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Jones still inspiring Gophers after nine years

Sitting in a hospital bed following surgery, Nick Jones listened to the doctor explain the recovery process to him and his parents. When finished, the doctor asked if there were any questions. The young man raised his hand.

“Can I go to the game Saturday?”

Loyalty. Anybody who meets Nick Jones knows he has it. And last year, after he fought through the pain to be at that game, he received something he had only dreamed of.

Coach Glen Mason, who calls Nick his “hero,” invited him to join the team in the locker room following its win over Michigan State.

As Mason spoke at length about Nick’s courage and loyalty to the Minnesota program, an equipment manager handed a letter jacket to the coach, who proceeded to drape it over Nick Jones’ shoulders as the team cheered him on.

Debbie Jones, Nick’s mother, said he had been battling pain throughout the day.

“It all disappeared when he got that coat,” she said, smiling as she recalled the day.

Nick Jones, 15, who has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair, said the moment was unexpected.

“The day I got the letter jacket, I didn’t know what they were calling me in there for,” he said. “But when I got it, it was really, really exciting.”

The jacket now sits among the many autographed posters, pennants, balls and jerseys that plaster the wall in what Nick likes to call his “Gopher room.”

Junior free safety Dominique Barber said he clearly remembers the day and how much it meant to Nick.

“Really, you could see how excited he was, but he has that excitement every day,” Barber said. “For him to know that he was officially one of us brought tears to my eyes.”

Junior linebacker John Shevlin said Nick is an inspiration to the entire team.

“It really was something special Ösomething I’ll always remember,” he said. “I know it meant a lot to me, but I can’t even imagine what it meant to him.”

For Nick, it was a long time coming for his dedication to the Gophers program.

Shevlin recalls him being at the airport with hundreds of Minnesota fans after the Gophers beat Michigan last year, but he also remembers him being there after the losses.

“Here we are Ö we just lost by 40 points to Wisconsin and we get off the plane at 12 in the morning and there’s Nick and his mom,” he said. “That just speaks to the kind of kid he is and the kind of dedication he has for us.”

And his mother makes sure Nick, a freshman at Lakeville South High School, is there after every game.

“His mother is a saint,” Mason said, recalling how she used to carry Nick around the offices and down to the field when the elevator was broken years ago.

Nick’s father, Larry Jones, is thankful to the football program for all the opportunities it has opened for Nick and their family, which includes older brothers Chris, 20, and Justin, 25.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s a class operation,” he said. “There’s a lot more to Mason, his staff and the University than just playing football.”

The whole new avenue of life that was opened for Nick Jones over the years led him to the Minnesota House chambers last March, where he testified before Congress for a new Gophers stadium.

“I’m very excited for the new stadium in 2009,” said Nick, who wants to attend the University to pursue a broadcasting career.

Aside from his loyal dedication to the Minnesota football team, Nick has stayed busy in his own sporting activities through the Courage Center in Golden Valley.

Playing power soccer and Boccia ball throughout the year, along with his duties as the equipment manager for the Lakeville South ninth grade football team, can make catching a Gophers practice difficult. But when he does make it, the players appreciate it.

“He just puts a smile on our faces,” Barber said. “Doesn’t matter how we’re feeling.”

Nick made his visit to the practice on Halloween a special one, being his usual cheerful self as he handed treats out to the players and coaches.

Sophomore linebacker Alex Daniels, who calls Nick “my boy,” said he could not come up with enough nice words to describe Nick and his family.

“He came to Halloween practice with candy,” he said. “I mean, what’s not to like about the kid?”

Minnesota players who have gone on to play in the NFL don’t soon forget Nick’s loyalty and passion as many still stay in contact with him today.

Debbie Jones said one of the first players who befriended Nick was former Gophers All-American Tyrone Carter, who she said has kept a picture of Nick in his locker throughout his professional football career.

As years passed, the Jones family continued to send Carter photos of Nick Jones until recently.

“He came up to me at the groundbreaking ceremony this year and the first thing he said was, ‘Why did you stop sending the photos?'” she said, laughing. “It really shows how much these players care.”

Another former player Nick grew close to was Darrell Reid of the Indianapolis Colts, who plans to watch Nick’s power soccer tournament this June in Indianapolis with teammates.

It’s not hard to see why the former players stay in touch after witnessing the current crop’s respect for Nick.

When Nick missed two games this season to help mentor at a leadership camp, senior center Tyson Swaggert remembers Nick being concerned that they would question his loyalty.

“I said, ‘you’re the best fan we got,’ ” he said. “He’s the most amazing kid I’ve ever met.”

Mason, who met Nick soon after he was signed as coach in 1997, summed up what Nick means to him.

“That guy epitomizes a lot Ö I’ve never been around a guy with a better attitude, who’s mentally tougher, more loyal and more trustworthy than Nick Jones,” he said. “There’s really not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that young man.”

And there’s not a day that goes by that Nick doesn’t think about the Maroon and Gold.

In the midst of a 1-5 Big Ten season, it can be easy for players to feel down.

Nick’s advice?

“Keep working hard and stay positive,” something that has clearly worked for the dedicated young man found sitting above the Metrodome tunnel every Saturday he can.

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