TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The ending of any good thing is bittersweet, and Barrett Jones is beginning to feel the bittersweetness.
“I’m starting to get sentimental,” he says. “I’m starting to experience some lasts. I took my last exam the other day. It was a weird feeling.”
Jones has put together one of the most remarkable college football careers in history. Over four years as a starter at Alabama, he has played three different positions on the offensive line – right guard for two years, left tackle for a year, and center this year. He’s been an All-American at all three positions. Last year he won the Outland Trophy. According to the Alabama coaching staff, over the past two seasons Jones has missed just 15 blocking assignments in 1,193 plays.
He’s also a 4.0 student. That last exam he took wasn’t for his undergrad degree – he’s already finished that. It was to complete the work for his master’s.
And on Monday, if Alabama beats Notre Dame, he’ll be a part of his third national championship in four years.
We talk about college football “careers” – I did it just three paragraphs ago. There’s not really a better word. But it’s not the right word. The main thing about a college football career, like college itself, is that it’s short. The long part of life waits on the other side.
Barrett Jones is a young man, 22 years old. Like a lot of other 22-year-olds, he’s about to leave college and find out where life leads. He injured his left foot in the SEC championship game a month ago, bad enough that he had to wear a cast. But the cast is off. He’s practicing this week. He’s going to play.
The bad news is, it’s his last college game. The good news is, he gets to play one more college game. Bittersweet.
“It’s been a great ride,” he says. “But we’ve got to finish it off the right way.”
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He learned violin through the Suzuki method when he was 3. In eighth grade, he finished 15th in his age group in a national Scrabble tournament. He has been to Haiti and Nicaragua on mission trips. He helped clean debris after the tornado that wrecked Tuscaloosa in 2011.
It took some digging, but we found out something bad about Barrett Jones: He yaps too much in the huddle.
“He talks so much sometimes, so that's probably what gets under my skin,” Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron said at Alabama’s news conference Thursday. “But probably what gets under his skin so much is when I prove him wrong. He hates to be wrong, so I always love it when I do that.”
Hey, that’s two things: Yaps in the huddle, hates to be wrong. Remember that when he runs for president.
You can also put this in the opposition-research file: Once mashed by Michael Oher. This happened when Jones was a high-school freshman in Germantown, Tenn., a suburb of Memphis. His team played in the state title game, and when a defensive end got injured, Jones took his place. At the time, Jones was 215 pounds. He line up across from Oher, whose story would later be told in “The Blind Side.” Oher weighed 360.
Jones made a couple of tackles. But then Oher got tired of it: “He drove me back 10 yards and just laid on me.”
Not long after that, Jones went through a growth spurt. Now he’s 6-5 and a shade over 300 pounds. He is the one who mashes.
So does this entire Alabama offensive line. Jones isn’t even the best NFL prospect; left guard Chance Warmack is nearly a lock to be a first-round pick. Right tackle D.J. Fluker was a second-team All-American this year (Jones and Warmack made the first team). Left guard Anthony Steen and right tackle Cyrus Kouandjio are expected to play in the pros one day. You know how Alabama always seems to have a couple of great running backs? Well, it’s not just the running backs.
A lot of schools recruited Jones out of high school, but the Tide had an advantage – his dad, Rex Jones, played basketball at Alabama in the early ’80s. Jones went to visit Nick Saban, whose “Process” – his system to build a winning team – appealed to an analytical kid who got his degree in accounting.
That same analysis helped when Saban asked Jones to switch positions. Jones started as a guard, blocking on the interior and pulling across the line. He moved to left tackle, keeping pass rushers off the quarterback’s blind side. Then he moved again to center, not just snapping the ball but calling out blocking schemes. Jones says that if he had wanted to stay in one spot, the coaches might’ve heard him out. But he kept looking ahead.
“Our philosophy is that the best five linemen play,” he says. “I feel like I’ve just been the moving part of the best five.”
Jones will spend most of the national title game line up against Louis Nix, Notre Dame’s 6-3, 325-pound nose guard. He’ll also spend some time blocking Manti Te’o, the linebacker who was runner-up for the Heisman. That’s the game, in the moment. Two guys pushing against each other, fighting over a little piece of grass. The story comes before and after.
Word got out a couple of weeks ago that Chance Warmack, in a team meeting, said Alabama has a chance to build a dynasty. Jones wants no part of that talk.
“I think maybe after my career is over, that’ll be the time to reflect,” he says.
There’s that word again. Career.
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Barrett Jones could have gone a lot of directions. Still could. Maybe he could’ve been a musician. Maybe he’ll use that accounting degree. Listen to him give thoughtful answers at a news conference – while dodging the questions he’d rather not answer – and you think: That guy could be governor one day.
But in sixth grade, he played his first football game, and when he came off the field he knew what he wanted to do. He has played ever since. For the past four years – five, counting a redshirt – he has basically been an unpaid professional football player. “This is a business trip,” he says about the national title game, and he’s not wrong.
He’ll have plenty more business trips, most likely in the NFL. But Monday night there’ll be one last pregame meal, and one last team meeting, and one last walk through the tunnel in that Alabama uniform.
Remember graduation day? Remember that last walk around campus when it still belonged to you?
Barrett Jones is 22, and he has a lot to look forward to on the other side of Monday night. But for now there’s the bittersweetness, all folded up inside the business trip. He’s still a college kid. For one more game.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. Between Jones and Manti Te’o, this has become the Guys You Want Your Daughter To Marry Bowl.