People always say that it’s the journey not the destination that makes a person who they are. Former Carver High standout Riyahd Jones knows that as much as anyone.
On Saturday, he will fulfill a lifelong dream of playing for a premier Southeastern Conference football team when he straps it up at cornerback for the University of Tennessee against South Alabama.
But without the long, difficult road to make that dream a reality, he says, he wouldn’t be the player or the man he is today. That road began on a youth football field in Columbus, nearly came to a dead end with an injury in August and will reach its destination when Jones sprints through the ‘T’ in front of more than 100,000 orange-clad fans on Saturday.
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From the time he was a young kid through his four years as an athlete for the Tigers, Jones wanted to play football. And not just any football. Like many young players around the South, Jones wanted to play SEC football.
“I always wanted to play in the SEC,” Jones said. “I grew up an SEC fan. Just whatever team, it didn’t really matter. I Just loved SEC football.”
He grew up in Columbus with a couple of teammates who had the same goal. There was Isaiah Crowell, the former Georgia Bulldog and current Alabama State running back who was the top recruit in the nation at his position coming out of high school, and Gabe Wright, now a starting defensive tackle for Auburn, among others.
And there was Jones — extremely talented, but perhaps in the shadow of his more heralded teammates.
“He was always a good athlete,” said Charles Jones, Riyahd’s father. “He was always surrounded by a lot of really good athletes. He maybe took a backseat to some of the others.
“The way to move up was to work harder than everyone else.”
That set the tone for his strong work ethic early on. It also set the tone for his enormous personal expectations.
That’s why, despite signing and playing a season with Georgia Southern after finishing an incredibly successful high school career, he never felt satisfied.
“Georgia Southern was great, and I enjoyed my time there,” said Jones, who recorded nine tackles and a pass breakup in 10 games for the Eagles. “But I was disappointed in myself, because I knew I could do better. I grew up with (Crowell and Wright) since Pop Warner. I knew if they could do it, I could do it, too.”
So, he set out to prove it, leaving behind a guaranteed scholarship for the uncertain world of junior college football.
A change in course
After a season at Georgia Southern, intent on improving his stock, Jones opted out of his scholarship despite not having any junior college offers at the time. It took a long time before he finally got his opportunity, receiving an offer from Garden City Community College in Kansas just three days before classes were set to begin for the fall semester.
“When I left Georgia Southern, nothing was guaranteed,” Jones said. “It was a risk.”
At first, Charles Jones saw that as an understatement.
“He was leaving a four-year university, a scholarship, everything paid for,” he said. “I was a little disappointed originally. But my son is strong-willed and strong-minded. I knew it was his dream, so I just went with it. We had long conversations day and night about the uncertainty.”
With the uncertainty of his decision hanging over his head, Riyahd Jones performed at a high level in his lone season at Garden City in 2012, playing 10 games, recording 22 tackles and a team-high five pass breakups. He earned a 3-star rating on nearly every recruiting list as the season wore on and received a number of scholarship offers, beginning with Kansas State.
“That was the first one, then others started pouring in,” Jones said. “I was excited. I finally felt like I was reaching my goal.”
When former Auburn defensive coach Willie Martinez, who Jones had developed a good relationship with during his recruitment, was hired at Tennessee under new coach Butch Jones in December, he finally would.
The Volunteers needed help in the secondary. They offered. Jones accepted.
A bump in the road
His dream of running out of the tunnel in front of an SEC home crowd was not far away. Jones said he thought about it constantly.
“I thought about it every day,” he said. “Before I go to sleep, when I wake up, right now. I’m always thinking about it.”
As had been the case for the previous two years, though, it wasn’t meant to be. Not yet, at least.
After finishing spring practice as No. 1 cornerback on the Tennessee depth charts, Jones tore a calf muscle during a practice on Aug. 10. That prognosis got worse when doctors feared he had a blood clot.
His injury got so bad that he was confined to a wheelchair for more than a week in August. And with the possibility of the blood clot, doctors weren’t sure they wanted Jones to return to football at all.
“At the beginning of the process, that’s when I was most nervous,” he said. “I didn’t know much about blood clots. I didn’t realize how dangerous it was. There were plenty of times where I worried if I could ever play again. At least not for this season.”
Team doctors eventually determined there was no clot, and the tear was the extent of the damage to his calf. Doctors told Jones it would take at least six months to come back from his injury, which would likely make him miss the entire season. Instead, it took seven weeks.
Still, it took a lot of rehab — stretching, underwater treadmill, swimming — for Jones to return to the field.
Fulfilling a dream
On Tuesday, he was finally cleared by doctors, and told he would dress and play on Saturday.
“I’m just going to be happy to be on the field,” said Jones, who will find out as the week goes on what his role on defense will be. “It’s been tough to just watch these guys play these last few weeks. I feel like I can help a lot. I can at least add some depth.”
For his dad, the image of his son running through the ‘T’ this week conjures up a lot of emotion.
“Oh, my God,” he said. “It’s just amazing. It bring tears to my wife’s and my eyes, thinking about how hard he’s worked. When my son comes through that ‘T,’ my heart is going to beat fast.”
And Jones’ journey, which he said can be an inspiration to others on the fringe of their dreams, will be complete. That’s made things that much better for Jones.
“Anytime you have a setback and come back like this, like everything that got me here, the victory is that much sweeter,” he said.