He was raised by his grandmother in a trailer in Hoagland, his friends say, and if you didn’t know him well, you might have thought Steve Jones was a somewhat backward country boy. But that was just a front, they say, and he rose above his humble beginnings to become an all-conference college defensive tackle, a policeman, an elementary physical education teacher, a coach, a husband and a father.
A 1980 graduate of Hillsboro High School, Steve passed away Jan. 28 after a long and courageous battle with brain cancer. He was 55.
“It was brutal what happened to him,” said Karl Roller, Jones’ high school and college teammate. “I’m a 30-year retired cop and I’ve seen brutal, but seeing my buddy like that was horrible.”
Steve pretty much left Hillsboro after graduating from high school. He played two years of college football at Salem College in West Virginia, then moved on to Anderson College in Indiana, and it is in that area that he made his mark.
But he never forgot his high school buddies, and they never forgot him.
A while back, I suppose when Steve realized things were not going so well for him, he asked some of his old friends to organize a get-together at the Big Ernie’s Pizza in Hillsboro. A large contingent of teammates, coaches, teachers, parents of teammates, classmates and others showed up, and if nothing else was obvious that night, this was – Steve Jones was special.
I wrote a column about that July 2016 evening shortly thereafter. Like Steve, that evening was special. There were hugs and tears, smiles and stories, but mostly what I felt was a sense of love for an old friend who was hurting.
While he had not lived here for a long time, Steve kept in contact with some of his old buddies. I know at least four of them went to see him last weekend shortly before he passed away.
Likely it was Roller who was closest to him.
“From kindergarten to the second season of college football, we were pretty much around each other and were the biggest guys wherever we went,” Roller said this week. In more recent years, Steve would stay at Roller’s home in the Nashville, Tenn. when he was in the area for treatment.
The two were Hillsboro’s starting offensive and defensive tackles their junior and senior years at Hillsboro, then played together two seasons at Salem College. While they were buddies, they were also the biggest guys around. And, sometimes, it’s just human nature that tells the two biggest guys they have to see which one is the toughest. So, from time to time they fought, at least once at football practice.
“(Coach) Tate Taylor had had enough of me and Steve, so he told us, ‘You guys are gonna hold hands and run down to the other end of the field and back.’ We took off, Steve looked at me with that big, stupid Steve grin, and he started skipping,” Roller said. “We skipped all the way down and back. By the time we got back, coach Tate was not mad anymore and Steve was just staring at me with that grin. He laughed about that until the day he passed.”
Then there was this: “Through high school and our two seasons of college football he never bench pressed more than me,” Roller said. “But the summer before our senior year in high school he talked me into bailing hay with him. I struggled with every bail; two hands and a knee to get it onto the trailer. The big man was throwing bails one-handed onto the trailer. From that point on I never questioned his strength.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree from Anderson College and his master’s degree from Indiana Wesleyan University, Steve was a policeman for the Anderson Police Department for 10 years. He was then employed at the Wawasee Community School Corporation as a physical education teacher at North Webster Elementary for 21 years. He also coached several sports, and was a member of the Church of God in North Webster, Sons of the American Legion Post 253 and the NRA.
I could go on about Steve, tell you how humble he seemed, how much his two sons and daughter seemed to admire him, how he took his battle with cancer head-on like an opposing lineman. But I did not know him that well, so I will let those who knew him better take this story home.
One of his Indiana friends, Chris Cotton, posted a message on Steve’s obituary, saying it was a pleasure to have crossed paths with Steve in faith and football.
It said, in part: “I am confident in his comfort in his eternal body and know he’s no longer suffering. … Steve impacted me in two ways. In the mid-1990s I took over Wawasee PeeWee Football and we had no support as a feeder program. I reached out to Gene Mitz (WHS Head Coach at the time) and Steve who was coaching the Milford Middle School team at the time… Steve came alongside me immediately helping to modify high school and college drills I’d run to fit youth and giving me his middle school level practice plans and game approaches. He was the speaker at our year end pizza party to encourage kids to continue to play the greatest team sport there is. He moved on to coach with his college buddy in another part of the county thereafter, but would be back as his boys grew to be Warrior football players.
“A few years later when I got saved, Steve, Lori (Steve’s wife), Tammy Kinerk-Cotton, and I were in a small group together. In this setting he gave me a piece of wisdom I’ve carried with me as a coach ever since… Steve said when he was a police officer he did something at the end of every shift to ensure he didn’t take his job home to Lori and the kids; he showered and changed out of his uniform to civilian clothes. He said as a coach he’d pause and pray before heading home to accomplish the same thing. Thank you for impacting me and my family with this wisdom for 23+ years Steve…”
Jon Cole, a 1980 classmate and teammate of Steve’s, posted this on Facebook: “Heaven gained a giant this afternoon. My dear friend Steve Jones made his last tackle. And yes, it was a behind the line of scrimmage sack of whomever he was chasing. I will hold our memories close to me until I see your big head and you say, ‘Hey Jonny, how you doing buddy? How’s your mom and dad and your family doing?’ Rest easy Big guy! We love u to the moon and back. … #71.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.