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Is Tracy High standout senior running back Nate Jones the fastest football player in Northern California?
Based on 100-meter dash results from the CIF state meet and at the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section finals from last season, the answer is yes.
Jones won the section sprint title as a junior last May, then clocked 10.75 in the prelims at the state meet. He didn’t make it to the final, but by just .01 of a second and California’s state meet is the toughest in the nation because there are no divisions.
Jones wasn’t necessarily the fastest underclass sprinter from Northern California, but neither Amador Valley-Pleasanton’s JaMaun Charles or Castro Valley’s Aaron Jones play football.
If you know Jones’ background, however, perhaps it’s more appropriate that he does the hurdles in track instead of the sprints.
As a youngster growing up mostly in Oklahoma, Jones moved frequently since his father was incarcerated and his mother had a difficult time maintaining employment.
Still, there were gatherings in which Jones and his extended family stayed in touch. At some of those events, his great uncle, Lyndell Hawkins, and his great aunt, Susan Hawkins, couldn’t help but notice how Nate moved and how fast he was.
“He had all this ability and in the eighth grade we found out he was failing all of his classes,” said Hawkins, also a vice principal at Tracy High. “My wife (also a teacher) and I talked about it and went to (Nate’s mom). The idea was to just make sure he could graduate from high school.”
Jones’ days of moving from place to place were over. He began living with the Hawkins family prior to his freshman year at Tracy High.
“I had never had that kind of bonding before,” Jones said. “It was surprising that they took me in, but felt like a true family. The stability has been amazing.”
Sprinting on the track, shooting hoops in the gym or making moves on the turf, however, have all taken a back seat to sitting at a desk.
“We had a long way to go, but Susan worked hours on end with him,” Hawkins said. “It took awhile for him to even buy into the idea that, ‘Yes, you can do this.’ He had to realize that he could pass every class except one but even failing one would mean that he couldn’t play.”
“At the beginning, he (Lyndell) always talked about me getting that piece of paper, then going to college,” said Jones, referring to a high school diploma. “I know that sports is not forever. Since then, it has stuck in my head.”
Other than a brief stretch of time during his sophomore year in which his grades slipped again, Jones has been passing his classes and has been able to take advantage of his athletic skills in football and track.
Jones still says basketball is his favorite sport, but his lack of size (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) and his obvious speed makes him better suited for the other two.
“When his track times started dropping so fast during his sophomore year, I knew he might be going to be special,” Hawkins said. “He’s not a track guy playing football but a football guy who does track.”
At the end of his sophomore year, Jones gained a huge jolt of confidence when he won the San Joaquin Athletic Association varsity 100-meter dash crown.
“Justin Davis of Lincoln (now at USC) won that race the year before,” Jones said. “I began to work on my speed and learn how to translate it into football. Track also has helped me stay in condition for football.”
Pushed in track and football workouts by best friends Eric Hawkins (graduated last June), Brandon Russell and Jason Nelson, Jones enjoyed a successful junior year for the Bulldogs.
Nate’s younger cousin, Courtney Hawkins, also has been an influence. Courtney, who also lives with Lyndell and Susan (he is their grandson), stepped up in the Bulldogs’ third game this season with 17 carries for 122 yards in a 50-12 win over Beyer of Modesto. Jones didn’t play in that game nor in the second game against Clayton Valley of Concord after suffering an ankle injury in the first half of the first game against Freedom of Oakley.
“He started limping around and it just wasn’t worth it for him to keep playing,” Hawkins said on Thursday, indicating that Jones will be back in the lineup for this week’s game against crosstown Kimball.
On the field last season, Jones helped Tracy to a 10-2 record, an SJAA title and a quarterfinal appearance in the Division I playoffs. He rushed for 1,174 yards on just 113 carries (more than 10 yards per carry) and scored 19 touchdowns.
“He got most of those yards really in about just six games,” said Tracy head coach Matt Shrout. “Nate wasn’t the starter at fullback and was sharing with another guy. Once I realized there was some wasted talent there, I switched. It would have been dumb not to do it.”
Jones then repeated as the SJAA 100-meter dash champ and added the section master’s meet sprint title to his resume.
“Getting a taste of that competition at the state meet was really great,” Jones said. “The two sports really compliment each other. I really like it when one sport just rolls right into each other.”
As the 2014 season was getting started, Jones still doesn’t have the academic results he may need to get Division I college scholarship offers. At Tracy, however, the players don’t have to look far to find inspiration that someone can make it to the NFL without signing a letter of intent, without going to a major college and without even getting drafted.
Indianapolis Colts long-snapper Matt Overton did just that and has made it a part of his life to stay connected to his high school and help Tracy players prepare for their future.
“Matt came out to one of our games last year, pulled me aside and told me ‘You can do great things,’” Jones said. “I do have that attitude that not signing a letter of intent is not the end or anything close to that.”
Shrout added that Jones also has become more of a team leader.
“He’s a lot stronger than last year and he’s still faster than everyone else,” the fifth-year head coach said. “He’s worked hard all summer. This is the first summer, in fact, that he’s really lifted weights. He’s become a leader and is one of those who leads by example.”
Before thinking too much about college and beyond, Jones still has to walk across the stage at Wayne Schneider Stadium next June and fulfill the promise he’s made to Lyndell and Susan and to his mother.
“We talk every day for him to stay focused on the opportunities he has in front of him and to stay humble all the time,” Hawkins said. “We still have work to do, but we’re proud of him.”