What happens when a 22-year-old quarterback steps from the shadows of backup territory to lead his team to a national championship? He wins the adulation of rabid Buckeye Nation fans, of course. He might also be tempted to veer off a course to maturity and humility set years ago by a mentor, a mother and, more recently, some of the best coaches in the business. But people close to Cardale Jones are optimistic he'll handle it all with grace under pressure.
Two college football heavyweights slugging it out for supremacy. A domed stadium crackling with the tight-game energy of fervid fans. A massive television audience watching to see which contender will deliver the decisive blow. And an unproven backup quarterback at the center of it all.
The Ohio State Buckeyes were waist-deep in the second half of a fierce national semifinal game against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day, and the Buckeyes offense was on dangerous turf, with a slim lead and poor field position on repeated possessions. Third-string quarterback Cardale Jones was making just his second career start. But his mind remained clear.
"There's no way in hell I'm gonna fail," he recalls thinking. He and his teammates had studied for this test. Hard. They'd endured the grind of spring practice, the long days in camp and late nights watching film, working on little things and looking for the thinnest edge. "I believed I would do well on that test, because I was prepared for it."
Jones' unique trip to the land of opportunity and his stirring performance under pressure in the postseason was headline-worthy stuff, but Jones knows his passage from competitive afterthought to acclaim is only one chapter in the book that will ultimately be written about him as a player and, more importantly, as a person. Jones is quick to admit the real story begins with his evolved understanding of the man-sized expectations that come with playing quarterback at Ohio State, an ever-sharpening awareness of the trappings of success and the importance of staying true to himself, his community and the core values instilled in him by Ted Ginn Sr., the life coach he calls a miracle worker.
Life-and-death pressurewas part of the equation for Jones while growing up on Cleveland's east side, and high-stakes football games and hostile crowds pale in comparison.
"To me, real pressure is not knowing if someone is gonna break down the door of your house and shoot you or rob you," Jones says. "Real pressure is not just trying to find a place to sleep, but making sure it's a safe place to sleep. It's been that way for a lot of guys. I'm not the only one who dealt with tough times. But I've been through plenty of traumatizing experiences in my life, so there's not much that can happen on a football field that will rattle me."
Says Ginn: "Cardale is fearless where football is concerned. Given some of the things he's been through in his life, there's nothing football-wise that will scare him."
Ginn knows what he's talking about. As a football and track coach and as the founder of Ginn Academy, an all-male public high school in Cleveland, Ginn has seen it all and then some when it comes to helping youngsters overcome challenges in pursuit of success. He graduated from Glenville High School in Cleveland and later worked as a security guard there. He was named head football coach at Glenville nearly two decades ago, despite the objections of some who thought he wasn't qualified for the position because he wasn't a certified teacher. Ginn has mentored countless young men (and women) like Jones, kids with tough childhoods behind them and potential ahead of them-potential that could be realized with the right guidance. He helped his son Ted Ginn Jr. overcome a learning disability to become a strong student. Ginn Jr. became a star at Ohio State and plays for the Carolina Panthers. Ginn was also instrumental in helping Heisman Trophy-winner Troy Smith turn his troubled teenage life around, and he mentored Cleveland Browns safety Donte Whitner. Though the names of those high-profile athletes may draw the most attention, Ginn's mission to help kids succeed has always been about much more than sports.
"He has a unique ability to connect with kids from all types of backgrounds and prepare them for success in life," Jones says. "It goes farther than sports or academics. The time and effort he commits to kids is incredible. He's more than a mentor. He's a miracle-worker, in terms of how he is able to impact so many kids in such a positive way."
Ginn began preparing Jones for pressure-cooker moments as a quarterback when Jones was just 8 years old. Ginn worked on the mental side first. Jones made regular detours from his trips to youth football practice to visit Ginn's Glenville High Tarblooders practices, hoping to catch Ginn's eye and waiting for any opportunity to impress. Though Jones was a lineman and defensive end, Ginn predicted other possibilities.
"I told Cardale that he was gonna be a quarterback," Ginn says. "I'd act like I wasn't paying any real attention to him, tell him to pick up a ball and throw a pass, knowing that the ball was too big for his hands. He'd throw a bad pass, and I'd give him a hard time about it and tell him to throw another pass. That pass would be bad, too. I'd tell him to go away, but he'd come right back the next day with a big smile on his face, waiting to throw a ball. Each day, he was getting better. And when he came to Glenville, he started playing quarterback."
For Jones, it took time to realize a gruff Ginn was simply planting the first seeds of mental toughness necessary for future success.
"I thought he was mean," Jones says. "I'd throw pass after pass, and he'd tell me they were all terrible. And I'd be thinking, 'Man, give me a break. I'm a freakin' lineman!' But those were special days for me. Ginn was the first one to envision me as a quarterback, and he was already preparing me mentally for it. He was starting to use football to teach me about life."
The tenacity Ginn helped instill in Jones during those days is a key piece of the bigger plan Ginn has for kids in the Glenville community. Ginn Academy teaches principles like dismissal of downtrodden characterizations, determination to define oneself, understanding anything is possible and creating a blueprint to achieve goals.
