Hawaii coach recalls 'new life' experience
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By Stephen Tsai
By Stephen Tsai
The dream should have ended before it was conceived.
It should have been buried in the rubble that was once a black Lincoln Town Car, left abandoned among the broken glass and crushed metal on the H-1 Freeway that February morning in 2001.
The car accident was so horrendous that the driver's mother was told, later, that paramedics were calling in a "DOA" (dead on arrival).
There was a golf club resting diagonally against the front of the passenger seat. When the car struck the concrete pillar, the club's shaft broke on impact, shooting the pointed end straight toward the driver's heart.
"It was horrible, just terrible," Marilyn Jones said, her voice trembling over the memory. "They thought my son was dead."
And if it were to end at that moment, a wonderful life would have dissolved into "It's a Wonderful Life."
Without the driver, there would be no magical 2007 football season.
No Heisman-finalist quarterback. No perfect regular season and accompanying invitation to the Sugar Bowl. No bipartisan partying over the feel-good story of the holiday season.
But it wasn't time.
All indications are the driver fell asleep at the steering wheel. As the driver, who was not wearing a seat belt, slumped to his right, the car veered toward the pillar. The pointed end of the golf club missed the fallen driver's body and pierced only the leather back rest.
The crash would leave the driver in a coma. But he was alive. Barely.
"They thought I was dead," University of Hawai'i football coach June Jones said, "until I moaned."
There was no light to embrace.
No means to hear the whispered prayers of Marilyn and June Jr. who traveled from Portland to crouch at their son's bedside in the intensive-care unit.
"I didn't have that near-death experience that everybody talks about," Jones said. "I didn't see or hear anything."
A week later, he awakened from the coma. He then began the slow journey to his previous way of life.
But his body ached. His scratch-golf game, which could be competitive on the Senior Tour, had lost its easiness. And, most frustrating, he developed a memory murmur. Sometimes he could not match a name to a face. Sometimes he lost a topic in mid-sentence.
Even now, Marilyn said, "He still has a lot more problems than he lets on."
And he often wonders: Why?
"I think about the accident," Jones said. "I always wonder why God chose to let me live, and somebody else wasn't so lucky. I always think about that."
Then a few years ago he overheard one of Norman Nakanishi's sermons. Every Sunday night, Pastor Norm transforms a Leeward Community College lecture hall into Grace Bible Church.
They became friends. Then Jones asked Pastor Norm to serve as the Warriors' chaplain.
"The crash woke him up to why he's on Earth," Pastor Norm said. "It brought him back to realizing his purpose. He's here to change young people's lives, which he can do better at the college level than pro level. It recalibrated his life and his priorities. He understood that 'this is why God put me here and why God made me like this.' "
If this were a eulogy, Jones' life would be retold in chronological order, with one time period leading to another:
Growing up in Portland, the second of four children. Quarterback at three colleges in six years, including two seasons at UH. The NFL career as a player, and then coach, and then, twice, as head coach. The triumphant return to Hawai'i in 1999.
But the crash was not the final chapter. His life, in GPS parlance, was recalculated. Now each piece of his life fits easily with another. Choose any circumstance, and there is a supporting story.
For instance, he credits the Warriors' success to the love each player has for his teammates. "Look at history," he said, "the greatest fighters had that. That's the difference between being a good team and being a great team."
His own understanding of love comes from his parents' unspoken deeds.
"My mother made me breakfast and lunch every day until I got out of high school," Jones said.
During basketball season, practices started at 5:30 in the morning. "No matter what, she had breakfast waiting on the table," Jones said. "You know, I never ate in a lunch room. I'd walk home three blocks every day for lunch. It would always be there. She's an amazing woman. She made so many sacrifices. That's how much love she had."
His father never missed one of his games, magnificently juggling his schedule to follow his four active children. Since the day he went away to college, Jones and his father have spoken almost daily by telephone.
"He was always there for me," Jones said. "He had that old-school way. I knew he loved me even though I never heard him say 'I love you' until seven, eight years ago. I was a little taken aback by it, but it was nice to hear."
Before and after each game, Jones leads the team in prayer. It is that love — God's love — that seized his soul when he was a teenager.
"I made a decision that affected my whole life at that time," Jones said. "God's blessed me. I don't have any anxiety about anything. God's blessed me with a peace. I learned that at a young age."
During a chapel service, Jones learned of the passage he recites daily:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
"It's the only place in the Bible where God promises you, the second you pray, he will grant you this peace and humility," Jones said. "He doesn't say he will grant you what you pray for, but he will grant you peace. And the bottom line is, if you have peace, you don't care if you get your wish or not."
