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UCLA's Datone Jones smiles through the bad times

Defensive end learned to navigate around money and school struggles, a tough neighborhood and long bus commutes. A top NFL prospect, he stays upbeat despite team's and his own on-field woes.

October 04, 2011|By Chris Foster
  • UCLA defensive end Datone Jones has overcome numerous challenges to become a top NFL prospect.
UCLA defensive end Datone Jones has overcome numerous challenges to become… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Datone Jones arose at 5:30 each morning and within minutes was headed for the bus stop.

Breakfast was served at the corner. A merchant would wrap up a doughnut and hand it to him in stride.

Compton High was one hour, with one transfer, away.

In the evening, after football practice, Jones made the trip in reverse, doing school work on the bus, dozing off, or just watching the neighborhoods drift by.

"I got to know all the drivers' names," he recalled.

Jones now starts at defensive end for UCLA, and he is probably among the Bruins' very best NFL prospects. But back then he just wanted to attend school with his friends.

Riding the bus was the sacrifice he made after his mother moved the family to a better apartment in Los Angeles. It's just one example of how his journey to big-time college football was different than most.

Jones is 6 feet 5 inches, 275 pounds, so it's hard to image him struggling physically. But he was born three months premature — three months after his mother lost his twin brother.

He also faced plenty of challenges growing up in a tough neighborhood. People he knew chose drugs and gangs, but he somehow managed to avoid both.

"Guys who I played street football with were in the same situation," Jones says. "I'd see them get involved in the street, selling drugs. I would think, 'Do you really need that money?' My mom taught me, 'If you want a nice car, work for it.' "

School didn't come easy, either — he barely qualified to attend UCLA — yet he is on track to graduate from college in four years.

"He's a fighter," says Jones' mother, Shondra Hall. "I have one brother who is in a penitentiary for 26 years and another who has been in one for 21 years. I could turn on my television and see my son there for doing something he shouldn't have been doing.

"Instead, I turn on my television and see him run on to the field. It makes me want to cry. I am so proud of him."

The sentiment is mutual. Jones says his mother has battled illness and has been on disability since he was a child.

"My mom raised us to the best of her abilities," he says. But money was so tight, "from the 15th to the 30th [each month], we were living on whatever we could get."

Jones became resourceful when it came to solving money problems. The way he covered the cost of that bus pass that allowed him to continue school at Compton was one example.

"He came home and said, 'The bus pass is $19,' " Hall says. "I could pay for half. He got the rest."

Jones made a little money by helping around school. Teachers and staff paid him for odd jobs, sometimes with cash, sometimes with a burrito.

"If I was getting the kids shoes and was short on money, Datone would say, 'Mom, I don't need any,' " Hall recalls.

She remembers the day Jones left for UCLA. When she went into his room, she found him asleep on the floor. Around him were trash bags, in which he had stuffed all his possessions. "He had been doing laundry all night," Hall says. "Some of the clothes were still wet. I went out and got him storage bins so he didn't have to take his things to school in trash bags."

Jones had five siblings, but lost an older sister to a lung illness when he was 11. His father was out of the picture. "Every day I breathe, I think about family," he says.

Jones talks about his upbringing and a question becomes obvious about a young man who is almost always smiling, on and off the field.

How does he stay so upbeat?

Sure, he has much to be thankful for — a free college education, enough food to eat, and all the resources available to a top athlete playing at the highest level of college competition. But there are also these facts: UCLA is not playing particularly well, and neither is he.

Jones had four sacks and 11 tackles for losses two years ago as a sophomore. A broken foot sidelined him last season, but he came back and was so dominant during training camp that coaches took to pulling him off the field at times so the offense could get work done without disruption.

Yet, Jones hasn't been much of a force this season and is without a tackle in the last two games.

"A lot of times he is taking himself out of plays trying to do someone else's job," defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield say.

Jones, smiling, explains: "All I can do is to make up for it in the next game. I have been through tough times. I have never doubted myself.

"There are a lot of games left."

Back in the neighborhood, people know his resolve, remember his commitment, and wish him all the best.

"He comes home and the neighbors all hug him and want to know how he's doing," Hall says. "The mailman asks about him. The man on the corner who gave him a doughnut every morning, said, 'Tell Datone to bring me a picture.'"

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