Aug. 9, 2002
By Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune
The story could start with how Brent Jones found out about his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. It came in the form of a letter -- a letter Jones initially thought was an invitation to a golf tournament.
Or it could begin with how Jones, then a Santa Clara tight end, would check out the national receiving statistics each week in The Sporting News. Every time he looked he'd see a J. Rice from Mississippi Valley State near the top of the list and, with the huge numbers this unknown was posting, wonder if anybody actually covered the guy. In the next decade the two (he and Jerry Rice) would win three Super Bowls together with the San Francisco 49ers.
Maybe it could start at Santa Clara, where Jones went primarily to become a slugging first baseman. Instead he became a record-setting tight end.
But perhaps it's best to start at Leland High School in San Jose, Calif., where Jones didn't play varsity football until his senior year, made only a few starts (none of them at tight end) and had a receptions total that could be counted on two hands.
"You're going to laugh," Jones said. "I think it was about eight or nine. It's not much more than that."
There were good reasons. An injury wiped out Jones' junior season and most of the receiving corps returned, which made Jones second-string. But Leland coach Steve Cox envisioned some mismatch opportunities and used Jones a little bit at H-back, a little bit at wide receiver and a little bit at tight end.
"His stance was ugly and he needed to work on his blocking," said Cox, now the head coach at Cabrillo Junior College in Santa Cruz, Calif. "(But) you just had to find a spot for him."
Once Jones' high school career ended, fate stepped in. Cox was helping out with Santa Clara's spring practice, and the team needed a tight end. Cox didn't exactly lie to Broncos coach Pat Malley about Jones' lack of tight end experience, but he didn't tell the complete truth either. Malley died in 1985 and Cox never did share his little secret.
"Coach Malley wasn't the type of guy you kept too many secrets from and let him know you kept them," Cox said.
So Jones headed off to Santa Clara, where half of his scholarship was paid for by the baseball program.
"In my mind," Jones said, "that's why I was there."
Until he started putting up record numbers on the football field. His career totals -- 137 receptions, 2,267 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns -- earned him the title of greatest tight end in school history. His Hall of Fame bio notes that Jones was one of the players who helped revolutionize the concept of the pass-catching tight end.
"I didn't write that," he said. "I don't know if it's necessarily true. Things go in cycles."
The numbers he posted at Santa Clara caught the eyes of NFL teams. The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Jones in the fifth round of the 1987 draft, telling him that he was their tight end of the future.
Ten days after the draft, Jones and his future wife, Dana, were driving to his parents home in a quiet neighborhood. A drunk driver crossed the center line, hitting Jones' car head on. Dana suffered a broken jaw and separated shoulder, Brent a herniated disk in his neck. Both would fully recover, but Jones' days with the Steelers were soon through.
"I thought that car accident was going to end my career," he said.
His agent contacted a few teams, but Jones decided that if his career was going to end, it may as well be close to home, so in late 1987 he signed with San Francisco. When he got there, seven names were listed above his on the depth chart.
"I had to be flawless for Bill Walsh to know my name," he said.
And flawless was what Jones was. He worked hard on every play. He dove for everything. He caught everything.
"I went crazy," he said.
Not nearly as crazy as when he went to the huddle for the first time with the starters. Rice was there. Roger Craig was there. And Joe Montana was calling the plays.
"It was all I could do to not whip out a pen and piece of paper and ask Joe for his autograph," Jones said. "I had to act like I belonged."
Eventually, he was able to share with Rice, now one of his best friends, how he used to wonder how a guy from some faraway, unknown school could put up the monstrous numbers Rice had.
"He just laughed," Jones said.
Once Jones proved he belonged, he flourished. With the Niners a pass-to-set-up-the-run offense, Jones put up huge numbers for a tight end.
He was named All-Pro four times and still owns the San Francisco record for most career receiving yards by a tight end with 747.
"It was a little bit skill, a little bit right-place, right-time," he said.
"If we were three yards and a cloud of dust, I wouldn't have been your tight end."
Jones now works for CBS as an NFL commentator, is part-owner of an equity company and is on the board of directors of the San Jose Sharks. He's also involved with a group that is trying to purchase an NFL franchise.
All that makes for long days, and when he came home around midnight one evening, he saw a package that he thought was an invitation to a golf tournament. It actually was a letter welcoming him to the College Football Hall of Fame.
"I really wasn't paying attention," Jones said. "It really caught me off guard."
Jones and Cox occasionally talk, and Cox still hears from friends about his role in developing Jones. Particularly the part about not starting him at tight end.
"Boy, aren't I smart," Cox said. "I was the only guy who could keep Brent Jones from catching the ball."