For a running back in football, getting up after a crushing hit from a hard-hitting safety or an oversized defensive tackle may take a little extra time, but, nevertheless, they will get up. In life, however, people don’t always have the opportunity to pick themselves up after getting hit by both the unexpected and the inevitable. In the case of today’s student-athlete, it’s no different. While people may only see the glamorous side of what may seem like a rewarding lifestyle, they may not see the struggle for balance in a life that generalizes them as being an athlete-student instead of a student-athlete.
Whatever the opinion of today’s student-athlete may be, don’t question Charles Jones on the merits of what it means to be a student-athlete. Jones, who was recently named as one of the recipients to the NCAA’s Division I Degree Completion Program, is in the midst of completing an academic journey that has been more than a decade in the making.
And he’s doing it his way.
“It’s going to feel like I made it to the top of a mountain I’ve been climbing for years,” said Jones, who will graduate in December with a degree in general studies with a concentration in kinesiology.
Coming out of O.D. Wyatt High School in Fort Worth, Jones was a visible and recognizable figure in the community. His agility and field vision at running back, along with his charismatic nature in the community, brought him to TCU on a football scholarship in 1997 under then-head coach Pat Sullivan. Coming out of high school, Jones said he had a swagger that has since toned down quite a bit.
“I was confident to the point where you could call it conceited,” Jones said. “I wasn’t the greatest person, but everybody changes and grows in wisdom.”
He was described as being confident, rambunctious and a bit of a loudmouth by friend and former teammate Shawn Worthen.
Worthen, who played defensive tackle in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings and the Houston Texans, now serves as an academic adviser for TCU’s Athletic Academic Services, and was one of the individuals who played a pivotal role during the application process.
Worthen said Jones’ “unwavering faith and perseverance” and his “hunger for education” have made him more determined than ever to finish what he started as a freshman in 1997.
“It means a lot more to him now because you don’t have the foolish pride you have as a youth getting in the way,” Worthen said.
Toward the end of Sullivan’s tenure, Jones said, he started to realize that football wasn’t as fun as it once was. After Sullivan resigned and Dennis Franchione was named head coach, Jones said it was like starting all over again and felt that the camaraderie between Franchione’s staff and Sullivan’s players could have been better than what it was.
After withholding a back injury from coaches during his junior year, Jones saw his playing time drop as he had difficulty standing up without pain, which took away his ability to cut and be the type of effective runner he wanted to be.
Jones said he had lost his love for the game, and it was evident in his off-field behavior. Jones said that even though he wasn’t clinically diagnosed as being depressed, there was no doubt in his mind that depression had taken over.
He said he would regularly stay up late and drink by himself, and took the life of a hermit, not returning the phone calls of friends. He couldn’t even garner the support of his father, who he described as being “a seasonal father” during football season.
“I notice a lot of people’s attitudes change when they see you’re not making the NFL,” Jones said. “I couldn’t have relationships with anybody because I couldn’t live up to the hype of being a superstar athlete.”
When his depression started to wear off, Jones continued to stay away from watching football for three years. After having a conversation with LaDainian Tomlinson, in which Tomlinson shared how proud he was of Jones and his spiritual life, Jones’ love for the game returned, and said his wife now has a hard time getting him away from the television if a football game is on.
Now, Jones is back at TCU as a part of the Degree Completion Program, which was established in 1989 for NCAA Division I athletics. The program was implemented to assist student-athletes who were within 30 hours of graduation but had exhausted financial or scholarship aid during their five-year eligibility period.
Since its inception, the program has had nearly 2,000 recipients and has generated more than $12 million in aid, according to the 2006 Degree Completion Program application.
Of the 225 applicants that apply each year, 175 are accepted into the program, said Ellen Summers, the NCAA’s liaison for the Division I program. She said the consultant committee comprises individuals with varying positions at seven Division I universities. The committee looks at each applicant on a case-by-case basis.
Along with TCU, some of the universities represented in the committee include the University of Nebraska, the University of Iowa and DePaul University.
Jack Hesselbrock, the associate athletics director for internal relations, was the first to realize Jones was close to graduating when Jones requested an unofficial transcript for the University of Phoenix.
After bringing it to Jones’ attention, Hesselbrock along with Shepherd, who is the administrative assistant for Athletic Academic Services, and Worthen, began an extensive four-step application process that would end with the people involved feeling that Jones had made a strong case for being accepted into the program. Both Hesselbrock and Shepherd said he had confidence in Jones and his abilities because he had a well thought-out plan and was ready to put it into action.
“Regardless of how it turned out athletically, I knew this individual was going to make it work,” Hesselbrock said. “Charles wasn’t one to give up.”
One of the many people to indirectly help Jones and his situation was Dr. Leo Munson. Munson, TCU’s associate vice chancellor of academic support and the NCAA’s chairman of the program’s consultant committee, said TCU is second amongst Division I private schools in the number of recipients accepted into the program with 39, trailing only Brigham Young University.
Munson was named the chairman of the committee five years ago, and has been a member of the committee since 1990. He said the committee uses a point system to determine an applicant’s qualifications, and applicants of Jones’ era and beyond usually receive preferred treatment in the process due to their age and lack of aid.
“This is one of the most fun things I do,” Munson said. “We have the ability to deviate from pure methodology to solve problems, and that’s pretty cool.”
It has been a long and winding road for Charles Jones. Although he may not be defined by individual or team awards, like past Horned Frogs, he is defined by titles much greater: a husband, a father and, now, a future college graduate.
And staying true to his roots as a running back, Jones picked himself up after several big hits, and is ready to score one of the biggest touchdowns of his life. And he did it his way.