Saturday, Aug 23, 2014
Hernando High

Recalling a reluctant athletic career


Published:   |   Updated: October 30, 2013 at 03:33 PM

Editor's note: This is the fifth story in a series highlighting Hernando High's 2013 Sports Hall of Fame inductees.

Perhaps one of least known members of the current crop of Hernando High School's Sports Hall of Fame inductees might be the most engaging and most articulate.

Phillip Robert Jones, recognized as Phil or P.J. to his friends and associates, was easy to spot during the recent induction ceremonies.

Jones, 61, strode across Brooksville's Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium at 6-foot-7, weighing in at a fit 245 pounds.

He was born in New Orleans as the youngest boy of four children to Levy and Daisy Jones.

Jones calls himself a "native Floridian" - after his birth his family relocated to the Sunshine State and he was raised in Brooksville.

He was a late athletic bloomer. His older brother, Richard, was a standout athlete at Brooksville's Moton High.

During the integration movement of the turbulent 1960s, Moton was eventually closed and Hernando High absorbed the students.

Jones was at the focal point of social change.

"When they combined the schools, the transition wasn't smooth," explained Jones. "We tried to make the best of it. I think the Hernando High students at the time thought we were invading. It was hard to be friends when you're the new kids on the block.

"What helped me," recalled Jones, "was playing sports. Most of us were good friends on the court or at practice - it was a somewhat different story off campus."

On what helped Jones assimilate into a new campus as a junior, "Times were a changing everywhere across this great country," noted Jones. "We had a huge walkout one day. Only 15 blacks showed up at school. But my parents pushed education, and my mama said, 'You're not missing school, get your behind up there.'"

It took a while for Jones to grow into his body. As most athletes, he went through a growth spurt where he was awkward and clumsy. That's one of the reasons he didn't play any organized sports until his eighth-grade football campaign at Moton Junior High School.

Jones, a spilt end and defensive end, only played football, as well basketball, under the considerable insistence of Coach Lorenzo Hamilton.

"Coach Hamilton knew my brother Richard. He was one of Moton's finest athletes. Coach Hamilton even talked with my parents to have me come out," recalled Jones. "I put him off for a while. But the man would not give up. In the end, I wanted to do what my brother Richard did - he was my mentor."

On which side of the scrimmage he preferred, Jones leaned to the offensive side.

"Playing split end was like playing chess with the defense," said Jones. "It was a guessing game for them; they didn't know where I was going."

As a two-way starter at HHS, Jones' team captured eight of its first nine games under second-year skipper Vince Thompson.

After opening the 1968 gridiron season with four straight wins, Hernando had its winning streak snapped by Fort Meade in Polk County, 19-10.

Despite the first setback, HHS dialed up four straight wins over Zephyrhills (60-19), Brewster Tech (39-12), Pinecrest (18-7) and East Bay (62-7).

The Purple and Gold dropped the regular-season finale at Mulberry, 9-6, before accepting a bowl bid to Elks Holiday Bowl in Leesburg. The host Yellow Jackets nipped the Leopards, 33-26.

As a senior, Coach Thompson's third squad was decimated by graduation losses and finished 2-8.

HHS' lone victories arrived at Crystal River (7-6) and against the Admiral Farragut Academy Bluejackets (46-0).

On the hardwood courts, Jones, who weighed approximately 175 pounds, recalls his humble beginnings.

"It was an unmitigated disaster," said Jones. "I was so awkward. I couldn't shoot a jump shot and I couldn't dribble. Coach Hamilton even assigned a player strictly to me, to help me learn the fundamentals."

After Jones began to grow into his body, he said, "I was like a duck in water - things started to click."

Jones slowly developed a pivot step and that in turn helped him find a rhythm to shooting and shot-blocking.

"Suddenly my offense came from my defense," Jones said.

With clarity, Jones recalls a pair of breakout moments.

"Against CCC (Clearwater Central Catholic), they had this 6-foot-10 kid who was dominating things night after night," said Jones, who regularly read the sports pages. "Normally, I'd ask coach to face the other's team's best player and I did.

"I'll never forget that night; I scored 27 points and held the CCC kid to six points.

"In the other game, we were at Tampa Catholic and I scored 33 points," recalled Jones. "After that game, everything seemed to make sense; I wasn't nervous anymore."

In a stellar senior year, Jones remembers averaging 24.5 points per game and between 6-7 rebounds per game.

In his last five games, scouts from Maryland, North Carolina and Edward Waters College, among others, watched him play.

