Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

OXFORD, Miss. -- There were times, those dark and lonely times, when Jason Jones tackled doubt and fear and looked past the pain.

But Jones never had to make a solo tackle.

"I prayed. I prayed every day,'' said Jones, who has spent half of his football career coming back from injuries. "God was with me.''

His knees have been targets, big, ripe targets that have been ripped apart over the years, first at Westover High School, where his ACL was torn twice, and later at Ole Miss, where Jones has two seasons left on the football field -- two seasons he treasures.

It's like that when you go through a torn ACL. First comes the splash of fire, a quick and sudden pain from nowhere, cutting through you and telling you that the ligament in your knee is shredded.

Then comes the long road back, the one that's littered with second thoughts and second guesses, the one no one can walk for you.

Jones' left knee was shattered at Westover, where he limped through his freshmen and sophomore years, wore a brace his junior year and finally emerged healthy as a senior, rising above it all to become one of the most prolific linebackers in Westover history and the top player in Southwest Georgia that year.

Three years ago it happened again. This time it was his right knee at the end of a game for Ole Miss against Memphis. This time it was even tougher to come back.

"Being by yourself, being alone. It's tough,'' Jones said. "It's easy to get discouraged, but it also makes you appreciate the game even more. You always think you're going to have a setback. It's always there that you might not get back.''

Empty days get filled with doubt.

"There are times you want to give up and call it quits,'' he said. "There are times when you don't feel like it will be worth it. But I always knew it would be worth it. Going through it just makes it worth even more.

"When you have an injury it just makes you appreciate the game more and more. I was keeping the faith and believing in God.''

That's a taste of who Jones is, a slice of the kid from Westover -- the one that prompted his former coach Jeff Caldwell to say: "He's a better person off the field than on the field.''

He was pretty good on it. Jones was a monster at Westover, where he made 154 tackles as a senior, including 92 solos, and 16 for losses. He also played tight end and caught 16 passes for 340 yards. That's 21.25 yards per catch.

Off the field?

This is what you need to know about Jones. He has just been nominated for the 2011 All-State AFCA Good Works Team, the most prestigious off-the-field honor in college football, which is given to football players for their charity and community service work.

Jones has built an impressive resume and was a natural to be nominated. He reads to students at local elementary schools as part of the Reading with the Rebels program, and visits patients at the local children's hospitals in Oxford. He also was part of a shoe drive to raise money and get shoes donated for the needy in Kenya.

From the 132 nominees, the most ever in the 20-year history of the award, two 11-player Good Works Teams will be selected and announced in late September - one from NCAA Divison 1-A and the other from Divisions II, III and NAIA.

"It's an honor to be nominated,'' Jones said. "My mom and dad brought me up to be more than you can be, to be able to bless someone else with what you do. Here (at Ole Miss) I guess it's reaching out and knowing you can do more as a student-athlete. People know you, and you want to be involved more and be more than just an athlete.''

Jones was moved when told he was nominated.

"I feel like it's a blessing to be nominated whether you win or not,'' he said. "It's something you will have as a keepsake for the rest of your life.''

Jones said his favorite off-the-field charity work is reading to kids at local elementary schools in Oxford.

"I read to kids from kindergarten to fifth grade,'' he said. "You go into the classroom and read to them and then they ask questions. My major is elementary education, and that's why I like this part of it the most. You're giving back. And donating shoes to Kenya means you're giving someone else an opportunity.''

Jones made the most of his opportunities last year on the football field. He suffered the torn ACL in 2008, sat out 2009, coming back from surgery, and then made the most of his chances last year as a red-shirt sophomore.

He played in all 12 games, and started the last four for the Rebels at defensive end, and enters this season as a candidate for a starting job there. Jones had 2.5 sacks and made 5.5 tackles for losses. He was tied for fourth in the SEC in fumble recoveries with two.

Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt told reporters last year that he loved the way Jones approached the game.

"Jason Jones might not be measurable in height, weight, and speed, but he makes up for it with heart," Nutt said last year.

"He plays hard and gets turnovers for us. The turnovers that we get, he gets most of them. I appreciate his attitude and his heart."

His big heart obviously stretches past the football field.

"You want to be better off the field as a person,'' Jones said. "Coach Nutt preaches that to us all the time. It's always worth giving your time.''

Jones made the move from linebacker to defensive end when he came to Ole Miss after being named The Herald's John Reynolds Player of the Year in football for the 2007 season. Jones was a big reason Westover, which has had only four winning seasons in the history of the football program, made it to the GHSA Class AAA state quarterfinals.

He has high hopes for Ole Miss this season.

"We're definitely going to be better,'' Jones said. "It's a different atmosphere this year.

"I feel like I've transferred to a different school. More than anything, we are putting the emphasis on the team and not the individual.''

Still it could be a big year for Jones.

"One of my goals is to get better every game,'' he said. "And be a team player and love my teammates and be there for them. After (the injury), it was a blessing to come back last year. Sometimes life gives you speed bumps. You get knocked down, but you get back up.''