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Big story in a small, sweet town

4-22-02 Jones Interview


4-24-02, 3:45 p.m.


Jose Garcia, editor of the weekly "Eloy Enterprise," used to see the big, nice kid over his house all the time hanging out with his younger brother.

Now he's pushing for Levi Jones to be on A1 later this week as the freshly-minted first-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Bengals.

"L.J. pretty much grew up at my place," Garcia said Tuesday from his office, about 24 hours from deadline. "My parents were almost like his parents. That close."

Joyce Robinson, Levi's mother who came to Eloy in her mother's arms 60 years ago when her Daddy called them up from Texas, calls it "a sweet town."

A sweet town like this:

When Levi's mother called Garcia's mother last week while planning for Saturday's Draft Day picnic, she asked her to bring a pot of beans and rice, and of course, she would pay her.

"Pay me?" asked Mrs. Garcia. "Levi's my son, too."

This is small town America. Not Norman Rockwell. More like John Steinbeck.

Garcia's paper goes to about 1,200 in a town of about 10,000. It sits smack in the middle of that steamy ribbon of highway connecting Tuscon and Phoenix in the desert. About 45 miles from each.

"You would only want to get off the road," said Jay Denton, his high school football coach, "if you needed gas or something to eat."

Or, an athletic NFL left tackle you hope is going to protect the blind-side of your quarterback for the next decade. The Bengals think Jones can do it not only because of how he plays, but because of what he is.

Smart. Committed. Determined. The kid who was the sergeant of arms and section leader of the trumpets in the Santa Cruz Valley Union High School band, his T-Shirt and pants grimy from the game as he marched at halftime.

The kid with the long arms and long legs who made his pitch to walk on at Arizona State by galloping to get his transcript while ASU head coach Bruce Snyder sat in Denton's office.

The honor student who went from top 10 in his high school class to the NFL Draft's top ten.

Which brings you back to the gritty desert town and the dreams of people like Votie Smith, Jones' grandfather who came from Texas looking for work and settled down to build a church with his hands and his faith.

He brought Smith's mother to Eloy when she was just a baby in

1943 or so when he was on what Joyce Robinson calls "a cotton pick." Votie rode in with a group of men looking for work and Eloy's farms provided plenty of cotton. He was also a carpenter, an electrician, a pastor, you name it, and he stayed to give rise to the West Side Church of God and Christ. Not once, but twice.

"He built one church," Levi Jones will say proudly, "and then tore it down to build a bigger one."

A lot of people had the same idea during the '40s and '50s and came to Eloy as it struggled to make the transition from farming community to manufacturing. Garcia says there is fairly new book describing the migration to the area called, "Not All Okies are White."

Garcia figures the school's breakdown is about 40 percent African-American, 40 percent Hispanic, and the rest Native Americans and whites. He thinks that's a reason Jones has such an even, solid personality.

"It's a culturally diverse place," Garcia said. "There is a good mix of people here and people do mix together. He's comfortable with everyone."

Joyce got her father's work ethic and they both passed it to Levi. Smith, who died last year, lived virtually next door to Joyce and her three children and the youngest saw them go to work every day. Which is the exception rather than the norm.

Bill Askew, Levi's high school math teacher who gave him A's all four years in Algebra, trigonometry and calculus, figures that 90 percent of the school's families are on welfare. But not Joyce. Ever. She worked, first at the local training center for mentally handicapped children, and later as what she calls a "laborer," in a factory.

"If you can work, you have to work," Joyce Robinson said. "I just couldn't go down there and get welfare. They want to know your whole business, getting into all your papers. I just didn't want to do it."

For some time, she worked two jobs. When she got home from the training center about 5 or 5:30, she would transform into the Avon lady and head into her territory selling until 8:30 at night. She's got a few Mrs. Albee awards for making $10,000 in sales.

"When I think back about Levi," Denton said, "I just remember the day-to-day consistency. I never saw him have a bad day. He was never moody or mad. I think I saw him mad once. It was over a grade and he went into talk to the teacher. But that day-to-day consistency became month-to-month and year-to-year."

