Keeping up with the Joneses

Sam Jones is flanked by his grandfather Jack and his father, David, both former Navy lax players. Courtesy of Navy Athletics

Growing up almost a stone's throw away, Sam Jones was used to the Yard. His father and grandfather, both alums and former players, had brought him there countless times for lacrosse games and shared stories about the Naval Academy and life after it.

However, none of that could have prepared Jones for this day.

In no time at all, his head was shaved. All of Jones' belongings, save for his toothbrush, were confiscated. In their place were a white uniform and a small book called "Reef Points" -- over 100 pages of information, from the Naval Academy's mission to rules and meal menus -- that he would have to know better than his own name.

Family? Friends? For the most part, nonexistent. The only outside contact for incoming freshmen, or plebes, was one phone call every other week.

"Plebe Summer is a culture shock," said Jones, a junior who leads Navy (3-5) with 13 goals and 21 points heading into Saturday's game against Colgate.

Up before dawn, his plebe class spent its days doing grueling workouts, learning how to operate in stressful situations, understanding how to use firearms properly and accurately as well as beginning to navigate the water. The class' only down time each week lasted from 10 p.m. Saturday night to noon Sunday.

"It's a lot easier to look back at it now and say it's fun," Jones reflected. "You talk to a freshman that just finished it, the word 'fun' will never come out of their mouth."

Jones' naivete during those first seven weeks has long since disappeared and, according to those close to him, has been replaced by something far different.

"He was unassuming," said Capt. Owen Thorp, an assistant professor in the department of weapons and systems engineering and the lacrosse team's academic adviser. "He was a good plebe -- you know, didn't want to stand out, but as the years have gone on he's gained that confidence, he's gained that leadership chutzpah."

At the academy, the student body, or brigade, runs the show, from standing watch on campus day and night to formally training the younger midshipmen. On the Yard, Jones bears the title of 10th Company training sergeant and is tasked, three to four days a week at 5:30 a.m., with preparing his company's current plebe class of 35-40 freshmen for the mental and physical rigors that lie ahead.

Once completed, Jones "shoves off" for morning meal formation at 7, his four morning classes, an abbreviated noon meal with the brigade, weightlifting or team film study at 12:30 p.m., then more classes. By 3:45 p.m., he has traded in one Navy uniform for another as he heads to Rip Miller Field with his teammates to get ready for the upcoming lacrosse game. His excusal from the start of evening meal formation gives him time to head to the athletic trainer's room for any necessary treatment. With evening meal service nearly over, he ducks into King Hall for 10 minutes to grab dinner before it's time to study and call it a night once the clock strikes midnight.

"What he's doing is unusual," Thorp said of the fact that not all varsity athletes at the academy have the kind of company responsibilities that Jones has. "It's -- from an effort standpoint -- a superhuman effort, but somehow Sam in his own way gets it done and is very well-respected for it."

The respect doesn't come just from those off the lacrosse field.

"He's one of those players that the players gravitate toward," second-year Navy coach Rick Sowell said.

Sowell describes Jones as a "high-energy guy" with a hearty laugh and an infectious smile, but the coach is also quick to point out that Jones isn't just a locker room guy.

"He's that type of guy you want to give the ball in crunch time," Sowell said. "He's going to find a way to get it done."

One needs only to look back to last year's Patriot League game against Colgate and the nation's leading scorer, Peter Baum, to see what Sowell means.

A back-and-forth bout throughout the game, Navy came up with a big stop in the fourth quarter to set up a final chance to break an 11-all deadlock before regulation expired.

The Midshipmen called a timeout with about 10 seconds left to draw up a play.

It started with the ball up top. A fake dodge by a teammate helped set up getting the ball to Jones behind the cage, where the 5-foot-8, 176-pound attackman got a step on his defender as he peeled off to the right side of the net. With the defender closely on his heels and blocking a clean shot, Jones dived away from the goal and the defender to create enough separation to muscle a one-handed, game-winning shot past the Raiders' goalie with just 3.4 seconds showing on the scoreboard. It was his third goal of the day to go along with two assists.

"He's a bottom-line guy," Sowell said of Jones, who has started every game he has played at Navy and registered a point in all but three of them. "He's just going to get the job done."

Even with the successes with his teammates on the field and within his company on the Yard, Jones, like everybody else, isn't perfect.

Thorp, the team's academic adviser, points out that Jones is a hard worker in the classroom but isn't the most gifted student. Jones isn't afraid to poke fun at his ability to pick up French, a class the junior is taking this term.

"By no means would I consider myself bilingual," laughed Jones.

There have been times, too, when the weight and challenges of being a mid rising up the ranks hit a little harder.

"There's definitely days," Jones said, "I'll look in the mirror -- especially that first year, you look in the mirror, you're like, 'What have I gotten myself into?' Like, 'There's got to be another way.'"

That's where lacrosse has helped. Jones knows he can always turn to his brotherhood of teammates for anything from a pick-me-up to a quick laugh.

"I get to play lacrosse ... with 50 of my best friends every day," he said. "I live around these guys; I get to see them every day. I get to see my friends more than anybody else in America."

Turning to sports and the camaraderie found within them wasn't a new way to cope with life's struggles once Jones arrived at the academy. It's one way, his dad says, Jones got through his early years of high school.

When he was a freshman at nearby Severna Park High School, Jones lost his mother to leukemia.

"It was devastating ... for all of us," said Sam's father, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Jones.

Since then, David says, Sam hasn't taken a step back.

"He doesn't play on [the passing of his mother]," David said. "It's never been an excuse."

In fact, David said the loss fueled his son and in more ways than just athletics.

"If anything, he became a little bit more focused," David said of his son's efforts in the classroom, knowing he would have to have high grades to be admitted into the academy.

"He's got a stubbornness about him that when he wants something, he really goes after it."

Now, with graduation almost a year away, that determination, coupled with Sam's physical strength and leadership ability, is about to be tested again. He will soon have to decide which path he wants to pursue in either the Navy or the Marines.

He has several options, and although Sam says many are still in play, his dad is hard-pressed to find a field his son won't succeed in.

"The real attribute that he has that allows him to do things that are kind of out of the box is he's not afraid -- really of anything," David said. "He's not afraid of life. He's not afraid to fail."

Devon Heinen is a production assistant at ESPN.