It is that calm, he said, that boosted the Warriors to three comeback road victories this season. The team's mantra is: Believe.
It also is why he does not worry about job or financial security. He recalled his stint as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach. After leading the Falcons to the playoffs in his second season, in 1995, he shook hands on a three-year contract extension. But the papers were never signed.
The following year, the Falcons fell to 3-13, losing the regular-season finale when the NFL's most reliable kicker, Morten Andersen, was wide on a field-goal attempt. A teary Andersen apologized to Jones.
"I said, 'Mort, don't worry about it. That kick has nothing to do with me keeping my job or not,' " Jones recalled.
The next day, as expected, Jones was called into the office of Taylor Smith, the Falcons' president. Smith said he admired Jones for imploring his team to keep battling against tough odds, but that a coaching change was needed.
Because Jones did not sign the contract extension, the Falcons were only obligated to pay Jones for the next two weeks.
But Smith then handed Jones a paper, telling him to sign it. It was the contract extension. Although Jones would be fired for the first time in his life, he would receive two more years of pay.
"He didn't have to do that," Jones said. "That was very generous. But the truth is, I've never worried about that stuff. The coaching business is the most insecure business there is. You're day to day, year to year. I've seen so many coaches on pins and needles. That's why I always pray for peace."
Three weeks ago, after UH defeated Boise State to clinch the Western Athletic Conference championship, Jones received a congratulatory call from Smith.
"That was one of the best calls I ever received," Jones said.
Smith will be on the UH sideline during the Sugar Bowl.
NO OPEN CELEBRATION
What's wrong with this picture?
The image on the television screen, Jones' expressionless face, did not match the on-field celebration.
The Warriors had just completed Division I-A's only unbeaten regular season, and Jones stared impassionately as if Freon coursed through his veins.
At the team banquet the next night, Jones muttered a few introductions before ceding most of the script to emcee Robert Kekaula.
His behavior was too chilly, almost rude — and, as it turned out, misunderstood.
The season and this team had meant so much, that if he spoke, he would break down in tears, and who knows when he would be able to stop? He was emotional the entire day leading to the banquet, and if he were to stand before the 1,400 fans and family members and talk about quarterback Colt Brennan, who sacrificed millions of NFL dollars to be a part of this season, or defensive tackle Michael Lafaele, a father of three who led the summer workouts ...
No, no, no.
Love can be shown in deeds, not words.
"His media persona belies who he is," Pastor Norm said. "At the very core, he is a very sensitive, loving and compassionate person — which is not what football players want to be associated with. But that's the June I know. He really cares about his players."
Kevin Kaplan, executive director of the 3 1/2-year-old June Jones Foundation, said: "If there is a better person out there, I have not met him or her. He is so kind and generous. He has so much humility."
Jones has offered second chances to several players who had legal problems.
He gave a scholarship to running back James Fenderson, who was living in his car.
He refused to release a player from his scholarship because he feared for the player's safety if he returned to his crime-infested neighborhood.
Four years ago, he was riding on his Harley when, by chance, he stopped at an event for HUGS, a not-for-profit organization that helps families who have a child with a life-threatening illness or fragile medical condition. Soon after, he created his foundation. In three years, the foundation has raised $250,000 in grants for several charities, including HUGS.
A few years ago, Jones learned that Mun Kin Wong, the quarterback and lone survivor of the 1941 UH team whose season was abbreviated because of the Pearl Harbor attack, had not received his varsity letter. Jones invited Wong to the Quarterbacks for Charity dinner in September. The lights dimmed, and a video was shown of the 1941 team. When the lights were turned back on, Jones was at the podium, holding a varsity letter and jersey for 85-year-old Wong.
"He's a very nice guy who will do anything for anyone," said close friend Al Souza, who has known Jones for more than 30 years.
Jones had noticed that Brian Kajiyama, who is in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, attended every practice. Through his players, Jones learned of Kajiyama's sharp mind — he has a master's degree — and his passion for football. This year, Jones gave Kajiyama a job as graduate assistant. In September, during a team meeting in which the real-life "Rudy" spoke, Kajiyama was presented an additional $2,500 scholarship as a reward for his contributions to the team.
And in January, before Brennan decided to return to UH for his senior season, Jones made his own promise.
The deadline to apply for the NFL draft was Jan. 17. After that, a player could not rescind his application.
