Georgia's Ben Jones pays tribute to his father

BRENT, Ala. — It’s been 12 years since the helicopter went down and took Steve Jones with it. He was tending to his timber, which he meant to grow just like his sons — straight and strong.

Now it’s his memory that is being lovingly looked after.

His name is still on the mailbox at the entrance to the family’s 300-acre spread. The years have scratched away at the lettering, but the few who venture miles from the steady rumble of timber trucks on Ala. 5 can still make out that this is Steve Jones’ land.

A dozen years a widow, Vickie Jones still wears her wedding ring, on the same finger with her late husband’s ring.

This fall, there comes another tribute, one that will play out before large audiences around the South.

The youngest of the two Jones boys, Ben, the Georgia starting center almost from the day he arrived in Athens, has slipped into a new number for his senior season. It seems a simple switch, from No. 61 to No. 60, but the change is as profound as a son’s love and loss.

No. 60 was Steve Jones’ number when he played high school football in Thomasville, and briefly at The Citadel. It is the number on the old high school letter jacket that still hangs in his wife’s closet. And because it was his dad’s number, it’s also the number Ben Jones had worn from the time he was 10, from playing pee wee, all through his days at Bibb County (Ala.) High School.

When he got to Georgia in 2008, Jones found that number was the property of sophomore tackle Clint Boling, already a fixture on the Bulldogs line. Had he known the importance of No. 60 to Jones, Boling may well have agreed to hand it over. But the country kid was too unassuming to ask for what belonged to someone else.

“I understood it was his time, he was No. 60. I honored that,” Jones said. “I knew I was going to have one year to wear it. I said fine, I can wear it my senior year, and I’ll be perfectly happy doing that.”

He waited his turn. Boling graduated. And, come Saturday, Jones will run onto the field of the Georgia Dome to face Boise State wearing the number like it was a family coat of arms.

“He made me. He put this in my life,” Ben said about his father and football. “He made me the man I am, and now I can honor him the way I always dreamed of doing.”

Said older brother Clay: “I know my dad would have been thrilled that his little boy was running out there trying to be just like him. I’m happy for Ben. I also wish dad was here to see it.”

Ben was only 10, Clay 13, in the fall of 1999 when their father died. In an area 30 minutes south of Tuscaloosa, where the smell of fresh cut pine is the smell of money, Steve Jones was a lumberjack of all trades. Plant the trees, cut the trees down and every step in between — he had a stake in it all. “We used to joke that we should put on the truck: ‘Steve Jones Forestry: We’ll Do Anything for a Buck,’” Vickie said.

The day he died, Steve Jones was aboard a helicopter that was spraying pesticide on a pine stand just a few miles north of his home. He had hitched a ride, just to get a bird’s-eye view of the timber. The helicopter sputtered due to a malfunction in the fuel system and, with no clearing in which to land, crashed. Both Jones and the pilot died.

Gone was the man who coached his two sons in football and Little League from the time they could hold a ball. “He was always a really laid-back, calm coach,” Clay said. “Everyone wanted to play on our team because of our dad.”

With Steve Jones, Take Your Child to Work Day was liberally sprinkled all through the calendar. Whenever possible, he’d take the boys along as he tromped about the forest.

“We’d be out there with our little BB guns, walking around in the woods, thinking we were kings of the world out there with him,” Ben said.

When their father died, the boys missed a few days of school and one pee wee football game (the league canceled all games that week). Shortly after her husband was buried on a hill overlooking an eight-acre lake on the family’s property, Vickie thought it best to get her sons back into a routine.

As Ben said, “It really hits you about a week or two later — man, he’s not here. It’s not happening; he’s not coming back.” And Vickie could not let the boys dwell on that.

She was left with two rambunctious boys. “We’d fight about twice a week,” Ben said. But she would not have to finish raising them on her own. The best part of living in a small town (Brent, population, 4,300) with family all around is that, in time of crisis, there is no such thing as being alone.

Vickie’s father, Hilburn Dunahoo, had coached Steve as a youth player back in Thomasville. After retiring, he built a home within sight of his daughter’s place in Alabama. Now, he would help coach the boys, too. Three uncles living in the area took turns teaching the boys to hunt and fish and do all the things that country kids should.

And when needed, Vickie could shift into daddy gear. She coached the Little League team for a while. She also could dole out some tough training.

Did you do your running today, she’d ask Ben. No? Then why don’t you run to the mailbox and back? And in these parts, it is a mile jog to get the mail and bring it back.

After Steve’s death, sports was the solid ground beneath the family’s feet, and it remains so today. Having played baseball in junior college and at nearby Alabama, Clay currently is a first baseman with the Detroit Tigers’ Class A team in Grand Rapids, Mich.

When recruiters began sniffing around this part of the woods in search of a lineman, there was no doubt where Ben would go. He certainly would not follow his brother to Alabama.

Steve Jones was a Georgia guy. After injuries had cut short his football career at The Citadel, he transferred to Georgia in 1983 and got his degree in forestry. And he raised at least one Georgia son.

“When dad passed away, from then on, I’ve been Georgia. Diehard. Nobody else,” Ben said.

Just four games into Georgia’s 2008 season, Ben started at center against Arizona State. He was thrown into the deep end, making line calls as a true freshman. His second start was against Alabama and its feared mountain in the middle, Terrence Cody. Georgia lost the game, 41-30, but at least the callow center wasn’t bulldozed into oblivion. He enters this season a team leader, with enough of a profile to be on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top center.

Before facing Alabama and Cody, “I was shaking,” Jones said. “I was ready to play so bad because everybody was telling me, ‘You ain’t going to be able to block him.’ I was ready to play that game, spitting fire the whole game.”

That particular style of play has followed Jones into his fourth year starting.

There is something about the way he plays that reminds people of another lineman, this one on defense.

He was three inches shorter than Ben, around 6 feet tall. And maybe 60 pounds lighter, at 240. Never played much in college, though.

Vickie Jones met him in high school, and fell in love. “He was very aggressive,” she said. “Got in a lot of fights in practice. Lot of drive. Never thought there was such a thing as too much hard work.”

He was Steve Jones. He wore No. 60, too, remember.