Unlike Aaron Hernandez, Byron Jones Makes Connecticut Proud

When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called out his name as the 27th pick in the first round of the NFL draft, four words crossed my mind:

Connecticut Kid. America's Team.


As Goodell posed there late Thursday night in Chicago with Byron Jones, the two holding up a Dallas Cowboys jersey, the same four words resounded:

Connecticut Kid. America's Team.


It was only some time later, while watching the video of Jones' media session at the draft in Chicago that two more words would cross my mind:

Aaron Hernandez.

"If you had to thank one person who would that be and why?" the defensive back from UConn and New Britain was asked.

"One person? I have two parents," Jones answered. "Donald and Garnette Jones. They have been married 31 years. They're a great example of what it's like to be a mature man, what it's like to be an adult. They raised four boys. I'm the youngest. I'm happy for them. I'm the last one out of their nest."

Jones went on to explain how one brother, Aaron, is a Navy deep sea diver deployed in Bahrain. How a second brother, Winston, is a Marine in North Africa and his oldest brother, Nathan, an electrical engineer at Electric Boat, was with him at the draft. Jones talked about how he also had invited two people from Washington who had taken him in when he did his internship with U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty.

And then Jones was asked what he's going to buy first with the money he gets for signing as a late first-round draft pick — projected to be a four-year, $7.8 million deal. A lot of guys go extravagant, talk about things like they're going to buy a tricked-out car worth the GNP of some developing nations, etc.

"I'll probably go buy some candy," Jones said. "I'm a big candy person. I don't really drink. But I'll eat some candy now. Gummy Bears. Gummy Worms."

At a time when the NFL is battling a bad image of domestic violence and substance abuse, the young man who went to high school in the same town as Byron Jones is the worst image of all. But here is this kid talking about mom, dad and his brothers and inviting two people to the biggest night of his life after they let him live in their basement.

At a time when the NFL is battling a bad image for domestic violence and for substance abuse, Aaron Hernandez is the worst image of all. And here is this kid talking about celebrating his good fortune. Not with PCP. Not with marijuana. Not even with Hennessy or Ciroc.

With Gummy Bears. Yes, Gummy Bears.

Jones matches Donald Brown as the highest UConn NFL draft pick ever. He is the first Connecticut-born first-rounder since Dwight Freeney 13 years ago. Maybe that's where you want your local comparisons to start and end. Maybe that's all you can stomach or where you insist your intellectual sensibilities end. Maybe you only care if Jones can step in immediately and help beat the Giants and Eagles.

Yet claiming any real sense of perspective, how can we simply overlook that Jones went to high school at St. Paul-Bristol just down the road from where Hernandez grew up and attended Bristol Central? How do we ignore that two Bristol high school kids grew up in the great shadow of ESPN, which not only broadcast the NFL draft but rules sports in our society?


How can we ignore the fact that, at 22, Byron Jones is starting his NFL career, while, at 25, Hernandez has been sentenced to rot away for the rest of his life? How do we ignore the fact that in the month of April, Jones became a first-round draft pick and Hernandez was convicted of first-degree murder?

Hernandez would have been a first-round or high second-round pick, too, if he hadn't carried his druggie reputation into the 2010 draft. With a unique skill set for a tight end and immense success with the Patriots, he was on the road to the Hall of Fame.

That road has ended in forever prison. That road has ended with people in Connecticut wondering how did we miss so badly on Hernandez? That road has ended with people sniping at our state's urban areas, our state's urban issues.

On Thursday night, Connecticut had one answer. His name is Byron Jones.

Jones is not perfect. No one is. It is unfair to heap on too many expectations and somehow portray him as the antidote for the Hernandez story. Jones already has so much hype surrounding his NFL combine performances to deal with. He jumped so high it can make people jump to conclusions.

Yet over four years at UConn, Jones demonstrated not only to be a force on the football field, but one in the classroom and capable of handling himself on any social stage. This son of a former state trooper and fiercely loving mom, is a fine young man.

He is the best of what Connecticut has to offer.

Owner Jerry Jones said the Cowboys had Jones ranked in the top 15 or 16 on their board. He said the team knew as much about Jones as anybody in the draft, their interviews including former UConn coach and Dallas assistant Paul Pasqualoni. Jerry son's Stephen called the comparison to the Patriots' Devin McCourty a good one. Coach Jason Garrett loves the way he played safety and cornerback two years each at UConn, believes Jones has the ability to play both in the NFL and plans to play him at corner first. Garrett said he believes Jones can play right away.

The Cowboys need help in the defensive secondary. Morris Claiborne is returning from a torn patellar tendon. His status is uncertain. The Cowboys want to reduce Brandon Carr's base salary. Carr obviously doesn't like that idea. Orlando Scandrick skipped the voluntary offseason program. He wants his contract re-tooled. Jones also gives the Cowboys negotiating leverage.

The pick was applauded around the league. On his SiriusXM Blitz show, former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew, however, called it the "worst pick of the draft ... by far." That's garbage, but Jones-Drew did speak to the worst fears of Jones, who missed the second half of his senior year with a shoulder injury. He called Jones a scout's dream and a coach's nightmare. In other words, he's calling him the ultimate workout warrior, better at jumping than playing football.

Jones, to be sure, is a natural. When I interviewed his dad in 2011, he talked about how Byron taught himself to ride a two-wheel bike at age 3. His St. Paul coach Jude Kelly talked how at a school volleyball tournament, Jones, a junior, blocked spikes by seniors twice before landing on the ground once.

Maybe we shouldn't have been surprised he had a near record vertical leap of 44.5 inches at the NFL combine.

My favorite Jones story also came from Kelly. At Senior Night, the cheerleaders held up a big paper banner with all the seniors' names on it. You couldn't see the players behind it. Egged on by his teammates, Jones spontaneously jumped over the banner.

Maybe we shouldn't have been surprised he leapt 12 feet, 3 inches at the combine for an unofficial world record in the standing broad jump.

"I have no clue," Jones said when he was asked where he thought he would be drafted if not for the combine. "That's a good question. I think the combine performance really gave me some good exposure and a second chance [after his injury] for people to review the film. It's nice to have that second chance."


Jones has enjoyed the reaction from former teammates. Many are Cowboys fans. His dad, a die hard Giants fan, is getting used to the idea of a son with a giant star on his helmet.


"Maybe the red carpet," Jones said when asked what was the most intimidating part of the draft-night experience. "I'm not used to all that attention. Actually it was a gold carpet."

On this incredible sports weekend of Mayweather-Pacquiao, Kentucky Derby, Yankees-Red Sox, NBA-NHL playoffs, Jones is already wise enough to know some of that great sports carpet is fool's gold. Whether he should have been a second- or third-rounder can be argued, but there is no argument that America's team got Connecticut's best. And it came at a perfect time.