BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Shaq Jones held out even when UAB dropped its football program.
Plenty of colleges came courting the linebacker after his breakthrough 2014 season, but he was reluctant to leave behind either his school or his son Jamari, football or no football.
“I just wanted time to pretty much grieve about the process that happened,” Jones said.
Six months after UAB dropped three sports because they were too much of a financial drain, the university decided in June 2015 to bring back football for the 2017 season.
Jones had tentative plans to transfer to Western Kentucky by then, but he pivoted back and knew he would stay put in Birmingham. He and the other Blazers holdovers will finally get to play in a game on Sept. 2 against Alabama A&M — after waiting 1,007 days.
“He got the news saying it was back and he called me crying about it,” said JaKola Jones, his mother.
Jones’ long-delayed senior season comes after two years of practices and workouts without games — and earning a sociology degree.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder hauled furniture for two moving companies and worked for Abercrombie & Fitch at a suburban mall during the hiatus. Those retail paychecks went directly into an account in his hometown of Lanett, Alabama, to help his 7-year-old son, who lives with Jones’ mother.
He has also helped his father, Cameron Robinson, with a nonprofit Robinson is starting to work with former foster kids to help them acclimate into life outside the foster care system.
“It was worth it, without a doubt,” said Jones, who is pursuing a second degree in medical sociology. “It’s history. It’s history about to be made. It’s rewarding in itself to know that I’ll be a part of history with UAB football.”
Plus, leaving behind Jamari, UAB and his family to pursue a football career just felt wrong. It felt selfish.
Nevermind that he would have gotten a ring after Western Kentucky won the league title in 2015.
Staying behind enabled him to spend weekends, and sometimes more, with Jamari, who is only a couple of hours away.
Jones, who has packed on 60 pounds since high school, was coming off his best season and probably his best game when the university dropped football, bowling and rifle. He had 50 tackles as a junior, including 12½ behind the line of scrimmage.
Jones had six tackles and two sacks in the season-ending win over Southern Miss that made UAB bowl eligible for the first time in a decade.
Three days later, UAB shut down football. Dozens of players quickly moved on to play for other schools like Georgia, Georgia State and South Alabama. Tailback Jordan Howard left for Indiana and is now coming off a big rookie season for the Chicago Bears.
Other players left and eventually came back.
The program is reaping the benefits of Jones sticking around.
“It’s hard to put into words when a guy just really believed in you and he believed in the program and everything, and he’s a guy that can play,” UAB coach Bill Clark said. “I mean, he’s going to have a chance to keep playing (professionally).
“Those are the guys that you don’t even know how many people they’ve affected, how many fans, how many recruits. They say: ‘Well, that guy stayed. He believes in the coach, he believes in the program.’ That’s how we recruited.”
Plus, Jones fits Clark’s desire to help each player become “a whole man.”
What motivates Jones? Fear of failure, as a man or a father.
“I know what I want in my life and the things I kind of foresee. Those are just the kind of things I have to do to achieve my goal,” said Jones, who wants to work with kids in some capacity.
“It’s easy to stay motivated. I want my son to have a life that I didn’t have,” he said.
And now his son gets to watch him play football again. He gets to hang out the night before home games and proudly sport that No. 42 shirt with his father’s picture.
“He’s always asking, ‘When’s he going to play football again?’” JaKola Jones said.
The answer, finally, is very soon.