlanta Regional on Monday night, Jones hit a three-run homer in the fourth inning, which gave the Tide the lead in their 10-8 victory.

"He's really our rock as a position player," Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. "He's really the guy that is so consistent. He's hit some big home runs for us this year, but I'm just as proud of his defensive play because he's really made himself a good defensive first baseman."

Gaspard also has relied on Jones as a team leader.

"He's so mature," Gaspard said. "He's not like most 20-year-olds. He can really put his finger on the pulse of the team. He really helped us as a coaching staff to get the message we wanted to get to our players, especially the younger ones."

When Jones takes the field at Clemson on Friday, he won't have to look far to find support. Ben Jones gets to Tuscaloosa as much as he can, attending nearly 20 Crimson Tide baseball games this season (while Clay attended four Georgia football games last season). The Jones cheering section will also have his mother, grandfather, aunts and uncles.

"I have a lot of support," Clay Jones said. "My brother, uncles and grandfather are at a lot of my games. They've all assumed that father role in some way."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.