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NFL dreams back on track for FIU's Anthony Jones after tragedy

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OPA-LOCKA, Fla. -- Dwight Jackson was helpless. The flight attendant had closed the door, the safety instructions were underway, and the Southwest Airlines direct flight from Fort Lauderdale to Washington, D.C., was taking off whether he liked it or not. The flight attendant's standard demand for cell phones to be switched to airplane mode had no chance of getting compliance.

Behind the Miami Central High School assistant coach, many of the Rockets' 70-plus players, coaches and staff were madly searching, texting, Snapchatting, burning through messaging apps to glean anything -- just one more shred or scrap of intel -- before the plane's ascent plunged all their devices into no-signal darkness. Just before takeoff, the frightening news had reached the plane, and this is all they knew:

Anthony Jones had been shot, and earliest word was the bullet hit the former Rockets star and current Florida International running back in the face.

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They boarded that flight Sept. 6 of last year and were headed for a marquee showdown of two high school football teams ranked in the nation's top 10, against St. John's College High, looking to uphold a legacy that Jones, and to a larger extent, Jones' entire family, had helped build. For two-and-a-half agonizing hours, they flew expecting the worst -- anxious, but at the same time, afraid to land and re-activate their phones. The coaches made the difficult decision not to address the team on the flight, because they felt more information was needed to do so.

As the wheels came up and the nose of the plane pointed skyward, Jackson began to pray.

"Not on my table. Please. Anthony Jones cannot end up on my table."

* * * * *



The heat was stifling, and there was Kool-Aid inside.

That was the last topic of discussion on the porch at 2410 Northwest 140th St. that Jones can remember before all hell broke loose.

Jones stood with his back to the street, facing one of his best childhood friends, Mershawn Miller -- a teammate in youth leagues, at Central High, and now at FIU, who sat on the ground with his back against the powder blue exterior wall. Miller had left his Panthers travel bag at a nearby house a week earlier and was in the neighborhood to retrieve it with FIU preparing to leave for a Week 2 road game at Old Dominion. On the way to do so, they stopped at a different house upon seeing Miller's brother, Cedric, there, talking to friends on the porch. Cedric, who had starred as a Central High running back before Jones did, headed inside for some Kool-Aid when Jones, Miller and two others on the porch told him to pour a round for everyone.

Seconds later, a darkly tinted silver Nissan Sentra slowly rolled past as its rear window on the driver's side rolled down, from which 15 rounds from a 9 mm handgun were unloaded on the unsuspecting group. With his back turned, Jones first thought the gunshots were fireworks; he'd never witnessed gunfire before, much less been on the deadly end of it, but knew firecrackers to be popular in South Florida.

But then one of those 15 bullets pierced Jones' upper back, tore through his throat, exited just below his left eye, then lodged into Mershawn Miller's right arm, and the two realized this was no fireworks show. The two others on the porch -- one of whom was presumably the target -- ran around the side of the house, while Jones and Miller made a break for the front door to get inside. As Miller, a 313-pound FIU offensive lineman, jumped up from the ground, he collided with Jones' legs and tripped him, causing both to fall at the front door, Jones atop Miller, just as half a dozen bullets struck the door at head level.

The Sentra, with no tag, sped off.

"We weren't even going to be there but a minute," said Jones, who didn't know the shooter, "and the situation just went left."

Jones sprinted to a nearby yard, where neighbors he didn't know stopped him and insisted he lay down until medical help arrived. The exit wound below his eye convinced neighbors he'd taken a bullet directly to the face, and when they reported that on a 911 call, it set off a false narrative that took root in local media through the police report, which referenced the 911 call, and in rumors that immediately reached the Southwest flight about to take off from Fort Lauderdale.

It's one of three points about the shooting that Jones' mother, Betty Cook, will sharply correct, even now more than a year later, if someone still doesn't have them straight.

