Summer endeavor opens doors for Jones

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Casey Coy picked TJ Jones up from the Courtyard Tampa Downtown on July 12 and took him less than 2 miles to his workplace, the Florida Aquarium. There, the lifelong Notre Dame fan and Notre Dame's top receiver engaged in something of a experiment for both parties.

Coy, the aquarium's director of dive operations, had never instructed a job shadower with a background quite like Jones' -- an elite-level, team-sport athlete who is closing in on an NFL career. Jones, who tied for the team lead last season with 50 catches for the 12-1 Irish, had only one previous encounter with underwater animals.

At SeaWorld. On a family trip. As a 10-year-old.

"It's really just something that never left my mind," Jones said Sunday of that trip, some 11 years ago. "I don't know why, but I have a weird fascination with marine mammals, and when I go to SeaWorld I feel like a little kid. When I go watch the Shamu Show, I'm almost in awe of the creatures, their abilities, how those people get to work with them every day. It's just something that's never left my mind, that I wish or hope to do after I graduate."

So the film, television and theatre major reached out to football alumni relations point man Reggie Brooks, acting on an itch that he just could not shake. Brooks hooked him up with Coy, who welcomed Jones aboard last month for a 2-day venture that validated the senior's instinct, placing him in the path of sharks, turtles, eels and other sea creatures inside a tank.

Swimming eye-to-eye with some sharks that he said weighed 300 pounds, Jones was able to muster self-control, adapting early and re-enforcing the initial impulse that told him this could turn out to be something more than just a one-time foray.

Just ask the 19-year diving veteran who helped show him the ropes.

"His confidence, it's very rare," Coy, a Colorado graduate, said. "I've been diving since 1981, and I'm a pretty confident person. He was unique in that area. I put him in right away with the big sharks and with the surface supply training, which is not normal for a brand new diver and a brand new candidate to come in and be able to just do it in short order, and he was able to do that. So I think that speaks to his confidence in himself and also his pro-activeness in terms of knowing what he wants to do and knowing that if he wants to get into this field he needs to be able to do these things."

"Whatever anxieties he may or may not have had," Coy later added, "he didn't share them verbally."

Nor did he allow himself to think them.

"My thing was, 'Don't panic, you're in the water, you have every disadvantage to their advantage,'" Jones said of sharks. "So if I was to panic or if something was to go wrong, it's probably going to be over for me. I wasn't going to make it out with me being underwater and being at such a disadvantage, so regardless of how I was feeling or any jitters I may have had, I just tried my best to keep calm."

The Midwest has hardly been the ideal place to pursue a career in the field. So Coy put Jones in touch with Lindsay Huebner, a senior divemaster and dive trainer who just happened to be a 2008 Notre Dame graduate.

"I went through similar circumstances as him," said Huebner, who majored in biological sciences and interned with the Central Caribbean Marine Institute in the summer before her senior year. "While I was at Notre Dame, I was really interested in marine sciences, so you start looking for opportunities elsewhere. And it was a lot of fun having him here because he was really enthusiastic and was really excited to pick up as much as he could."

Jones grew to feel at home in the water by the end of his stay. He plans to keep in touch with Coy and Huebner, having emailed both in the days afterward to thank them for the introduction.

For now, though, those dreams are back on hold, as Jones tends to one last piece of business in the field that will likely soon become his business after Notre Dame.

"You figure if he is going to jump into a tank of sharks, he's going to go over the middle without any fear," said coach Brian Kelly, who anointed Jones as a potential first-round NFL draft pick. "I was pretty excited it was T.J. Jones in there."