The long walk back for UNC’s Nazair Jones

He walked in with nine boxes of spaghetti noodles, 12 cans of sauce and four packages of ground beef. He brought salad and brownies, and the helping hands of his teammates. Nazair Jones’ mom never knew her son as much of a chef but here he was, making dinner for about 50 people at the Ronald McDonald House.

Jones, a 6-5, 295-pound junior defensive tackle at North Carolina, had gone there on a recent Monday to visit and volunteer. He had come to remember, he said, “that this is where I came from.”

He thinks about his journey every time he pulls into the parking lot at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill. Every time he walks through those doors, he remembers the six weeks he spent there during his junior year of high school, 16-years-old and wondering when he’d be able to move like normal again.

Five years have passed since his stay there after he arrived at UNC Children’s Hospital with a mysterious illness that left him unable to walk. During one of his first trips back, he took a tour that pulled him into his past. He walked down the same halls, surrounded himself with the same old walls.

“I got to see my old room,” said Jones, whom everyone calls Naz.

For six weeks he woke up in that room and went to sleep in that room. It’s where he prayed and where he cried. It’s where he hoped with his mother, Tammy Jones, by his side.

“We used to cry together,” she said, “because he was this big, healthy strong kid, but I saw him worrying.”

When Naz goes back to the House now, as a volunteer, he sees children with the same fear in their eyes that he once had in his. He sees parents who are trying to be strong for their children, like his mom tried to be for him.

He sees a place, too, that provided a refuge. During Naz’s time there, many doubted whether he’d ever play football again. He told himself that he would, and he kept the faith that one day he might play less than two miles away, at UNC’s Kenan Stadium.

The House is part of a national charity that provides living arrangements for families in crisis. The children are there because they’re being treated for something serious at a nearby hospital or rehabilitation clinic. The parents are there so they can remain close to their kids.

“A family comes here,” said George Marut, the senior director of development of the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill, “and their lives are turned upside down.”

Waking up in pain

That’s how it was for Naz and his mother, a single parent who’s proud to say she raised her son by herself. She became a mother in Newark, N.J., but in 1998 moved to Roanoke Rapids, in northeastern North Carolina, when Naz was 3. She never misses any of his games.

“I could be visiting the graveyard to visit my son,” Tammy said. “I could be visiting the jailhouse to visit my son. And I figure that my son is very successful, so I’m going to be there.”

She hoped moving away from the city would help her son. Bored and restless in a town he described as “a big truck stop,” though, Naz said that during his middle school years he was defiant, rebellious and the recipient of “lots of whippings” from his mom.

The school Naz attended in ninth and 10th grade, a KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school known as Gaston College Preparatory, helped change him. So did Naz’s mentor, a coach and teacher named McGrue Booker, better known as “Mac.”

“The only real father figure I had,” Naz said.

The morning it all went wrong Tammy thought her only son was back to his childish ways, trying to play a cruel joke. It was Nov. 5, 2011, a Saturday.

The night before, Naz’s football team at Roanoke Rapids High had lost in the state playoffs. His junior season had ended, but not before he’d played well enough to earn the attention of high-profile college coaches. Mama was proud. Booker, the mentor, too.

After the game Naz fell asleep on the couch. When he awoke he stood and tried to walk. He couldn’t move. Pain shot through his legs. His back tightened. He’d never felt anything like it.

“I just yelled,” Naz said.

He called for his mom, tried to wake her. He called for his younger sister, Tanzaniah. About 15 minutes passed before Tammy arrived, bewildered. She thought he “was playing.” Yet he remained, still and in pain, needing to use the bathroom but unable to convince his legs to take him there.

Tammy called an ambulance. In the emergency room at the closest hospital, he was given some painkillers that provided relief until the medicine wore off and the agony returned.

“What the hell is wrong with me?”

For weeks, that became the routine: temporary relief through medicine followed by pain. Gradually, Naz began losing weight. His clothes stopped fitting. His legs became weaker. He began using crutches at school, then a walker, then a wheelchair.

“Anything I could use to get around,” he said.

No one knew what was happening. Tammy had taken her son to the emergency room, then his pediatrician and back to the hospital. No explanation. Tammy sought better care.