With relatives in Duval County, Jones wanted to remain in state to enable his supportive parents and relatives the opportunity to see him play collegiate basketball. So he chose Edward Waters in Jacksonville.

The only problem: upon his arrival, Edward Waters dissolved its athletic programs.

Without basketball, Jones faced the specter of being drafted and serving 8,000 miles away from home in Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam.

"That was a reality check," noted Jones. "(Going to war) was very prominent in my mind. I was fortunate not to have my number called. So many of my classmates from Moton and Hernando were getting killed over there seemingly every week or every month."

"That year off was one of my worst years," recalled Jones. "I eventually landed a scholarship at Mississippi Valley State in Itta Bena, Mississippi, but had to sit out a year. I was able to practice with the fellas, but never stepped on the court."

As a member of the Devils, he vividly recalls the discussion surrounding a stout Jackson State football player who caught MSVS players' attention, Walter Payton.

"Sweetness took it easy on us," said Jones. "He only played the first half and scored three touchdowns. It was just a preview of his great Hall of Fame career."

On the courts as a small forward, Jones eventually averaged 18 points and almost seven rebounds per game. For his efforts, Jones was tabbed All-Southwest Athletic Conference and All-American.

Moreover, he graduated on time with a bachelor's degree in agriculture and minor in health.

"The degree was huge," detailed Jones. "My daddy had a sixth-grade education and both my parents stressed hitting the books. They always said, 'You can only play sports for a short time, but they can't take away your education.'"

Jones faced another reality check when he attempted to play professional basketball for the Atlanta Hawks.

"I was in the Hawks' camp for 1 1/2 years. Talk about a humbling experience," recalled Jones. "I was privileged just to be out there with those guys. My ankles, however, were never the same since a high school injury at Hernando. And after my fourth knee surgery, my playing career was over.

"The doctor at the time told me I'd be fortunate to walk (after his fourth surgery)," recalled Jones. "But I walk around just fine."

After basketball, Jones returned to Brooksville and began a career with the Southwest Florida Water Management District as a monitoring technician for the state for 17 years.

Since then he's served at Southwest Florida Water Management District in Kissimmee as an aquatic plant biologist and an emergency rapid response responder for nearly 18 years.

In 1977, Jones became an ordained minister. He helped found the Christian C.AR.E. Ministries of Ocala/Brooksville.

He and his wife Youlanda Green have been married for almost 15 years. The Jones family, which currently resides in Sparr, features eight children and seven grandchildren.

Jones is about to retire from SWIFTMUD.

He plans to remain busy doing volunteer work and acting as an outreach to local pastors.

"You can call me the pastors' pastor," explained Jones. "I give a helping hand to pastors with any questions or concerns they may have."

On receiving the call to his HHS HOF induction, "It was totally unexpected," shared Jones. "When I heard the news from Coach Hamilton, my wife asked me if I was OK.

"I have to admit after I got the call I got a lump in my throat," recalled Jones. "For a big guy like me, getting that call brought a tear to my face.

"You try to rewind your life's tape and remember all the people who helped you. Through all the pain, sweat and tears, I have to say it was all worth it."

Jones wishes his parents could be on hand.

"It's unbelievable all the sacrifices my parents had to go through to give me things like a new pair of Converse or new socks - that was a big deal when you don't have much," said Jones. "I'll certainly never forget that. My parents were the peanut butter and jelly in my life."

On his father's impact, "My dad was my reality check," recalled Jones. "I remember after I scored a career-high 48 points and had 22 rebounds, I was reading the paper and dad said, 'Scoring points isn't the most important thing. Don't look to the press for reality.' And he was right."

According to Jones, he owes a great deal of gratitude to Coach Hamilton.

"I'd tell him tomorrow, just like I told him last year to his face, 'Thank you for bothering me,'" said Jones. "He was always encouraging, 'You can do this, or you can accomplish this.'"

"I really wish my brother Richard could be here this weekend," admitted Jones. "He was my role model. He was the player I wanted to be on the field. And he was a gentleman off the field."

As a pastor, Jones carries a daily mantra: "It's each one, reach one and teach one."

According to Jones, "Life is all about helping others and teaching them how to walk through this life every day."

On his advice to the latest generation of student/athletes, "I think Nike got it right with their commercial, 'Just do it.' You can't just talk the talk. If you just talk, nothing gets done; go out and do it."

Leaving a legacy is critically important to Jones, "My daddy passed this on to me and hopefully, I've passed it on to my children," he recalled. "I want to be remembered as a good brother, a good student, a good father and more importantly a great member of our society."

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