When Anthony Jones took a bullet in a drive-by that missed his brain by centimeters, many believed his NFL dreams were over. But the running back had other ideas.
By Chase Goodbread | Published Oct. 22, 2019
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.
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."
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. Dwight Jackson
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.