Levi saw the day-to-day from Joyce and her father. She no longer works, citing a disability. That qualified Levi for federal aid to ASU, but his academic scholarship put things over the top. She hasn't been able to work for about 15 years and before she got her lump Social Security check, the ends were hard to meet in some hard stretches.

"The community helped me out chipping in," Joyce Robinson said. "I've got wonderful neighbors. I've got one who is so sweet. Mattie Byrd. She let me borrow some money and when I got that lump sum from Social Security, I paid her back."

Of course, there will be no more living on Social Security once Jones signs his contract. He is talking about building her a home about 13 miles away in Casa Grande. But she likes the nice three-bedroom that she had built back, "around Kennedy and Johnson," in her sweet town.

"I don't really want to leave," Joyce said. "And the boys were telling me there are snakes out there and I don't like snakes."

Joyce went to work early, and the price was her education. She dropped out after her junior year, but she kept hammering at her youngest to get the grades and to stay busy, away from the temptations.

"I never had to spank him," Joyce said. "Never. He always seemed to do the right thing. I had good neighbors and that helped when I was working. It's a small town and everyone helps raising their kids. And my parents were around, too."

Jones has been quoted more than once about how the best of Eloy's athletes have been wasted on drugs and jail.

He grew up on the south side, close enough to the tracks to hear the trains over the telephone. It's an area described as "the toughest," in town, but he always stayed on the right side of the tracks when it wasn't easy.

He and his best friend growing up, Reggie Neal ("they were born a week apart," Joyce said), are Exhibit A and B of the Eloy experience. Neal had a full ride to ASU on a football scholarship. He never made it there, but Jones says his best friend is back on track and playing baseball at a local college in his bid to get drafted.

"They kept me busy, I guess that was the thing," Jones said. "I was in the band, I was in National Honor Society, I played football, basketball and track. There wasn't much time to do much else."

Germain Corriero, the Santa Cruz band director, knew Jones was headed his way. His wife broke him in as a fourth-grader, but he only had two and a half years with him.

"He wanted to concentrate more on football, which is fine," Corriero said. "He was a good player. You have to be to be a section leader."

When the ASU coaches went to scout Neal, they did notice the 6-6 kid with the long arms. Basketball player. Kind of awkward, but athletic.

"I'll never forget when Snyder was down here with his recruiting coordinator looking at Reggie," Denton said. "Levi walks into my office and says, 'Excuse me," and walks out, but I knew he'd be staying right around the corner. I told Snyder he was already going to ASU and he told me to have him go get his transcript and he goes off running and brings it back.

"I think when they saw him run and then saw the transcript, that was it," Denton said. "Snyder looked at his recruiting coordinator and said, 'Let's see if we can get him lined up at Tontozona."

That would be Camp Tontozona in the mountains, where ASU has training camp. He went as a defensive end, but the rest is history. A long way from those high school practices where there were just 15 players and they could never really hit.

"Once a week, the JV scrimmages the varsity," said Askew, the JV head coach. "I used to get mad at him He would pummel those 130-pound kids. I'd scream at him, 'Think you're a big guy,' and he would just look at me and do it again. I think he does have a mean streak on the field. Not off it. But on it, he didn't care. He'd go after you.'

Askew remembers him going after the angles and the formulas, too. If he didn't understand something in class, which wasn't often, he would pop in after school to get it down.

"But he usually got it the first time around," Askew said. "Look at the grades."

Jones hasn't been a stranger. Askew's daughter, an eighth grader, heard him speak to her class about setting goals. Recently, Denton casually mentioned to Jones how he finally got a color team picture of ASU for his office. The next time Jones visited the school, he dropped off some more pictures.

"And this is when he knew he was going big-time," Denton said. "It really is big around here. To have a guy going that high in the draft, that's big."

Big enough for A1 in a small town that went big time with the tall kid in the band.

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