"My baby was not shot in the face, he was not the target, and he wasn't lucky," she said. "He was blessed."

First responders moved Jones to an open field at nearby Carrie P. Meek Elementary school -- the same field he'd once played on during P.E. periods when it was known as Westview Elementary -- so he could be airlifted by helicopter to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center. Betty Cook drove to the scene so fast, she was there just as her son was being placed on a stretcher, and to Ryder Trauma so fast, she somehow beat the helicopter.

"Don't ask me how fast I was going," she said. "I jumped on I-95 and my gas light was on, and I was hoping I didn't run out of gas. When I got there, I saw the helicopter landing on the roof."

Doctors told Betty it was something of a medical miracle her son wasn't more seriously injured, or even dead. The bullet had missed his spine by centimeters, his brain by centimeters, and passed through his head without damaging any nerves, arteries or other vital areas. Gunshot wounds to the head carry a 90 percent fatality rate, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, and Jones not only survived, he was conscious and alert until doctors had to place him in a medically-induced coma for emergency surgery. FIU Associate Athletic Director for Sports Medicine Kevin O'Neill, who served as head athletic trainer with the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins for a combined 26 years, affirmed the miraculous nature of the bullet's path.

"That this bullet entered where it did, traveled to where it exited, and did not hit a vessel, a nerve or disrupt the eye, or hit an artery that would cause him to bleed out and die ... it is almost inconceivable that it missed everything that it missed," O'Neill said. "It traveled up through the neck, which is just loaded with nerves and blood vessels, into the side of his esophagus, up through the soft palate in the top of the mouth and out below the eye. This was absolutely a miracle."

A community fraught with gun violence was left to be thankful for the survival of Jones and everyone else on that porch. And left to ponder the what-ifs.

What if Miller had just chosen a different time to pick up his travel bag?

What if Jones and Miller hadn't fallen over each other, and instead ran into the line of fire trying to get to the door?

What if Cedric had made Kool-Aid only for himself? Those extra pours kept him in the house a few more seconds that might have saved his life.

And what if, God forbid, Jones had ended up on Jackson's table?

* * * * *



Along with coaching at Miami Central, Dwight Jackson is a third-generation funeral director who has operated Richardson Mortuary for decades. His grandparents opened South Florida's oldest African-American-owned funeral home in 1927. It's just three miles south of Central High -- just seven miles south of where Jones and Miller were shot -- and stands in the heart of one of Miami's most dangerous areas: Liberty City. After a rash of Liberty City shootings in 2018, including the killing of a 4-year-old girl, a joint law enforcement initiative to curb gun violence, dubbed Operation Blue and Brown, netted 86 arrests and 19 firearm confiscations.

Appropriately, Richardson Mortuary sits adjacent to two churches.

Jackson prepares more gun violence victims for burial than he cares to count. He didn't need to be told what a miracle it was that Jones' life was spared; those without the benefit of a miracle often cross his table.

"I just buried a kid who was shot in the face. I've done that multiple times. You don't just get shot in the face like that and survive," Jackson said. "It was intense on that flight, not knowing enough about Anthony's condition. We were hanging off a cliff. I thought the worst. Had he passed away, I'd have to be the one to handle him."

Jackson ascribes Jones' survival to divine intervention, and plenty of current and former Rockets would have to agree. He uses his business to impact his players by employing them to assist in various tasks around the funeral home. Some are kids who are simply between jobs or need a few extra dollars; others are at-risk and need a wake-up call. They help Jackson prepare bodies for burial, greet grieving families at the door for viewing services, even arrange flowers and limousine rides to the cemetery. On a simple, basic level, it provides them a first-hand education on the day-to-day operations of a functioning business. But on a much more emotional level, it impresses upon them that no matter how common gun violence is in their neighborhoods, it has a tragic result that leaves a permanent mark on the families it impacts.

Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman is among the former Rockets who have worked at Richardson Mortuary. So has former Jaguars and Colts linebacker Carroll Phillips, and several other former Central players who've reached the NFL. Central assistant coach A.J. Snipes, now 43, had his eyes opened at the funeral home as a teenager.

"That is America's best-kept secret," Snipes said of Jackson's outreach. "You don't forget. It's been 20-some years since my father took me in there, and I remember everything. I can remember what the lamp on the table looked like. What the hallways looked like, everything. If you're going to play ball, you can't have one foot on the field and one in the streets. That place drives that lesson home."

Jackson first put Anthony Jones to work in the mortuary when he was a Central High freshman in 2011. At first, Jones couldn't get used to the smell and didn't want to return. Eventually, his positive personality made him the best option Jackson had for greeting families and making them feel more at ease. Earlier this summer, Jones witnessed Jackson prepare the body of a childhood friend with whom he attended middle school. He'd been shot, Jones said, 23 times.

"It will get you right, seeing what I do," Jackson said. "My motto to the kids is, the reason I coach you is to keep you out of jail, or to keep you off my table."

* * * * *



A few flowers bloom just ahead of Betty Cook's front door, and the only thing not so inviting about the home -- a "Beware of Dog" sign on the backyard gate -- warns of nothing. The dog, she says, wouldn't bite a soul. Betty prefers dim lighting indoors, but the house's exterior couldn't be much brighter. Yellow paint makes her residence stand out on 131st Street, a few blocks south of Opa-Locka.

What she's done for Miami Central football -- part team mom, part matriarch -- stands out even more.

In the Rockets' four-peat run of state championships from 2012 to '15, her grandson Dalvin Cook began the state-title streak in the Rockets backfield, and her son, Anthony Jones, helped finish it. Cook, the Minnesota Vikings' second-round pick out of Florida State in 2017, grew up with Jones in that yellow house, and current Georgia running back James Cook, Dalvin's younger brother, followed. Jones is an uncle to Dalvin and James, even though he's younger than Dalvin by a couple years, but their relationship has always been brotherly. Betty's living room is loaded with trophies, photos and memorabilia from her boys' football careers.

The program has enjoyed its share of talent over the years, but no single roof in the area sheltered more of it than the one on the house owned by Miss Betty, as players call her. Aside from the college and pro players she can call her own, she's been known to take in other Central players in need from time to time. One, former FSU Seminole Da'Vante Phillips, lost his mother to a drive-by shooting and moved into Miss Betty's yellow house to finish high school.

"She's opened her home to multiple kids from Central. She's a trooper. Everyone in our community knows it," said FIU running backs coach Tim Harris. "To keep those kids away from all that goes on here, all the outside things that go on in our community, to keep them away from that and raise them in a positive direction, that's something special."

During the five seasons from Dalvin's first year to Jones' last, she made around 65 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the team every day, four days a week, for the entire football season, plus four weeks of spring practice. Over five years, that's about 25,000 sandwiches, all individually bagged. Every day, she went through six loaves of bread, and every week, six giant jars of creamy Jif peanut butter.

"I got so much practice with my system, I got to where I could make 65 sandwiches in 45 minutes," she said.

And she always made a few extra for the kids she knew probably got the least to eat at home.

More than just beloved, she is revered.

It's no wonder, then, the lobby at the trauma center where Jones was flown was so packed, the receptionist claimed to have never seen so many people gathered for one person.

When the 9 mm round first pierced Jones' back, it also ripped a hole in all the South Florida communities he'd made himself a part of with his disarming smile, positive attitude and unyielding determination. As it tore through his throat and exited his face, it wounded those on Central High's flight to D.C., bloodied all who knew him from the Westview neighborhood where he grew up, and leveled dozens in the FIU football building. One of the paramedics on the scene of the shooting, who helped prepare Jones for the helicopter, had coached him years earlier in youth football.

