Lions' TJ Jones finds special meaning in fatherhood

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He ran down the tunnel and out onto the field like so many of his teammates that April day in 2010. TJ Jones heard about this feeling often from his father. He was about to live it himself.

He enrolled early at Notre Dame, and the spring game would be the first time he would play in the same stadium his father, Andre, played in as a defensive end and captain.

Like his dad, TJ wore No. 7. Not like his dad, TJ played receiver. As TJ ran onto the field, his father was there to see it. Andre saw TJ receive first-team snaps and catch a touchdown pass from Dayne Crist.

For father, for son, this was huge. This was the moment Andre always wanted.

After the game, a couple of people stopped TJ for autographs outside the stadium. Then another man stepped in front of him, asking him to sign a media guide and a picture. The man felt it might be worth something someday. The voice sounded familiar.

TJ looked up. It was Andre.

"It was such a weird, kind of surreal moment," TJ said. "The guy whose autograph I had always asked for, whose jersey I always wanted to wear at school, was now turning around and role reversal. He wanted my autograph. He wanted my Notre Dame jersey.

"It was fun to see how the script had kind of flipped, and it kind of felt as if he was looking at me as his hero, whereas he was always mine."

Notre Dame was special for Andre. He formed so many of his strong relationships there. He got close to the man who would become TJ's godfather -- Raghib "Rocket" Ismail. Andre was proud he went to the school, but didn't want to pressure his son to attend.

He wanted TJ to make his own decision -- and initially he picked Stanford. Andre liked Stanford. But he hoped TJ would change his mind.

Besides, Andre had become close with TJ's recruiter at Notre Dame, Tony Alford. The two hatched a plan. They let TJ make his own decision, but Andre would try to show TJ the benefits of his alma mater by taking him to South Bend as much as possible.

"It meant everything," said Phillip Daniels, a man close enough to Andre and his family that TJ calls him uncle. "Andre talked about Notre Dame so much."

It eventually worked, in part because of the love Notre Dame showed Andre whenever he'd go back.

"Andre put his son in a place where he knew in his heart it would make his son right," said Alford, now at Ohio State. "His son would be right. It would be good. It would be set. Regardless of what happened to him, his son was in a good place and it was a good place for him."

This was how Andre operated. People gravitated toward the large man with the constant jokes and the heart big enough to envelop almost everyone he met. If he met you and liked you, you became family immediately. TJ's high school coach, Todd Wofford, had a child within weeks of meeting Andre. Andre asked for his address. Soon, the Jones family showed up at his house with baby gifts and food.

When Alford's father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Andre offered daily Scripture. Andre, who never met Alford's father, would be on the phone with him offering Bible verses. This was how Andre and his wife, Michele, raised their children. Care for others. Take care of your academics and your athletics. Be strong in your conviction and be compassionate toward others.

Andre trusted Wofford. He trusted Alford. And the trust was important to Andre.

"One of the things we talked about is, he said, 'Man, I trust ya and I need you to watch over for my son as if he's your own. While he's in South Bend, treat him as your own child,'" Alford said. "I took that to heart."

Alford figured this was merely a father making sure his son was in the best possible place. He couldn't have known how much that pact would end up meaning.

By TJ's freshman year, Andre and Alford talked regularly - and often the subject wasn't TJ. They'd sometimes argue about TJ's role, but at the end of every conversation, Alford and Andre shared their mutual appreciation for one another.

It was just Andre caring for his kids. Again.

"You had the dad that would push the son, the dad that would give him the role model image of what to do, how to do it, and then sit back and make sure that TJ followed his lead," Wofford said. "From TJ, you had the example right there in front of you.

"As a smart son, he listened and then he tried to surpass the bar his dad set."

TJ had a sinus infection, so he texted instead of talking to his dad on Father's Day in 2011. A day later, they were on the phone discussing a financial form Notre Dame needed from Andre -- a "business" call, as TJ describes it.

The next day, TJ called his dad again. He didn't pick up. Instead, his brother called. Said Andre collapsed in the bathroom. Paramedics were there. Andre was headed to the hospital, needed an IV, but things would be fine. TJ went to practice with the rest of the receivers.

In the middle of practice -- one Alford couldn't be at due to NCAA rules -- Alford received a phone call from Reggie Brooks, a Notre Dame employee and one of Andre's former teammates.

Andre had a brain aneurysm. He wasn't going to make it. Alford lost his breath.

Alford and his wife jumped in the car and rushed toward the football complex. When he arrived, Alford walked onto the field and told a manager to get TJ. He pulled TJ into a side office to have one of the toughest conversations he was ever going to have.

"He could tell something was wrong," Alford said. "He said, 'Coach, is my dad OK?' I started crying and said, 'TJ, talk to your mom. That's all I'm going to tell you, son. Talk to your mom.'"

While TJ spoke to his mother, Notre Dame lined up a flight for him from South Bend, Indiana, to Atlanta. Alford drove him to the airport. Midway through the drive, TJ turned to Alford and asked him to fly to Atlanta because he was family. Alford wasn't planning to, but didn't want the kid he viewed as a son to be alone. After a mostly silent flight with a few tears, they arrived.

Alford put TJ in a cab. TJ asked Alford to go to the hospital, but Alford said no. TJ had to be with his family. Alford hugged TJ, put him in the cab and flew back to South Bend. TJ got to the hospital and saw some friends and family members. Found his mom.

His mom took him to see his dad, who was lying in a bed.

"I see him on the bed with a bunch of tubes and then broke down again," TJ said. "I don't remember when I stopped crying. It was, like, days."