She drove him to UNC Hospitals, about 115 miles away. Naz was admitted to UNC Children’s Hospital on his 16th birthday: December 13, 2011. He and his mom met with with a neurologist. Was the condition more mental than physical? Doctors evaluated the possibility.

Naz went through an array of tests. The procedures, Tammy said, lasted “all day, every day.” Weeks earlier, Naz had been running around a football field, a multisport athlete with a future in college football. Now at times he thought he was crazy. How could he wake up one day without the ability to walk?

“I’m like, yo,” he said not long ago, recounting the story, “What the hell is wrong with me?”

At first no one at UNC could figure it out, either. The tests led to more questions. Here was a 16-year-old boy, a gifted athlete, healthy, strong, with pain that essentially paralyzed his legs. It didn’t make sense.

One of Naz’s doctors approached his mom with difficult news. She can still hear the words: “Ms. Jones, we just don’t know what’s wrong with him.” That’s when she became “really worried,” she said.

More than a week passed before a diagnosis arrived: Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. According to the National Institute of Health, CRPS is a chronic condition, not easily understood, “caused by damage to, or malfunction of, the peripheral and central nervous systems.”

The condition can affect anyone, though it’s “much more” common in females, according to the NIH. Those afflicted with CRPS often experience constant pain in an extremity, or joint. The pain can spread from a finger or toe to an arm and a leg, and from one arm or leg to the other.

The average age at diagnosis is around 40. There is no single diagnostic test and the condition is rare, occurring in about 1.2 of every 100,000 children, according to a recent Swedish study. There is no cure, but CRPS can be managed with medicine and therapy, both physical and mental.

In Naz’s case, CRPS originated in his lower back and eventually left him unable to walk on his own. By the time he was admitted into the hospital at UNC he was on his way to losing 40 pounds, from 255 to about 215. He looked like a different person.

His doctors prescribed a treatment plan that included medicine, physical therapy and counseling. Naz could use his arms – his condition didn’t affect his upper body – but not his legs, which had atrophied from the time he’d spent in a wheelchair, or hospital bed.

“I had to re-learn how to walk, everything,” Naz said. “It was crazy.”

Staying at the House

That’s how he and his mom wound up at the Ronald McDonald House. When Naz moved in, one question played over in his mind. It was his first question, he said, for his doctors and physical therapists: “What’s the recovery time, and when am I going to be back to play?”

To some, sports were an afterthought, overshadowed by the more important, immediate goal: just walk. To Naz, though, the desire to recover his athletic ability inspired his rehabilitation.

“He never lost his resolve, even when other people had doubts,” said Russell Weinstein, the head coach at Roanoke Rapids High during Naz’s two years there. “He was convinced that he was going to beat this thing.”

Naz went through physical therapy every day. There were sessions at the UNC Hospitals Spine Center. Others that included what Naz described as “bio feedback,” when he wore body sensors that read his brainwaves.

Part of his rehab included walking in a pool, his legs submerged. That, Naz said, “was the best,” because in those moments it felt as though he was really walking.

When the exercises ended he and his mom returned to the Ronald McDonald House. There were dinners at night with all the families staying there, activities in the game room. Once, Naz sat down outside next to the Ronald McDonald statue. Tammy keeps a picture of the moment, ready to show.

They stayed there for about three weeks at first, though they went home for Christmas. Later, they went back home on weekends and returned to the House during the week.

“Slowly but surely,” Tammy said, “He just started walking again.”

All the while, the colleges that had been recruiting Naz to play football waited to see how he’d recover. Before his illness, he had been among best prospects in the state – perhaps the very best prospect in the state, said Weinstein, his high school coach.

But then, Weinstein, said, “He did not look like a D-1 athlete at the time, when he was sick.” Schools during that time were “apprehensive and scared” to make Naz a scholarship offer. College coaches didn’t know if Naz would recover and, if he did, what kind of player he’d be.

Getting back to football

Larry Fedora became the head coach at UNC in January 2012. He quickly became aware of one of the best prospects in the state: a defensive lineman from Roanoke Rapids named Nazair Jones. Someone had shown Fedora Naz’s highlight tape from his junior season.

