Rochester, N.Y., isn't exactly known as a hotbed of football talent so when Jarron Jones watched the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on television, he had dreams of playing the game that were tempered by large doses of sobering realism. But on Thursday, the 6-foot-6, 308 defensive tackle from Aquinas Institute in Western New York took a step closer to fulfilling his dream and pushing aside those doubts as he accepted his All-American Bowl jersey in front of family, teammates and friends.
"I remember following the game from when I was young and seeing guys like Adrian Peterson and Mark Sanchez in it," said Jones. "I didn't watch every game but I do remember them and then the last couple of years I saw the games. But I also knew I was from New York and it's not an area that gets a lot of football attention so I was realistic about it. When I was selected to play in it, I actually thought someone was messing with me. I was shocked."
Jones was with teammates and his coach when he got the phone call from the selection committee member who chose him but at first he thought it was a hoax.
"At first I kept saying 'for real?' and I didn't believe it," he said. "Then when they spoke to my coach I knew it was really and I began shouting to everyone - 'I'm in the Army Bowl!', it was a great moment."
For Jones, he went from a relative unknown from snowy Rochester at the beginning of his junior year to a prospect with offers from around the country by the time he was selected. Everything started with an offer from Boston College and blew up this past January.
"I had some local offers from schools like BC, Syracuse, Rutgers, Penn State and all but when I got my offers from Alabama and Florida, things went crazy," he explained. "I think a lot of schools around the country started to wonder why those SEC powers were offering some kid from New York. That was a crazy month."
Still very new to the process and a bit overwhelmed, Jones committed to Penn State in April but soon began to have second thoughts.
"It was too early and I hadn't seen enough places," he admitted. "I just jumped too soon and I wish I had gone slower. But I figured that this was my decision and no one else's so I had the right to take a look at some other places. I visited North Carolina and Virginia Tech and after those visits I knew I had rushed. I love Penn State and the coaches and I really liked the combination or athletics and football, but I was looking for something smaller I think. It came down to a lot of factors."
Jones was all set to choose between the Hokies and Tar Heels and might be committed to one of the two right now if it weren't for a nudge from his father.
"I grew up a Virginia Tech fan and I liked it down there a lot," he said. "And North Carolina was really nice, it had everything I wanted. But my dad is a huge Notre Dame fan, I mean huge. And he told me we were visiting South Bend before anything was decided, just to check it out. I told him it was a waste of a weekend and a waste of time and I wasn't going, plain and simple."
Why was Jones so hesitant to make the trip to Notre Dame?
"I hated Notre Dame, hated them growing up," he said. "My dad loved them and everyone else in my family hated them. He knew that and I told him it was a waste. But I went along anyhow and then everything changed."
Jones got to Notre Dame and looked around and pretty much saw a bigger version of his own high school.
"It was amazing how similar it felt," he said. "Our high school and everything about it is modeled after Notre Dame even down to the shamrock on our helmets and the Irish across our jerseys, but I didn't know I'd feel that comfortable at the real Notre Dame. It had everything I wanted from the classroom size, to the academics to the coaches and the players. I left there feeling like I was going to commit, but I wanted to let it sink in a little bit."
Despite his newfound love for Notre Dame, the doubts began to re-surface as early as driving off campus.
"I loved it but I began to think again 'but I hated Notre Dame, do I really want to do this?'," he said. "But when I got back home the more I thought about it the more I was sure. It was hard to tell Penn State I wasn't coming because I really like coach (Larry) Johnson a lot and all the coaches there have been great to me, but this came down to more than football. It came down to that familiar feeling, feeling like I'm at home and being at a private school."
So months after his commitment to Notre Dame, has he gotten over his hatred for the Irish?
"Of course, I love Notre Dame now and I am a huge fan obviously," he said. "My dad is thrilled and the rest of my family is excited and supportive. I am happy with my decision."
Many feel that Jones is too tall to play defensive tackle at the next level and he would be better suited for the offensive line. For the nation's No. 78 player, he prefers defense but will play wherever he can help the team.
"It's not about me, it's about the team and wherever Notre Dame wants me is where I'll suit up and play," he said. "I think I'm better on defense, but I used to play offensive tackle and like I said whatever they want they will get from me. Right now I'm playing tight end on offense but I do some blocking of course. But in Notre Dame's defense, it's a 3-4 and they want me as a five technique end anyhow, and I play a lot of that in high school. I'm just working hard to get ready."
Coming from Western New York football to Notre Dame will be quite the challenge, but Jones is excited about it.
"If I'm ready to play then they will let me know," he said. "I'm not going there looking for a redshirt, but it's the coaches choice. I am just focusing on our season, trying to get better and looking forward to the Army Bowl where I can go against other top players. That will be a good gauge of where I'm at and I can't wait."
One step closer to the dream.