Andre Jones died on June 22, 2011, hours after TJ's arrival. Three days later, the family greeted friends and family at the Roswell Presbyterian Church for hours. Andre's teammates told TJ and his siblings stories about their dad. Alford and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly flew down for the funeral.

TJ started to think about staying in Georgia. He had more responsibility now. He had to help his mom take care of the family. He might have to come home. Find a job. Help with bills. These thoughts lasted until his mom insisted he return to Notre Dame.

"She told me the best thing I could do for myself and everyone else is stay," TJ said. "And get that Notre Dame degree. So I did."

Going back to Notre Dame was difficult. He had Alford. He had his teammates and friends. TJ called his mom daily -- as much for him as for her -- to check in.

TJ rarely spoke about Andre. When he did, he broke down and cried. Or he'd get angry. As a teenager, how do you process the loss of your hero, your idol, your rock? TJ couldn't. People would come to him and say, "I'm sorry." They were sorry? No one was sorrier and sadder than him. They'd ask how he was doing. How did they think he was doing? He was devastated. It's a feeling only someone who has lost a parent or child or sibling can understand.

It all happened so suddenly. He couldn't express his pain.

TJ spent most of college "angry," he said. He searched for answers he knew he wouldn't receive. Why was his father gone, what was the purpose? Alford often sat with him in the locker room, staring at nothing at all, and deflecting questions from others about TJ's anger, which lingered for almost three years.

"I had really, really bad anger problems for a couple years," TJ said. "Just with, like, petty things that normally wouldn't bother me, I would explode and it was, for a while, I was like, 'Why do you keep exploding? It's not that big a deal.'

"Then I realized it's all the pent-up emotion from that, it comes out misguided. So other people were getting emotion that wasn't meant for them. And I've learned to cope with it a lot better now."

This wasn't who TJ was. He was a happy kid. He was someone who saw the positive in almost everything. He was being forced to grow up faster than he planned, becoming the sounding board for his four younger siblings still in Georgia. He knew he couldn't go out as much anymore at Notre Dame because he had to be successful, had to push himself to reach the things his father wanted him to attain. Nothing could distract from that.

"I became a 45-year-old man real quick," TJ said. "So quick."

He was successful despite the pain. TJ was a team captain his senior year -- just like his father. He still wore No. 7. And he figured out his anger. He knew it all traced back to Andre's death.

The Jones family slowly started healing, especially as Andre's children continued to earn college scholarships and live the way he raised them. It's because he had already given them enough of his own wisdom.

Discussing Andre was rare because no one in the family wanted to upset the others. Eventually, Michele and TJ started talking about Andre. They could laugh about things now. They'd tell funny stories. And TJ started to harness the anger. He relied on his mom, and on Alford, who TJ calls "a second father."

On the night before TJ's final home game, Alford pulled the TJ aside, hugged him, and told him something about legacies and fathers and sons.

"Your dad came to the University of Notre Dame, prestigious school, prestigious program, one of the blue-blood programs, and he was a captain.

"And his mother was able to walk out on that field his last senior game with her son as a captain at the University of Notre Dame," Alford said. "I said here we are, years later, and by God, you're doing the exact same thing. You're walking down the same tunnel with your mother that your late father and your grandmother walked as a team captain. Who gets to do that in two different generations? Who does that? What a great tribute to your name. What a great tribute to your family. What a great tribute to your late father.'"

It was the start of the rest of TJ's future. After college, he was drafted by the Detroit Lions -- just like his dad.

TJ didn't play his rookie year in Detroit, sidelined by a nerve injury. But he had been talking to a woman he met on Twitter, Theresa Gonzalez, a former star on MTV's "The Challenge." They talked for six months before meeting during TJ's bye week his rookie year.

Within a year, Theresa became pregnant. TJ was about to become a father. He had no idea if he'd be prepared, but he had helped his mom with his younger siblings so he thought he might be ready.

Easton Kaia Jones was born on Dec. 5, 2015. Instantly, TJ fell in love with his daughter.

"He just appreciates everything so much more," said Gonzalez, now TJ's fiancée. "Especially now that he has Easton, I think he can tell why his dad was the way he was with him and pushed him and was so protective of him not getting into trouble or hanging around with people who were bad influences, or why he pushed him so hard -- because he knew how much he cared about them.

"I can tell he just cares about Easton so much. He can't wait to make her into an amazing person."

He's become "the burper" and a perfect diaper changer. Easton is enamored with her father. Theresa said that even at six months, she can tell Easton is going to be a daddy's girl. It's the way she looks at him, the way she'll fall asleep on his chest or nuzzle with him when TJ is studying plays with "Dora the Explorer" or "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" on in the background.

Easton's birth gave Michele a new outlet to tell stories about Andre -- and TJ a chance to learn more about his dad. Theresa and TJ learned about parenting from Michele and from the tales she'd tell. It opened up new questions about -- and similarities with -- how much TJ was like his dad.

He's telling jokes to Easton, just like his dad did. And he can't wait until Easton is old enough to walk so he can have her fetch the remote when it falls on the ground -- something Andre always used to jokingly have his kids do.

"You get sad for a second because you think of how much fun he'd have right now with my daughter, with me as a dad and me coming over to the house now with a family as opposed to myself as a college kid," TJ said. "I have the good moment and then the bad moment, and then you're high again."

TJ Jones always idolized his father. Having Easton and caring for her has given him another way to honor his dad and to deal with the sadness he still feels and will always feel. Being a father now, he appreciates how much of Andre he sees in himself.