Then Fedora learned about the illness. He visited Roanoke Rapids that spring, Naz still recovering.

“We met in the weight room,” Fedora said. “And he was on crutches.”

Fedora and Naz spent a minute or two in conversation. After about four minutes, Naz paused.

“He said, ‘Coach, do you mind if I sit down?’” Fedora said. “He said, ‘I have pain. I just can’t stand up.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, sit down,’ you know? And I walked away from there, him weighing about 218 pounds, thinking, ‘Man, he’s going to be lucky if he ever gets to play the game.’ 

Naz continued to work his way back that spring, and into the summer. He could walk now and even run, but the doctors still had concerns about his long-term health. Weinstein, the high school coach, remembers what the doctors told Naz, over and over: “We just got to be certain.”

Certainty arrived in July 2012. Eight months after Naz woke up unable to walk, he received clearance to play football again. By then he had missed months of high school camps in the spring and summer – opportunities for players to showcase themselves for college coaches.

UNC’s final high school camp of the season was set for late July. Weinstein drove Naz down familiar roads. For months, those roads had ended either at UNC Hospitals or the Ronald McDonald House. Now Naz’s journey to Chapel Hill ended at UNC’s football camp.

It was, Weinstein said recently, “an extremely hot” day. Naz was still working on regaining his weight then and, in the best conditions, Weinstein said Naz might have been about 75 percent of what he was before his illness. At one point during the camp, the trainers treated Naz for dehydration.

Weinstein watched from the sideline. He knew a scholarship offer then, with Naz in that kind of condition, was unlikely. Weinstein prepared himself for the ride back to Roanoke Rapids, the words of encouragement he’d share with Naz after he’d inevitably walk off the field without an offer.

At the end of the camp, Naz cooled off. Fedora called Weinstein over. Weinstein felt his stomach turn when Fedora said what Weinstein already knew: “Coach, he’s not a D-1 athlete right now.” Yet Fedora kept talking.

He had researched Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and talked with Naz’s doctors. Those doctors told Fedora that since they diagnosed the CRPS early, Naz stood a good chance to recover. Then it came: Fedora told Weinstein he was offering Naz a scholarship.

“Lord have mercy,” Weinstein said, recounting the moment.

Fedora and other UNC coaches invited Weinstein and Naz up to the coaches’ offices at the Kenan Football Center. The formal scholarship offer came then. Later, in the car, Naz told his coach he was ready accept it. Weinstein urged Naz to talk with his mom. He called her, the conversation short.

When it ended, Naz told Weinstein to take him back to campus. They had been at a Hardees, getting something to drink for the 90-minute drive back home, but they never made it out of Chapel Hill before turning around. Naz met with Fedora again with news of his own: He was coming to UNC.

Wanting to give back

In that moment, Naz made reality a vision he’d kept throughout those days at the Ronald McDonald House. Families there don’t always receive such happy endings. Before a recent expansion the House in Chapel Hill served about 2,000 families per year, said Marut, the senior director of development.

“The commonality with all the families that visit us,” Marut said, “is the fear of the unknown.”

Marut said recently that 35 families were staying at the House. One of the families was from Georgia, another from Virginia, the rest from towns and cities spread across North Carolina.

Five years ago, one of those families was from Roanoke Rapids: a single mother and her son who woke up one day and couldn’t walk. They arrived “living on faith,” Tammy said, and left with Naz on his way to recovery.

Their stay coincided with the Christmas season. There’s a picture of Naz from back then, sitting in a wheelchair next to a hospital bed, beside a man dressed as Santa Claus.

Last Christmas, Tammy went back to the House for the first time since she and Naz left. She brought about 80 Christmas presents, donated by people in Roanoke Rapids. Tammy and her boyfriend, both involved in two social clubs, had organized a gift drive.

Tammy and her helpers wore Santa hats while they handed out presents. Every child received at least one gift, and some more than one.

“I just wanted them to be able to enjoy Christmas morning,” she said.

Naz wanted to be there but the Tar Heels were already in Orlando, preparing for their bowl game against Baylor. Naz might have left the House five years ago, but his time there hasn’t left him. Some of his teammates these days call him “Uncle Naz.”