"We will recognize our genius and realize our self-worth," Ginn says, reciting the academy creed. "The key to helping kids realize their self-worth begins by understanding they all have different personalities and backgrounds and needs, so each of them needs an individual plan. It was that way for Cardale when he was here. We take the time to help kids understand that they can be anything they want to be, that they are capable of greatness.
"Cardale doing what he did for Ohio State in the playoffs wasn't a surprise to me. We expect miracles to happen every day in our community, because we prepare for it and know that it's in God's hands."
The lessons Jones learned from Ginn, on the field and in the classroom, were put to the test when Jones lost his battle with J.T. Barrett to become the starter at Ohio State after Braxton Miller was injured prior to the 2014 season opener.
"Coach Ginn always talks about the importance of not letting your highs get too high, or your lows get too low, because you don't know what's coming around the corner," Jones says. "And there were times during last season when I felt pretty low. My mind wasn't in the right place, and selfishness started to creep in. I thought my opportunity to play was never gonna come, and I started feeling sorry for myself."
That self-pity party led Jones to consider transferring to another school, where playing time might be more readily available to him. But heart-to-heart talks with Ginn, former Ohio State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman (now head coach at the University of Houston) and Michelle Nash, the woman with whom Jones went to live when he was 14 and whom he calls "my mom, Michelle," helped Jones to reexamine his priorities, including accepting accountability for his situation and understanding that going elsewhere would only avoid the real issue.
"Cardale had to take a hard look at himself," Ginn says. "Because of his immaturity, he had gotten into a position where, if the injuries that are an unfortunate part of football hadn't happened, it would have been a long shot for him to regain an opportunity. Cardale needed to stay focused on what was best for the team and keep fighting, keep preparing. Sometimes, our emotions get the best of us, our thoughts start moving too fast, and we get impatient and miss our chance when it comes. Cardale is a smart young man. He just needed a reminder to go back to the basics."
While Jones wasstrugglingto sort his seemingly limited options at Ohio State last November, the impetus for his eventual about-face was playing out far from the football field.
"The birth of Cardale's daughter was a big wakeup call for him to realize he had to buckle down," Nash says. "When Chloe arrived, I saw a huge change in him. He began to take more responsibility. He understood that it was not just about him anymore, but about something much bigger. People may think Cardale's attitude improved because he got an opportunity to play, but it was really a result of him becoming a father."
Jones agrees. "When Chloe was born, it really opened my eyes in terms of understanding a bigger purpose in life and what selflessness really means," he says. "I had gotten caught up in focusing only on what was best for me, and having a daughter made me realize what's truly important in life and the person I want to be."
Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer believes the selflessness Jones discovered after Chloe's birth contributed to the quarterback's stellar performance during Ohio State's playoff run.
"[Becoming a father] was obviously a big part of Cardale's renewed approach to handling his business, on and off the field," Meyer says. "He raised his level of preparation in an atypical way, and what he accomplished at the end of last season was illogical. He played with purpose and selflessness. A couple of years ago, Cardale would not have responded in such a positive way to being thrust into the limelight. His performance was a great example of what we call the 'power of the unit' at Ohio State, where the players that are part of each unit become very close, and because of that closeness, they play for each other, and the team as a whole."
Readiness for the biggest moments has long been a hallmark of Meyer's teams (see the three national championships his clubs have captured). Though extraordinary preparation gives players an advantage over competitors, especially when championships are on the line, the commitment necessary to succeed under Meyer's watch is not for the timid.
"The mental commitment is key, maybe even more important than the physical side," Jones says. During spring practice, for example, players arrived at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center before dawn on weekdays for meetings or to lift weights and then practiced until noon. They'd eat, shower and head off for an afternoon full of classes. Afterward, it was on to early-evening tutor sessions, then back home to study and finish homework. "When all of that was done, you'd still want to do something football-related to help get an edge on your competition, so you'd go back to the practice facility late at night to throw or watch film or get treatment," Jones says. "It takes a total mental commitment to get through it." He credits the team's preparation plan with allowing him to make key plays under pressure in those three postseason games.
"People assumed that I was gonna step into that situation and shit my pants," Jones says. "Any success that I had in that situation speaks to our system, to the way coach Meyer and his staff are always getting us ready, to the way coach Herman helped prepare me. It's not just about getting ready for the so-called 'big-time games.' It's about the way we try to approach our business every day, no matter if it's in the spring or summer or our two-a-day practices in the fall."
Unlike the doubting masses who envisioned trouble for a backup quarterback about to face big-name playoff opponents, Herman saw something different.
"I witnessed how hard Cardale worked leading up to those games, so I wasn't a bit surprised that he passed that playoff test," Herman says. "Cardale thrives on pressure. There are plenty of guys out there who, if they'd been thrust into that situation with those stakes, there's no way in hell they'd have been able to come through it like Cardale did. The pressure makes him tick."
What is perhaps tougherto train for, however, is handling the frenzy that accompanies sudden championship-level fame, not just in a sports-crazed society but in Columbus, where football Saturdays are sacrosanct and fans anticipate scarlet-and-gray glory. While Jones' postseason performance (and the bizarre circumstances that led to it) ensured his place in the annals of Buckeye gridiron success, it also exposed him to the potential pitfalls that accompany adoration.
