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Cruel Summer -- Andre Jones (1969-2011)

In a recent blog post about Major League Baseball realignment, I expressed the following sentiment:

The best memories for most sports fans are the ones that took place from their mid-teenage years through their late 20s. Generally, for most of us it was the time in our lives when we had our greatest "freedom to burden" ratio. Everything is good those years, not just sports memories. Food tastes better, drinks go down smoother, women are less complicated. (Yes, I'm totally coming at this from a male point of view, ladies. Sue me.)

First, yes, I just blockquoted myself in a blog post.

Second, if my sentiment is indeed the case, then my sports memories from that part of my life have taken a Tyson-on-Spinks type beating this last week or so.

The news yesterday of Lorenzo Charles, the hero of the 1983 NCAA basketball championship, passing away in a bus accident was horribly tragic. By all accounts a great guy, Charles made his way in the world driving a bus. He was by himself when he lost control of his bus yesterday and died in the crash.

I was fourteen when Charles broke the hearts of Houstonians everywhere by throwing Derrick Whittenburg's errant shot down. I'll never forget the look on Charles's face, like he may not have realized what he'd just done until he got back to the team hotel that night. It was perhaps the most important game in NCAA Tournament history as it brought Cinderella prominently into the March Madness mix, and truly begat the "anything can happen" feel of the NCAA Tournament.

Over the weekend, another icon of my childhood passed away. Ironically, his last name was Charles as well. Nick Charles, who was a fixture on CNN for years with Fred Hickman hosting Sports Tonight, passed away after a long battle with bladder cancer at the age of 64.

Many young people today know Nick Charles as the voice and face of boxing on Showtime for the past decade. They also know SportsCenter on ESPN as virtually the only game in town for sports news telecasts. However, there was a time when Nick Charles was more than just a boxing voice, and there was a time when SportsCenter had some major competition from CNN.

Charles and his partner Fred Hickman hosted Sports Tonight on CNN, and if you're under the age of 30 this will sound insane, but that show not only stood toe to toe with ESPN and SportsCenter, it was better. Charles and Hickman had a chemistry that was unteachable, and creatively the show spawned many of the ideas that are the foundation of today's SportsCenter, including the "Play of the Day," which was a must-see.

Hickman joined me on the radio this weekend to share thoughts on his late former co-host, and while you could tell that it was a tough day for anyone who knew Nick Charles well, there was a relief in Hickman's voice that his friend was no longer suffering. Hickman's admiration for Charles's professionalism and his fondness for that time in his career were very evident throughout the interview.

As sad as the deaths of Lorenzo Charles and Nick Charles are, I didn't know either of them personally.

I did know Andre Jones.

Last Wednesday, I got an e-mail from a college buddy of mine, and the subject header indicated that the body of the e-mail was a forward of a tweet. When I opened the e-mail and saw it addressed to a bunch of old names that I hadn't shared the "To:" section of an e-mail with in some time, I knew the news was either really, really good or really, really bad.

It was the latter.

Andre Jones, a classmate of mine at Notre Dame and a starting linebacker on the 1988 national championship team, had passed away at the age of 42 from a brain aneurysm.

You read news of a classmate dying from something so sudden, and you immediately process about ten different reactions at once, everything from praying for Andre's family to reminding yourself that you're also 42 years old and to call your kids to tell them you love them.

Then you reflect. Every team has a player that becomes a fan favorite because of their spirit, their boisterousness, their unbridled love of the game of football. There was no mystery with Andre Jones -- he clearly loved to play football. He savored being a part of Notre Dame football Saturdays. You could just tell.

Jones immediately saw playing time as a skinny true freshman on special teams in 1987. It was Lou Holtz's second year at the Notre Dame helm and the remnants of the perpetually pending doom that had beset the program during Gerry Faust's five years were being rapidly swept away. The roots of Holtz's infectious confidence were taking hold. If the upperclassmen (none of whom had tasted winning in four years) provided the hunger and leadership, the freshman class (which included future pros Ricky Watters, Todd Lyght and Chris Zorich) provided a naive cockiness.

Put simply, the upperclassmen wanted to win; the freshmen expected to win.  

At the center of all of the youthful exuberance was Jones, who would run on the field for the opening kickoff for kick coverage team waving his arms, jumping, inviting the students to stand up, yell, act crazy, love the game. Like he did.

What you have to understand is that at Notre Dame, the quality of your seats is determined by what class you're in. In that respect, it's probably not different than most schools. As freshmen, we were stuck in the back corner almost behind the end zone, Touchdown Jesus side. It was a caste system, to be sure. So there was something very cool that one of our own, a true freshman, a guy who lived down the hall from us, had the crowd eating out of his hand on every kickoff.

If you spent any time around Jones, you knew he marched to a little different drummer. He majored in Russian, which was...well, let's just say not a lot of football players majored in Russian. When it was cold outside in the winter, while most of us were bundled in hideous down jackets and scarves, Jones strutted around campus in a long duster coat that looked like something out of the Civil War. For reasons I still can't explain, Andre Jones was the only one on campus who could pull off this look.

Most of all, Andre Jones was just a good guy, a friendly guy.

Life for a Notre Dame football player is a unique fishbowl. I can't say I knew Jones well enough to say whether or not he truly loved being a Notre Dame student while he was there. It's just not an easy place. But clearly there was a love for Notre Dame that was passed on to his son, TJ, who is a sophomore wide receiver on the Irish football team:

"I know TJ thinks big time about football, the NFL and those kinds of things. But he also values the education, and as a parent, I'm looking at that Notre Dame degree and I know that I've done my job and that he has a fighting chance in life to be successful. To me, that's the greatest story that can be written here today.

Those kids, not just TJ, but his teammates as well all have a shot in life, and that's a wonderful future to be a part of. I'm happy for all of them, not just TJ, but every single kid up there."

Here's the ultimate litmus test of how contagious Jones's energy was on a football Saturday -- when my parents came to visit for Parents Weekend my freshman year, the football team played Navy and beat them handily. After the game, when we were tailgating, my mother didn't ask about Tim Brown (who won a Heisman Trophy that year, by the way), nor Tony Rice, nor Ricky Watters, nor Lou Holtz.

My mom wanted to know who #7 was. Her favorite part of the game was every kickoff (and they kicked off a lot that day), when #7 would run onto the field and fire up all 59,000 people in about four seconds. Andre Jones's energy, his passion and his desire to take everyone in the stadium somewhere higher and better made her day.

It made everyone's day.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.


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