When word broke at FIU, Harris was too upset to drive himself to the hospital and had to ride with a graduate assistant. And up in Minnesota, Dalvin Cook called constantly -- using Facetime, insisting to see Jones himself -- to check on his condition. At first, Cook intended to fly home to be with Jones, but Jones and Miss Betty convinced him to stay and focus on the Vikings' season opener against the San Francisco 49ers in three days. Worried about his uncle, Cook couldn't sleep at night and had to take sleeping pills to get proper rest in order to be ready for the game. He tallied 95 total yards on 22 touches in a 24-16 win.

"I ran the rock for him that day," Cook said.

* * * * *



That Jones' injuries never rendered him unconscious was a positive sign about his condition, but an alarming amount of swelling in his neck gave doctors significant concern upon his arrival at Ryder Trauma. Jones described his neck as looking like that of "a 600-pound man," and doctors decided to place him in a medically-induced coma to explore the cause of swelling. They found internal bleeding from his esophagus, which had been nicked by the bullet, and repaired that as well as the damage to his throat.

Two nights later, with Jones still in a coma and FIU players preoccupied with his condition, the Panthers found themselves trailing Old Dominion 20-14 at halftime. Olin Cushion, another Central-to-FIU player, slipped in a phone call to Miss Betty when halftime was extended by a lightning delay.

"Anthony is doing fine," she told him. "But what about you guys? You're supposed to be winning this game for him and you're not looking too good."

FIU rallied for a 28-20 win and brought home a game ball for Jones autographed by the team. Jones awoke from the coma after four days, on a Tuesday, and told Betty he loved her. She sobbed tears of joy -- the first time she'd cried through the entire ordeal -- for half an hour. And for the three more days Jones was hospitalized, the game ball barely left his hands.

Jones was determined to return to the field before the end of the season, but the feeding tube he was required to use for two weeks after his release from the hospital slowed his rehab efforts. Doctors wouldn't allow him to eat while his throat and esophagus healed, so a tube that entered through his nostrils and extended below the esophageal damage was used to keep him nourished. A milky formula that didn't smell particularly good was delivered to his stomach through the tube for two weeks, but it didn't provide enough calories to sustain his weight and certainly wasn't enough to sustain rigorous exercise. He lost roughly 20 pounds, from 205 to about 185, and could do little more than walk briskly on a treadmill until he was able to eat food regularly.

"We had to work around the tube," said FIU strength coach Chad Smith. "I've never had to deal with anything like that before -- it was a new experience for all of us."

On Nov. 3, against rival Florida Atlantic, Jones made an inspiring return to the field -- just 58 days after being shot -- and had eight carries for 31 yards.

Incredibly enough, Mershawn Miller needed more time to return to the field with a gunshot wound to the arm than Jones needed for one through the neck. Miller suffered tendon damage that restricted the use of his thumb for weeks. Initially, doctors told him he would heal without removing the slug from his arm, but days later, an infection set in and removal was necessary. Miller said the surgeon told him some skin -- presumably Jones' -- was found on the bullet when it was removed, a potential cause of the infection.

"They called it a dirty bullet," Miller said. "That's how we know the same bullet got both of us."

Jones capped the 2018 season with three touchdowns against Toledo in the Bahamas Bowl. NFL clubs will have to lean heavily on Jones' performance this season to evaluate his pro potential. He missed all of 2017 with a knee injury, and after missing two months in 2018 recovering from the shooting, 2019 must be his pro springboard. Athletically, he can vertically jump 37.5 inches, and carries just 6 percent body fat. But scouts will also want to see wire-to-wire production from an opener to a bowl game.

To that end, Jones has been healthy throughout this season and has anchored the FIU rushing attack of late, posting his third consecutive 100-yard rushing game Saturday against UTEP, while adding a 61-yard reception. Through seven games this season, while splitting carries in a three-back rotation, he's rushed for 512 yards on 102 carries with seven touchdowns. Harris compares him to Miami Dolphins RB Mark Walton, whom he coached in high school. Jackson sees a Roger Craig-like knee lift in Jones' stride.