Jones recalled: "I said to him, and this was like 10 days before that 17th deadline, 'If you make the decision you want to stay, I'll be here next year. Don't worry about me on the 29th deciding I'm not going to coach here and you got stuck. If you decide to stay, and somebody calls me with an offer after the 17th, I'll say no.'"
Pastor Norm said: "The public doesn't really know the real June. As his pastor, I have the privilege of seeing a different side of him. He really loves people. He loves the underdog. He has been the underdog."
Indeed, despite being one of the most interviewed local personalties, Jones has managed, as the saying goes, to hide in plain sight.
Sometimes, that has hurt Jones. He has been linked — falsely — to many people he has never met.
The rumors, he said, "frustrated me a lot. It used to bother me when I was going through some things. But it doesn't bother me anymore. I play it off."
Jones said he leads a mundane life away from the university.
"I don't go anywhere," he said. "I go home. I go out to dinner. I go to (the) Waialae (Country Club) to see my buddies. I'm not going to the opera or to going to some new movie that's coming out. I'm not into those things. I don't go to parties. I've never been on a dance floor in my life."
Jones and his ex-wife, Diane, have a friendly relationship. She moved back to Hawai'i two years ago so together they could raise their fourth child, June IV, or "Juner."
They own two units in a Kahala highrise. "Bought it and remodeled it," Jones said. "It's a great location."
His unit is decorated in simplicity.
"Big-screen TV and a bed," he said.
Diane manages property in Portland. She returns there a few times a year, often bringing along Juner if Jones is busy with football work.
But 13-year-old Juner, who is approaching 6 feet, spends most of the year in Hawai'i. "He plays all of the sports," Jones said. "He's with his buddies."
Juner is part of a home-school program, just like his three adult siblings were at his age. He will attend a conventional high school when he is a freshman.
"It's worth it," Jones said of home schooling.
The program uses DVDs, allowing Juner to study in Portland or Honolulu.
"It's like you're in the classroom," Jones said of the structured lessons. "He stands up, says the Pledge of Allegiance. When I watch the (DVDs), it's how you and I went to school. That's what it's like. That's what I like about it."
Jones said the lessons are time-consuming, but have produced positive results. Every year, Juner takes a state exam. "He scores in the 95 percentile in almost everything," Jones said, proudly.
FINDING HIS OWN PARADISE
Jones is in the final seven months of a contract that pays him $800,016 annually, half of which is raised through donations.
Contract talks, at his request, have been put on hold until after the Sugar Bowl.
He is not worried.
In 24 years of coaching, in two professional leagues and at UH, "I've let my contract run out six times, which is unheard of," Jones said. "Do I worry about it? No, I don't."
He needs two more years in the NFL to qualify for the maximum pension.
"It's not a significant amount of money," Jones said of the difference from the retirement benefits he would now receive. "If I never got it, it would not bother me."
He does not appear to be interested in coaching at another university.
His four-wide offense, once considered to be radical, is now in vogue among the NFL's elite teams.
But, he said, "for me to go back to the National Football League, it would have to be a real special situation. I don't know if there are those anymore."
Besides, his next quest has nothing to do with football.
Jones has been to Kona many times. It was at a hotel near the Hualalai golf course, in 1999, when "I was sitting in a jacuzzi, looking at a billion stars, and saying, 'this is the best place I've been in my life.'"
Or so he thought.
Jones was invited to play golf at Hokuli'a.
"I'm driving (there), and I'm going, 'Oh, my gosh, this is unbelievable,'" Jones recalled thinking.
He walked to a pavilion, which was 150 feet above a cove. John De Fries, the property's CEO, was the only other person in the pavilion. They had not talked to each other since the 1970s, when De Fries' family served as host for Jones, who was a high school exchange student.
"We hadn't talked in 30 years, but it seemed like no time had passed," Jones said.
Jones could not help but admire nature's architecture. Then he looked down at the cove. Right at the mouth, there is a steep drop. Whales, drawn to the sound of the crashing waves, swim right to the edge.
"It's a heaven on Earth," Jones said. "It is so beautiful. I'll go there, and I don't even feel like playing golf. There's such peace and spirituality there."
Lapsing contracts. Pressure to win. Gossip. None of that matters here.
June Jones has found paradise.
Visit Tsai's blog at www.HawaiiWarriorBeat.com.
• • •
During Jones' Tenure
Dec. 12, 1998: Hawai'i announces hiring of June Jones as football coach. He spurns a multi-year offer from the San Diego Chargers to become their permanent head coach. Jones had been interim head coach. His salary is $320,000 a year.
Reach Stephen Tsai at email@example.com.
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