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UNC’s Nazair Jones on NFL draft call: I ‘jumped for joy’

UNC football players donate sweat and muscle to Ronald McDonald House

Nazair Jones, a junior defensive tackle at North Carolina, lived at The Ronald McDonald House in Chapel Hill for six weeks as he was rehabilitating from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome when he was 16 years old.
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Nazair Jones, a junior defensive tackle at North Carolina, lived at The Ronald McDonald House in Chapel Hill for six weeks as he was rehabilitating from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome when he was 16 years old.

The Houston Texans were on the clock, about 50 seconds left for them to make a pick in the NFL draft late last week, when Nazair Jones’ phone started to buzz. For a moment his heart raced. He looked down and there on the caller ID he read one of his teammates’ names: Bug.

Bug Howard, the former North Carolina receiver, had called Jones at the worst possible time. After all, Jones, the Tar Heels’ former defensive tackle, had been sitting there watching the draft, waiting to receive word that an NFL team had drafted him. This was just a teammate checking in.

Jones later said, with a laugh, “I almost cussed (Howard) out.”

“And I was about two seconds away from throwing my phone against the wall,” Jones said. “I told Bug, don’t ever call me again, actually.”

The first night of the NFL draft, Jones felt the tension and stress running through his body. His agent told him he could expect to be picked anywhere between the second and fourth rounds, but back home in Roanoke Rapids, Jones watched the first round last Thursday night anyway.

You never knew when your name might be called. Maybe a team would surprise him and select him in the first round. That’s what Jones’ agent told him. So last Thursday night his family – his mom, his grandmother, a bunch of cousins and aunts – gathered round the television and waited.

In the kitchen, Jones’ mom whipped up a big pot of spaghetti. She made salad and some sides.

Jones, 6-foot-5 and a little more than 300 pounds, didn’t touch any of it. He couldn’t eat.

“I didn’t have an appetite,” he said.

The first round came and went without Jones hearing his name. No surprise there.

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UNC’s Nazair Jones is greeted by coaches after Jones’ interception of Virginia quarterback Greyson Lambert in 2014. Jones was the 102nd pick in the 2017 NFL draft, going to the Seattle Seahawks. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

He and his family replicated the scene the second night. They all gathered round the television. Mom worked her magic in the kitchen, this time cooking fish. She made salads and some sides. And Jones sat there again, still unable to eat.

When was the last time Jones went two consecutive nights without dinner? He laughed at the thought.

“I had bigger things on my mind,” he said, and besides, this was “nerve-wracking.”

He had traveled a great metaphorical distance to wind up back in the same place, his hometown, watching the draft. About five and a half years earlier, Jones woke up at home the morning after a high school playoff game. He made a move, an attempt to walk to the bathroom. His legs froze.

And so began a long odyssey of needle pricks and medical tests, of considerable weight loss – about 50 pounds, at least – and overnight hospital stays and, eventually, weeks of rehabilitation while he lived in the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill.

At first no one knew why Jones’ legs stopped working. Finally doctors at UNC diagnosed him with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a condition that will require Jones to take medication the rest of his life. By the time the diagnosis arrived, Jones had lost his ability to walk.

Once of the most coveted high school prospects in the state, his condition placed his future in sports in doubt. It placed his future in doubt. He considered the possibility of living a life without the use of his legs. Gradually, though, after the diagnosis, his strength returned. He learned how to walk again.

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Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, right, is sacked by UNC’s Nazair Jones (90) in November. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The weight he lost slowly came back. Jones still looked weak and feeble, compared to his old self, when he showed up to a UNC football camp late into his recovery. He made his way through some drills the best he could. UNC coach Larry Fedora saw enough to offer Jones a scholarship.

Fedora hoped then that Jones would recover. Nothing could be guaranteed, though.

Jones and his high school coach drove away with that scholarship offer in hand. They headed toward the highway out of Chapel Hill. Then Jones told his coach to turn around. He’d made his decision. They met with Fedora in his office and Jones told him he’d attend UNC.

Four years later, Jones became one of the Tar Heels’ defensive leaders, their best defensive lineman. He decided to enter the NFL draft. One dream had come true – playing college football at UNC – and now he believed the time had arrived for another to become reality.

Last Friday night grew later and later. Jones’ appetite still hadn’t returned. He waited. What did he do to pass the time?

“Nothing,” he said. “I think that’s why I was so frustrated.”

The third round dragged on, pick after pick without any call from a team. Finally Jones’ phone buzzed again. He looked down to see that someone was calling from the state of Washington.

“I just kind of froze,” Jones said.

A voice on the other end said, “Welcome to Seattle,” moments later it became official: The Seattle Seahawks selected Jones with the 102nd overall pick.

Jones said he “lost my mind” and that “my family went crazy, too.” Years ago no one could be sure that he’d ever be able to walk again. And now …

“I basically jumped for joy, gave my mom a big hug,” he said. “And shed a few tears of joy with my family.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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