Five years ago a mysterious illness left Nazair Jones unable to walk and left his future, both on the football field and off, in doubt. On Friday, with that frightening health crisis but a memory, Jones declared his eligibility for the NFL draft.
The announcement came after he’d played three seasons at North Carolina, and after he became a leader on the Tar Heels’ defensive line. And it came after an illness struck his senior year of high school, leaving him essentially paralyzed from the waist down.
“The University of North Carolina has changed me so much since the first day I stepped on campus,” Jones said in a statement. “Throughout my career, I have been with a family of brothers and found people that have become my closest friends. I want to thank our amazing coaching staff, support staff and an incredible fan base. I know Tar Heel nation will always have my back.”
The 6-5, 295-pound Jones is in his fourth year at UNC but, since he sat out his freshman season, he had one year of eligibility remaining. This season he has made 62 tackles, 7.5 for loss. After the Tar Heels’ play against Stanford in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 30, Jones will begin preparing for the draft.
That preparation represents another step in a journey that seemed improbable – or even impossible, for a time – during his senior year at Roanoke Rapids High. Jones woke up one morning in November 2011 unable to move his legs.
He quickly lost weight and eventually was confined to a wheelchair while doctors attempted to diagnose his illness. His mom took him to UNC Hospitals, where Jones was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a condition that has required him to remain on medication.
After his diagnosis, he began a long rehabilitation process and spent weeks living at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill, all the while keeping alive hope that one day he’d be able to play football again. Jones had become one of the state’s top prospects before his illness.
In the summer of 2012, months into his rehabilitation, Jones impressed UNC coach Larry Fedora enough during a camp to earn a scholarship offer. Even then, Jones was still underweight. He tired easily. Fedora saw the potential, nonetheless.
“He has overcome great physical adversity and improved tremendously since he came into the program in 2013,” Fedora said in a statement. “This season he was the leader of our defensive line and someone everyone on the team respected.”
Jones before this season founded M.A.D.E. Men Mentoring, a non-profit organization designed to pair mentors at Triangle-area colleges with at-risk children. He founded the organization to honor his mentor, McGrue Booker, who died last February.
Between practices and games this fall, Jones spent time volunteering at same Ronald McDonald House where he stayed during his rehabilitation. He’d arrived there years ago unable to walk, and left on a journey that will now continue with his preparation for the NFL draft.