"It's been a crazy experience," Jones says. "A man came up to me and hugged me, with tears in his eyes, and said, 'Thank you for winning the national championship for us!' I was respectful and thankful toward him, but I said, 'I didn't win anything. Our whole team won the national championship.' Sometimes, people will freak out that I take the time to talk with them, or they'll get emotional when we have a conversation. But I'm just a regular guy."
Jones hasn't shied from seeking opportunities typically not afforded the average Joe, like successfully lobbying his hometown Cleveland Indians for the honor of throwing the first pitch at a game last summer, or asking to participate in a celebrity softball game hosted by Joe Haden of the Cleveland Browns. Jones has also occasionally raised eyebrows by dancing on social media's edge in a place some might identify as the outer reaches of humility.
"Cardale and I stay in touch, and I told him that some of the things I've seen from him on Twitter seemed close to crossing a line into conceit," Herman says. "I reminded him that he has to be careful, because things can get misconstrued. And Cardale understands that. But it's a challenge. He's still a young man who loves people and likes to have fun and has been thrust into the limelight. There's been a level of celebrity that has come with that. It's something he'll have to manage consistently, because there is a point of diminishing returns on that."
Jones inspired headlines earlier this summer when he waded into politics, tweeting in late July about the Sandra Bland case and his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. An Ohio State fan told Jones to focus on football: "Worry about getting us fans another championship … Stay out of this bullshit. #GoBucks." Jones' reply was smart, cutting and swift: "Sorry Mr master, I aints allow to tweet nothing but foolsball stuff I donts want you think I more than a foots ball playa sir."
Jones has become familiar with the predictable yet unappealing flip side to the fame he enjoys. "Plenty of people out there just want to be a part of your life because you're in the so-called spotlight," he says. "They were nowhere to be found when you were going through tough times, and they don't care who you are as a person. A lot of people have tried to infiltrate my inner circle of family and friends, the ones who have been there for me through all of the challenges and really know who I am as a person, but I'm not gonna let it happen."
He also has his guard up when it comes to any Heisman Trophy hype or buzz about his future professional football draft stock. "I've heard the hype, but I choose not to listen to it," Jones says. "There's a difference between hearing it and actually listening to it. It's about trying to keep things simple, in terms of understanding that no matter what people are saying about you, good or bad, you can't control it. All you can control is to try to keep improving, as a player and a person."
Ignoring that hype is easier said than done, according to Ginn, who has guided a number of young players down the precarious poverty-to-the-NFL road over the years. Some have stayed tuned to Ginn's matter-of-fact messaging and made it. Others have tuned him out and missed it. Where Jones will go, Ginn doesn't yet know.
"Cardale just got what he has always wanted," Ginn says. "It's like he won millions of dollars without ever having had a job. That's a tough dynamic for a young man. Is he mature enough to handle the huge exposure he has received in a short period of time? He's now facing what I call the 'danger of hearing.' There's already a big line of people waiting to tell him anything he wants to hear just because they want something from him. And I'll only tell him the truth. Who will Cardale decide to listen to? And will he continue to trust himself? Cardale has grown up a lot, but he'll have to keep maturing quickly to face the things he's about to face."
As Jones lobbiesto lead the top-ranked Buckeyes against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Labor Day night (minus the services of Joey Bosa and three other players suspended for violating athletic department policy), he acknowledges any accolades he and his teammates earned from last season's title run won't put points on the scoreboard for them in 2015.
"Winning the national championship was an amazing experience, especially because of the adversity we overcame as a team to do it," Jones says. That adversity included a loss at home to the Hokies. "But we realize our success last year doesn't guarantee anything for us this season."
So will it be Jones or J.T. Barrett taking the snaps on Sept. 7 and beyond? Only Meyer can answer, but he says the players involved will make the decision for him with their performance.
"The starting quarterback position at Ohio State is the Cadillac position in America, and it has to be earned," Meyer says. "It's about handling your business on and off the field, in the classroom, your behavior, 24/7, 365. Cardale knows the success he enjoyed at the end of last season doesn't matter this season. He has an opportunity to continue to prove he's worthy of being in that position."
True to the Ginn Academy creed, Jones intends to "remain poised and ready to seize any opportunity for success." "If I'm gonna be that guy to start the season, I have to earn it with my teammates and coaches every day in practice," Jones says. "We have a great group of quarterbacks here who could succeed at any other school in the country, and I have to prove to them why I'm worthy of being that guy."
To some, however, Jones has already proven himself in the way that matters most. "Growing up in the environment he did, the odds were against Cardale, but he refused to become a statistic," Nash says. "He refused to accept limits, to accept someone else's definition of what he was supposed to be in life. He made it through, and he'll keep on making it through, because that's the way he's built. He knows that the blessings he's enjoying now are about something much bigger than him. Hopefully, Cardale can reach his dreams in football, but no matter what happens, he believes in himself. He knows God has a plan for his life."