For three years the father and son shared a pregame ritual. In the
tense moments between warmups and kickoff, when the locker room
fell into a fearful silence, Missouri quarterback Corby Jones
would sit on a bench at his yellow dressing stall in full
uniform. His dad, Tigers defensive line coach Curtis Jones, would
kneel in front of him and offer some nugget of advice or
information, such as which way the wind was blowing, and then
they would say a prayer together. Curtis would rise and, in his
gravelly voice, whisper to Corby, "Good luck." Then he would kiss
his son on top of the head. The kiss was always last.
On the thick late-summer evening of Sept. 5, Missouri began its
108th football season with a nonconference home game against
Bowling Green. There was promise in the air because the Tigers
had gone 7-5 in 1997, cracking the Top 25 and playing in a bowl
game for the first time since 1983. They figured to be even
better in '98, and they would know quickly if they were, for they
faced a difficult early-season schedule that included this
weekend's matchup with No. 1-ranked Ohio State in Columbus. Yet
on that night, Corby sat in his usual seat in the dressing room
beneath the south end-zone bleachers and was consumed by sadness.
There would be no weather report. No prayer. No kiss.
Lord knows, Curtis did his best to beat back death. Knowing that
his father had died of heart disease, knowing that three of his
four brothers had died young from the same illness, Curtis
exercised every day. He was fastidious about his diet. "He
controlled everything that he could control," says his widow and
Corby's mother, Gwen. "He could not control genetics."
Last spring Curtis underwent successful heart valve replacement
surgery. Then on June 21, Father's Day, he experienced an
arrhythmia, during which Gwen successfully performed CPR. Curtis
seemed to have recovered from that; on July 23 he was cleared by
his doctor to return to the practice field. But three days later
he had a heart attack and died at age 55.
Before the game against Bowling Green, following more than a
month of what Corby called "firsts," as in "first day at the
football facility without Dad" and "first time on the practice
field without Dad," and after a long August night during which
Corby and his roommate, Devin West, Missouri's starting
tailback, stood together in the darkness and cried, Corby was
overwhelmed by his father's absence. Only after the other Tigers
had begun to take the field did he rise from his bench. Just one
other man, defensive coordinator Moe Ankney, was left in the
locker room with him. "He was having a very tough time," says
Ankney. Slowly Corby approached the door, crying so hard he
could barely breathe.
On a January evening in 1995, Corby, then a highly recruited
senior at Hickman High in Columbia, Mo., returned to his family's
house after a night out with Tigers freshman running back Brock
Olivo, his official recruiting host. Jones had previously visited
Illinois and loved it. Nebraska recruiter Turner Gill kept
calling him, trying to persuade him to become Tommie Frazier's
replacement. Jones knocked on his parents' bedroom door and
stepped inside. "Dad, I think I'm going to Missouri," he said.
For a moment Curtis sat mute, mock serious. Then he laughed for
what seemed like hours.
The Missouri to which Curtis had returned before the 1994 season
was more than just the ninth stop in his peripatetic journey as a
career assistant coach. It was home. Curtis, the 11th of 13
children born to sharecroppers in Tennessee, had worked alongside
his parents and siblings in the fields as a child and hadn't
begun school until he was eight. After the family moved to St.
Louis when Curtis was 15, he struggled academically, but he
graduated from high school and community college. Then Mizzou
opened its doors to him with an athletic scholarship. "Curtis saw
this as a place that gave him opportunity," says Gwen, a
53-year-old physical therapist. "He had such love for this
university, and in his heart he always wanted to be here again
someday. To have Corby with him meant so much. He was ecstatic."
They were alike in many ways: stubborn, competitive, instinctive.
Curtis was a good enough linebacker to play three seasons, 1968
to '70, in the NFL, and Corby is one of the best quarterbacks in
the nation. When Corby was 11 years old, the Joneses were living
in Portland, where Curtis coached first for the Portland Breakers
of the USFL and then at Pacific. He also coached Corby's Little
League baseball team. "They would come home after a game and sit
around talking, and their take on everything was exactly the
same," says Corby's older brother, Curtis Jr., a 25-year-old
Dartmouth graduate. Until Corby enrolled at Missouri, that Little
League team was the only one Curtis coached on which either of
his sons played.
Under coach Larry Smith, who arrived at Missouri one season
before Corby, the Tigers have become a solid team. Last year four
of Missouri's five defeats were against ranked teams, including
an unforgettable 45-38 overtime loss to Nebraska that was widely
acclaimed the game of the year. As the Tigers head into Columbus
following last Saturday's 41-23 thumping of Kansas, they're 2-0
and ranked No. 7.
Jones became Missouri's starting quarterback in the seventh game
of his freshman season. He learned of his promotion while
listening on his car radio to the postgame show after the Tigers'
30-0 road loss to Kansas State (he wasn't on the travel roster).
He heard Smith promise to revamp the offense. "I knew revamping
the offense meant using the option, and I knew that meant me,"
says Jones. When he got home that evening, Gwen met him at the
door crying, believing that in seven days her son would be
sacrificed to Nebraska. She was right. The Cornhuskers crushed
Missouri 57-0, sacking Jones five times.
