DaQuan Jones hates when cameras are in his face. The lights shine down on him, and he freezes up. He’s not a big talker. The attention — he doesn’t want it.
The senior defensive tackle has always been a silent leader. Whether it’s leading the Nittany Lions or setting an example for his brothers while his mother was incarcerated, DaQuan Jones has always been this person.
He was this person last week after Penn State dropped its Big Ten opener to Indiana. And he was like this while he spent his adolescence sleeping on a two-seat couch, moving from apartment-to-apartment when his family couldn’t pay rent.
He’s always been this person.
The quiet threat. The one who made the right decisions. The one who broke the mold. He didn’t have to turn into the person he is today. He could have more easily been someone else. But his family and mentors would never let him waste his God-given talent.
During the 2011 Outback Bowl, the then-freshman wrapped his arms around Florida’s quarterback in the second quarter and sacked him for a four-yard loss.
His family sat at home, 1,200 miles north in Johnson City, N.Y. When DaQuan recorded the first big-time sack of his collegiate career, his father and brothers jumped into the air to cheer.
When they looked back at each other, each was crying. They knew what he went through to get to this point.
“This is your mother. You can’t change that. Love your mother no matter what.”
Steve Jones told his sons to learn about their mother. Work to understand her. She made bad decisions. Do not abandon her, he would tell them.
Court records show Valie Newborn was arrested on Aug. 22, 2008. DaQuan was 16. His mother was sentenced to three years in prison for attempted burglary. She’d always struggled with addiction.
Before that, DaQuan and his brothers — both close in age to him — had always lived with their mom. Sometimes she was around, most times she wasn’t. When DaQuan was in eighth grade, Steve was granted full custody of the boys.
Now, Steve cries when he talks about how proud he is of his son. He’s knows what he went through to get to this point.
All DaQuan’s life, he and his family moved constantly because they couldn’t afford to stay put. Sometimes they’d stay with friends, family, coaches, whoever could put them up for a few days. There was rarely a warm meal and almost never a mother and father who really loved each other.
“We would move everywhere. We didn’t have the best clothes. Barely clothes at all,” DaQuan said. “And it just really sucked.”
While his father was working in the evenings to make whatever money he could, DaQuan sat at his high school coach Bill Spalik’s kitchen table, completing his math homework. Sometimes he’d eat a warm meal there. Then, he’d go home, talk with his siblings about their day, and go to sleep on his two-seat couch.
When he woke up, Spalik would pick him up at 5 a.m. to lift. The football coach knew DaQuan was destined for greatness. Spalik would eventually be the one to take DaQuan to Penn State.
“I love that kid like he’s my own,” Spalik said. “It wasn’t because of athletic ability. Not because I knew he was going to be great. We opened up the door and he stepped through it.”
“Always stay humble and try to spread your message and where you came from. If you can help one other kid make a good decision, you’ve done a good deed.”
His father’s words ring in his head.
When DaQuan Jones was in seventh grade, the talented basketball player struggled with school. At the time, he was 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds. His one-on-one tutor told him he could really excel in football if he tried it.
Then, when Spalik got a hold of him, he knew that DaQuan could go to college for free one day if he worked hard at football. DaQuan never imagined he’d be the first in his family to get a four-year college education.
“He’s a fantastic kid,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said this year. “You talk about a guy that’s overcome the odds in the classroom, overcome the odds on the football field.”
DaQuan overcame the odds.
As he went through high school, his childhood friends started using drugs. In Johnson City, everyone knows everything about everyone else. DaQuan couldn’t risk getting into trouble.
“I had to change and I had to take a step back and realize sometimes you grow up and some people do what they have to do to survive,” he said. “A lot of people use drugs to just make money. That’s something I had to separate myself from so I wouldn’t be caught up in that and possibly lose the opportunity to go to school.”
Everyday through high school, DaQuan had to make a choice: Break the mold or become a statistic. And if he chose the latter, his high school coaches always taught him that he needs to be a man. Own up to it. Move on.
His father Steve supported that mantra, and became DaQuan’s No. 1 fan in high school. He tried as hard as he could to support his kids while working an hour away at Cornell University as a cook. When he comes home, he manages apartments, cuts grass, completes carpentry work. Anything.
“He always saw me working hard,” Steve said. “We didn’t have a whole lot. But I let them know that I’m working so we can keep the cell phones on and keep the lights on. You want cable? Work for it. Nobody’s going to give you anything. That’s the way life is.”
