NEW BRITAIN - The people who know Byron Jones insist he hasn‚Äôt changed much since the days he starred at St. Paul High School and then at UConn. The New Britain native has gotten bigger, stronger and now plays in the NFL, but the qualities that made him such a special player then are still present today.
It was on display during the inaugural Byron Jones Football Camp Saturday in New Britain with the skills and lessons he was imparting to the kids in attendance.
‚ÄúThe thing with Byron, the work ethic that he has, he had in high school and he developed it even more in college and even more in the pros,‚ÄĚ St. Paul football coach Jude Kelly said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not like he‚Äôs just relying on his skills, he‚Äôs relying on the whole personality of him. ‚ÄėI want to get better. I want to be the best that I can all the time.‚Äô He‚Äôs getting better every day. And more importantly, he‚Äôs doing it in life, such as [Saturday‚Äôs] camp. He does it all. He‚Äôs a perfect role model for kids in today‚Äôs society.‚ÄĚ
Those qualities also helped him become a first-round draft pick of one of the most high-profile teams in the National Football League - the Dallas Cowboys. He started 11 games as a rookie in 2015 and became a full-time starter the following two seasons, leading the Cowboys to pick up his five-year option in April.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs fun,‚ÄĚ Jones said of playing in Dallas. ‚ÄúThey love, eat, breathe and sleep football down there. It‚Äôs a whole other culture down there and definitely a little different than up here, but I love it. You couldn‚Äôt ask for a better organization to play for than the Cowboys.‚ÄĚ
Dallas has also asked plenty of Jones on the field. Currently, he is in the process of going through the third position change of his career. After spending 2015 and 2016 as a free safety, the 25-year-old played more strong safety last season, where he recorded 82 total tackles, forced a fumble and came away with an interception. Entering this season, Jones has been switched to cornerback, a position he played in high school at St. Paul and spent most of his time when at UConn.
As with any position change in the NFL, there are some challenges. But Jones said he is more than up for the task. Jones has been working on speeding up his game, as he will now be guarding receivers instead on mainly tight ends.
‚ÄúI like anything with a challenge and football in itself is designed to challenge you,‚ÄĚ Jones said. ‚ÄúTrying to change positions in the NFL is a challenge, but I love it.‚ÄĚ
Jones will also have a new coach in the defensive backfield room to aid him in that switch. During the offseason, the organization brought in Kris Richard, who spent six years in the league at cornerback with four different teams, and spent the past three seasons as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator.
What could help Jones the most, however, is Richard was also the Seahawks secondary coach when the Legion of Boom - featuring Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor - was the best defensive backfield in the NFL and helped lead the team to consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs great,‚ÄĚ Jones said of Richard. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs young and has a lot of energy and teaching the guys a lot of great things. He‚Äôs just telling us to be a physical defense, attack the ball and make plays. Play together; be on the same page.‚ÄĚ
That shouldn‚Äôt be difficult for Jones, who still follows a key piece of advice he learned from Kelley back in high school: ‚ÄúWhat are you doing when no one is watching? In order to do the big things right, you have to take care of the small things first.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs the beauty of it,‚ÄĚ Jones said. ‚ÄúSince I was in high school and college, you build this level of standards for yourself and you never want to go below those standards. When you start out, it‚Äôs tough to keep it, ain‚Äôt no doubt about that, but it becomes easier to make those right decisions to put yourself in the best athletic shape, mental shape.‚ÄĚ
But ask Jones what his favorite part of the game is and his eyes instantly light up, his smile gets wider and goes back to what he spent Saturday doing, giving back to the kids in the community.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôre paying attention to every word you say and hanging onto it,‚ÄĚ Jones said. ‚ÄúEven if you‚Äôre the best NFL player or the worst NFL player, they‚Äôre going to love you and think you‚Äôre the biggest star in the world. It doesn‚Äôt matter if you‚Äôre the backup right guard or the starting quarterback. They‚Äôre going to look up to you like, ‚Äėwow, this guy is in the NFL.‚Äô They think it‚Äôs the coolest thing ever and that‚Äôs what I love, just how receptive they are and willing to listen.‚ÄĚ
As Jones continues to prepare for the upcoming season, with training camp opening July 26, he will have a host of new fans cheering him on. And those who knew him prior to his NFL career will be quick to point out he means more to the community than just being a football player.
‚ÄúByron‚Äôs an incredible athlete,‚ÄĚ Kelly said. ‚ÄúBut he‚Äôs an even better person.‚ÄĚ
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org