As a sophomore, Jones split time with third-year sophomore Kent
Skornia because the Tigers coaches lacked confidence in his
passing skills. He won the job outright last year. Three times he
rushed for more than 100 yards, and four times he passed for more
than 200, including a career-high 233 in that loss to Nebraska.
At 6'1" and 222 pounds, Jones is both fast (4.5 in the 40, and
much quicker in short bursts) and strong (390 pounds in the bench
press), and his improvisational skills are important to
Missouri's offense. In the two games this season, he has
accumulated 132 yards on the ground and 252 through the air for a
combined seven touchdowns. He has thrown only one interception.
Jones, a communications major with a 3.39 average who was named
to last year's Academic All-Big 12 team, is ferociously
competitive. He bores holes in teammates with his hazel eyes and
swiftly undresses them when they make mistakes. "He'll get on you
fast," says tackle Todd Neimeyer. "If you can't take it, you've
got a problem."
It's a running joke among the Tigers that Jones is an option
quarterback whose only option is which way he should run. "I told
him I might as well stand back there doing jumping jacks, because
he's never going to pitch the ball," says West.
As for the charge that he wasn't a good passer as a freshman and
sophomore, Jones reels off his 1997 numbers--102 for 191 for 1,658
yards and 12 touchdowns--and argues, "All I needed was the reps.
Once I got reps, I became a better passer."
Curtis was fiercely protective of his son. Twice he charged onto
the field during games, chastising opponents who had hit Corby
illegally or just plain hard. Curtis was expected to work with
the defensive line while the Missouri offense was on the field,
but often he strayed toward the sideline to watch Corby. "I had
to pull him away more than once," Ankney says affectionately.
Curtis was a loving hard-ass, a quirky font of catchphrases whom
players imitated mercilessly. He would never curse, but, says
Smith, "he would walk right up to the line of cursing and stop."
His favorite invective was frickin', which he employed copiously
during practices and games. Mistakes by his players were greeted
by a blistering "God bless America!" Off the field Curtis would
drop his baritone an octave and regale players and coaches with
exaggerated tales of his impoverished youth and his playing
career. "I was never blocked," he once said. "I allowed myself to
be blocked once, because I was tired."
Sometimes he would sing or do the Harry Caray impersonation he
honed during his teen years in St. Louis. "People gravitated to
Curtis," says Missouri offensive coordinator Jerry Berndt, who
also worked with Jones 20 years ago at Dartmouth. "Players loved
him and also respected him, which is rare."
Says Smith, who retained Jones and only one other coach when he
was hired at Mizzou in 1994, "We're all grieving. Corby's
grieving is deepest, so I think in a way we're all following
Corby and his roommate, West, are riding on the outskirts of
Columbia in West's forest-green 1977 Ford LTD, a piece of
Americana with hulking chrome fenders, 126,000 miles on the
odometer and a left headlight that shines only when struck
firmly. "It passed inspection, that's all I know," says West. The
conversation turns to last year's Ohio State game, in which
Missouri was leading the No. 7-ranked Buckeyes 10-7 in the second
quarter when Ohio State linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer lit up Jones
with a once-in-a-decade hit. "I thought it was big, and then I
saw him lying there with his chin strap around his nose,"
Katzenmoyer said after the game. "I never did that to anybody
The Big Kat Lick was seen as the turning point in the game, which
Missouri lost 31-10 even though Jones kept playing, and Jones was
teased about it the rest of the season. "Whenever we wanted to
get to him, we'd threaten to lay a Katzenmoyer on him," says
Tigers linebacker Pat Duffy, who lived with Jones and West last
year. Jones, however, didn't grasp the humor. He still doesn't.
"First of all, it was a good, clean hit," he says, lounging on
the cavernous front seat of West's tank, "but I didn't see him
coming, and Katzenmoyer knows that. Second, it didn't change the
game. Third, I've been hit harder." He was knocked out of games
against both Kansas and Colorado last year.
"There's something else to think about," says West. "Everybody
kept replaying that hit, but nobody showed the 15 times in that
game that Andy Katzenmoyer tried to tackle Corby and got a
handful of air."
On Saturday, Jones will get another chance to make Katzenmoyer
miss. The Tigers' visit to Columbus will also be Jones's first
road trip without Dad.
On the night of Missouri's opener against Bowling Green, Jones
willed himself onto the field by touching the wooden wall at the
entrance to the locker room into which Missouri players carve
their names. There, under the words CLASS OF 1998, a small black
plaque had been placed in memory of Curtis, and Corby ran his
fingers across the cool, dark metal, drawing strength. Then he
went out and passed for 187 yards and a touchdown in Missouri's
On Saturday against Ohio State, Corby will recall Curtis's
lessons. "Over the years he gave me a million reminders," Corby
says. "Now that he's not around to repeat them, I remember them
better than ever."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK [Corby Jones]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK ALL-PURPOSE THREAT In Missouri's first two games this season Jones had 384 total yards and accounted for seven touchdowns. [Corby Jones and opponent in game]
His mother met him at the door crying, knowing that Corby would
be sacrificed to Nebraska.