It’s a compliment, a testament to wisdom gained through hardship. Once a week, he gives himself a shot of Enbrel, an anti-inflammatory medication, in his leg. It’s the same drug that golfer Phil Mickelson, who takes the medication for psoriatic arthritis, endorses in commercials on TV.

Naz has tried to wean himself off of it because he doesn’t want to take it the rest of his life. But if he misses a shot he feels it in a week: familiar pain. During his sophomore year at UNC, he said he went a month without taking his medicine.

He awoke one morning and could barely move. The shots offer him a reminder of what could happen and what did happen. He still feels connected to those days and connected, too, to the Ronald McDonald House.

Becoming a mentor

He wanted to go back last Christmas to help his mom deliver those presents. For a while Naz wanted to repay his time there. Greater inspiration arrived with a text message last February.

It was from McGrue Booker Jr., the son of Naz’s mentor back home. Naz held his phone and read the words once, and then again, the reality setting in: “I hate that this is how you have to found out,” it said, “but Pops passed.”

“The first thing I did,” Naz said, “was call my mom crying on the phone.”

After the tears the idea came to him: a mentoring program to honor his own mentor. Naz and his girlfriend collaborated on a name. One quickly stuck with him: M.A.D.E. Men Mentoring. The first word is an acronym: Making A Difference Everyday.

Naz asked an artist friend to come up with a logo – two interlocking M’s forming a crown. He met with UNC’s compliance department to make sure everything was in line with NCAA rules. He set up fundraiser online that has generated nearly $1,000, his goal to launch the program.

Naz has recruited football players at N.C. State and Duke to be a part of the mentoring program. They’ve gone into middle schools, Naz said, to talk with boys who were a lot like Naz was: at risk for trouble. The idea is to pair an underprivileged child with a local college athlete. It has started small.

Naz has been working with one child, a boy from Roanoke Rapids who has cancer. During the season, Naz hasn’t had much time to build on M.A.D.E. Men. He has Monday afternoons – the only free afternoon of the week without football practice or meetings.

Volunteering at the House

In early September he contacted the Ronald McDonald House, asking if he could volunteer. It’s an opportunity to put M.A.D.E. Men into action – making a difference. Naz asked some of his teammates if they’d help. Most of them, especially on the defensive line, know his story well.

“I remember our first time going there,” said Jeremiah Clarke, a sophomore defensive tackle, “we got to visit through the halls and got a little tour of the facilities, and he showed us his room in the Ronald McDonald House. And I just thought, ‘Wow, you never know how far people can come.’”

During the volunteering trips to the House, Naz and his teammates do whatever needs doing. Gardening. House cleaning. Lawn maintenance.

Other UNC athletes occasionally volunteer there. Sometimes a recognizable basketball player might stop by. Nobody as physically imposing, though, as Naz and his fellow defensive linemen.

“When he and his crew come in,” Marut said, “people are definitely kind of wondering, ‘Who are these guys?’ 

Naz has led groups there just about every Monday for the past two months. He does it, he said, because “it kind of keeps me grounded and level-headed about where I was and where I’m going.” The Monday before UNC’s victory at Miami on Oct. 15, Naz organized dinner at the House.

He arrived with three teammates: Mikey Bart and Malik Carney, defensive ends, and M.J. Stewart, a cornerback. They walked in with the noodles and sauce, ground beef and salad. Most of the people in the dining room had spent their day in a hospital room or in rehab, in pain either physical or emotional.

“He lived that,” Marut said of Naz.

Naz and his teammates cooked six pans of spaghetti and prepared the salad, garlic bread and brownies. Bart, the defensive end, described the experience as “real fun.”

“Me and Malik made all the meatballs,” he said.

The House is close to UNC’s campus. In a straight line it’s less than a mile from Kenan Stadium, which is practically next door to the UNC Children’s Hospital. Naz’s long journey began there.

It continued at the Ronald McDonald House. His time there shaped him. About once a week he walks in to give back, remembering those days when he wondered when he’d ever walk out.

MADE Men Mentoring

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