DaQuan’s older brother Devon is supportive and hardworking, too. He was the assertive one, who helped to hold the family together while their mother wasn’t around.
Younger than him is Dashaun, who’s now 18. The two played football together in Johnson City. And while things didn’t work out for Dashaun in terms of playing college ball, DaQuan still works to instill everything he values in his younger brother: Work hard, be honest, remain loyal, set goals, adhere to priorities.
Now, the three boys have matching tattoos on their arms that represent each other. They’re together for life. They’re family first for life. So growing up, football wasn’t on DaQuan’s mind as much as helping his family battle through difficult times.
“I was really just trying to help my family out,” he said, “just trying to make sure we were all OK and we were all safe.”
“Be humble. Even if you get a hundred million dollars, it could all be gone. Then you have to see those same people you ignored on the way up. Just try to stay grounded. After football, that’s when real life starts.”
Steve taught DaQuan to remember where he came from. Struggles taught DaQuan loyalty. Jumping ship from Penn State after sanctions were levied on the program in 2012 wasn’t an option. That would have been too easy.
Syracuse, Boston College, Georgia — they were all calling him, attempting to reel in the athlete who would eventually become one of the best defensive tackles in the Big Ten.
“He chose to stay put,” Spalik said. “That shows you what type of person he really is.”
He was one of the ones who stayed because he recognized the opportunities that Penn State afforded him: a shot at the NFL and, more importantly, an education. They’re within his reach. He’s lucky he’s here, and he’s grateful for that every day.
DaQuan wasn’t originally going to go to Penn State. His loyalty drew him to Boston College, the first Division I school to offer him a scholarship.
“I was going crazy,” DaQuan said. “It was so much emotion because I didn’t think I would be able to go to college because my parents couldn’t afford it. When I got that full scholarship, I was like ‘I can go to school now.’ ”
The offers started rolling in. He had seven Division I offers. That’s seven schools he never thought he’d be able to afford. But the teenager had fallen in love with Penn State, and he’d fallen in love with defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s style. Johnson is a coach who preaches hard work and believing in yourself no matter how large the hurdles seem. DaQuan identified with that. He understood that.
The tackle told Spalik in a State College sub shop that he wanted to be a Nittany Lion. That was June 2009. The two called DaQuan’s dad, and Steve gave it his blessing. Johnson sat DaQuan down to discuss his scholarship offer.
“Coach, before you say anything,” DaQuan told him, “I’m going to go ahead and commit to Penn State.”
“Never be a follower. Always be a leader.”
DaQuan Jones is always the player standing directly behind Bill O’Brien to run onto the field at the start of a game. He doesn’t say much. But he’s there, the silent leader.
When he went home two weekends ago when the team had a bye, his grandmother told him that his youngest brother, Dajon, who is 5, has been acting up recently. DaQuan tells him to respect his teachers, because it will pay off. He knows firsthand.
And he tells Dashaun to focus on community college and excel in everything he tries. School is a struggle for Dashuan. DaQuan gets it. It was always a struggle for him, too.
“I just try to tell him it’s going to pay off,” he said. “I tell him ‘it’s really going to pay off for you, and you can really help yourself and you can help daddy to just get out of there.’
“I don’t want my dad living there any longer than he has to.”
So for DaQuan, he’s hoping the NFL works out. The defensive tackle is a projected third-round draft pick. Some of his friends at home tell him he won’t make it, or he can’t make it. He tells them they’re crazy.
Others wear Penn State T-shirts and hats in his support. The small town of Johnson City has been transformed into a place where kids think Penn State is the biggest it gets. DaQuan is a hometown hero.
And if he makes it to the league, he wants to get his dad into a better living situation. If not, he’ll open a business with his dad and his brothers by his side. Being happy with his family is all he ever wanted to do. Steve tells him that no matter how big he gets, he can never forget where he came from.
As far as DaQuan’s mother, the two still talk. Her situation motivates him to be the best he can be whether it’s in the classroom, on the football field, or in anything else life throws his way.
“When you see someone that close to you get in trouble and actually go away, that’s actually motivating because you don’t want to become like that,” he said.
“I don’t want to become the norm.”
Anna Orso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 814-865-1828. Follow her on Twitter at @anna_orso.