"Anthony's a little stronger (than Walton) at this point in his career -- he's naturally strong," Harris said. "He can shorten his stride and make people miss in the open field. The question mark will be top-end speed. That's something he'll work on."

That strength shows up in the form of 18 bench press reps at 225 pounds, and a squat max of 580 that strength coach Chad Smith believes would be 600-plus if he allowed Jones to try it. He ran a 40-yard dash in the 4.7s last winter, a clocking he'll need to improve significantly to draw more scouting attention. Times in the 4.7 range were the primary reason former Georgia running back Elijah Holyfield went undrafted in April and had to sign with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent. Absent a better speed clocking, Jones' NFL opportunity could come as an undrafted free agent, as well.

* * * * *



Minutes after Jones was air-lifted from his old elementary school field, four TV news trucks converged on the crime scene. Shootings might be all too common in South Florida, but when two college football players are collateral damage in a drive-by, attention is demanded.

Media scrutiny is high. The pressure for justice rises.

The police investigation was meticulous, right down to a bullet that entered the house, struck a dog, and was extracted by a vet so it could be collected for evidence.

Fear of retribution can sometimes deter residents of violence-stricken communities from assisting police investigations. But this time, a neighborhood stood up and said, No more. A day after the shooting, Opa-Locka police had a street name -- Doudou -- and an address for Lorenzo Shine, the man eventually charged with two counts of attempted murder in the case.

"If you've been in the streets doing (bad) things, and you put yourself in that lifestyle, some people think, 'He had that coming,' and so they're not going to get involved. But when you've got two college students that don't bother anyone, and they're shot, the community will say, 'No, we're not standing for this. This is who did it. We saw who did it,' " Snipes said. "It says a lot about their character."

While cooperation with police helped lead to Shine's arrest, the case was dropped because, according to a close-out memo, there was insufficient evidence to charge Shine with either attempted murder or accessory after the fact.

Nobody could positively identify the shooter or even Shine as the driver. A firearm recovered upon Shine's arrest was determined not to be the gun used in the shooting; that gun was recovered months later but could not be tied to a suspect. Surveillance video put the Sentra in the neighborhood at the time but did not include the shooting, and the dark tinting prevented passenger identification. Shine first denied driving the Sentra, then later admitted it, but refused to identify anyone else in the car and claimed to know nothing of any plan for a shooting.

Still, Betty said she is satisfied with police efforts.

Miller believes there is a lesson to be learned for him and Jones, even though both were innocent victims.

"It taught me to watch out more," Miller said. "You can be hanging out with a friend or somebody you don't really even know, and you don't know what he's done or if someone's looking for him."

Police never publicly declared a motive in the case, nor did they reveal the identity of the target. But they did tell Betty Cook that Shine said he'd never met Jones. Shine had been released from prison on burglary and armed robbery charges less than three months before the shooting. Despite the case being dropped, Betty said she believes Shine's judgment is forthcoming.

"God will deal with that," Betty said. "He will get what he deserves, and it will be worse than what happened to Anthony."

Jones has tried to put that harrowing September day behind him. That might be harder had his facial appearance been disfigured. But the miracle that spared his life proved to extend even to cosmetics; his only physical scar is on his upper back at the entry wound. But when he looks in the mirror, he sees no sign of the exit wound -- not even a hint of a scar where the bullet flew out below his eye to complete its impossibly safe navigation.

Physically, it's like it never happened. Emotionally, it remains unforgettable.

When police asked Miller if he wanted to be kept updated on the progress of the case, he said no thanks. Jones, meanwhile, looks ahead to what he hopes will be an NFL career.

Looking back doesn't do much good.

"I'm not bitter. I'm not saying I don't care what happens to him, but whatever God's got set for him, that's what's set for him," Jones said. "God blessed me to see another day."

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