It was a wild scene, appropriate for the achievement. Temple had just throttled Navy, on Navy’s field, for the school’s first conference football championship in 49 years. Postgame, the epicenter of that celebration was so striking.
From a column that afternoon in 2016: “Scenes from a championship: a Temple police officer who had worked Owls games for seven years, high-fiving and hugging players as they found him, laughing and laughing and laughing.”
That Temple police officer, James Jones, was a magnet for Temple players, not just that day. That laughter? His trademark. That’s why a recent generation of Temple football is in mourning right now. Jones, it turned out, had complications from autoimmune issues, according to his family. He died June 15 after a short illness, age 49.
Trying to put into words what this man they all knew as Jonesy meant to the football program, former Owls tight end Colin Thompson called Jones “the franchise QB of Temple University football.”
Thompson, who signed a free-agent contract this year with the Carolina Panthers, didn’t choose those words lightly. Through all the recent coaching changes, Thompson noted, Jones was a constant reassuring presence. Thompson texted Jones recently, after George Floyd died and the nation erupted. Thompson wanted to put his own thoughts out there. First, Thompson said, he wanted to pick Jonesy’s brain.
“Jonesy was loved by the players,” said former Owls assistant Ed Foley, who worked under a decade’s worth of head coaches at 10th and Diamond. For many years, Foley and this man who was officially the liaison from Temple’s police department to the football program were constants. “He was goodness defined. He loved his role with our team and literally was like a father who looked after us and laughed with us.”
“So contagious,” said Rich Burg, the sports information director for Temple football. “I tell dad jokes, but when I’m around Jonesy, you would think I’m Jerry Seinfeld.”
“It’s like I inherited 100-plus sons, that fortunately I don’t have to feed or clothe,” Jones said for a 2016 video piece that Temple’s athletic department did on him.
In recent days, you saw the instant outpouring of emotion on social media when former Temple players, stars and backups, saw that Jones had died. (Not related to COVID-19, his family told Temple police.)
Former Owls star P.J. Walker, the actual franchise quarterback during his years at Temple, tweeted out the photo of Jones leading them all into Lincoln Financial Field. Walker added: “RIP officer Jonesy … always front line, always looking out for the guys. We had plenty of great talks over the years. …”
That photo, Thompson said, was walking in before the Penn State game in 2015, a day that was at least as memorable as the American Athletic Conference title game the next year. For players, it was natural that Jonesy was front and center without being splashy about it. That photo was also the one Jones used for his own Twitter feed, which was all retweets about Temple players, past and present.
Thompson noted that he had transferred to Temple from Florida, which also had police officers assigned to football. You usually notice those officers around the coach, especially after games.
Jones had that role, too. He was just different. Thompson said he didn’t know the names of those officers at Florida. This spoke to Thompson about what was different about Temple as a whole. He used the word quaint.
“When you see a police officer with the Temple football coach, most think that officer just walks around making sure everything is safe,” said Charles Leone, Temple’s chief of police. “That is a very, very small part of what Jonesy did.
“Jonesy built relationships with players, coaches, people in the stands, alumni, visiting teams, other police jurisdictions, and anyone he met. Jones was on 24/7 for the players and coaches, always available to assist with talking through an issue or offering sage advice. You could always count on Jones answering his phone, and every player took advantage of that gift.”
“The real crappy part of this situation, he can’t be mourned,” Thompson said. “This is one of the more significant losses I’ve experienced in my life. I want to be with my teammates and brothers. … The current players, there already would have been three or four team meetings, but you can’t do that. That’s what’s so hard.”
Thompson, who had worked last season as part of Temple’s radio team, scrolled through his own texts with Jones, like after the Owls won a Thursday night game last October at East Carolina. Jones hadn’t made that trip.
“Don’t celebrate without me,” Jones had texted Thompson afterward. “Get off the plane. I’m waiting to escort you guys home.”
It hit Thompson that when he was searching for the right words in recent days, that last text wasn’t returned. He didn’t know Jones was already sick.
“I am crushed about his death,” said Foley, now on Matt Rhule’s Carolina Panthers coaching staff, noting how Jones stayed in close touch even when Foley had moved on to Baylor with Rhule. “I loved Jonesy. Really loved Jonesy.”
Leading team bus escorts was one of his duties.
“I always told him that I was a little concerned that he was going to get soft and slow us down,” Foley said. “Then he would get serious and say something, ‘Don’t you worry about me. We ain’t stopping for no one.’ And he never stopped for anyone. He got us where we needed to go.”
Foley’s last thought: “There is no chance that he will be replaced.”
Leone, in charge of public safety at Temple, put it like this: “The football team, our department, the university, and the whole darn planet lost a valued treasure we could never replace.”
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Terry Funeral Home Chapel, 4203-05 Haverford, Ave., Philadelphia. Viewing from 9 to 11 a.m.
To really honor this man, a suggestion for Temple football: Retire one of those single-digit jersey numbers you award to your team leaders, in the name of the one you just lost.