Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Malachai Jones, who transferred from Wesleyan to Central Gwinnett in the spring, is playing with a heavy heart this season. Jones lost his father this summer and is hoping to have a standout year to honor him.
Central Gwinnett football player Malachi Jones had summer workouts in the morning at the school and then his father, Andre, came to pick him up.
Andre, who was a member of Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team, would talk to his son about football, academics and college recruiting on the ride home.
"I would always recap my workouts and practices with him," Malachi said.
Once they got home, they had lunch with the family, but a severe headache bothered Andre and he went to go lay down and take a nap. That was the last time Malachi or anyone else ever saw Andre Jones alive.
"We had the opportunity to laugh a little bit with my family," Malachi said of the lunch.
A few hours later, Malachi found his father passed out on the bathroom floor. He had suffered a brain aneurysm and died. He was 42.
Just like that, Malachi and his five siblings lost their father. The next few weeks were tough for the senior. Malachi returned to the football field almost two weeks later during a 7-on-7 tournament at Flowery Branch. He could hardly keep himself composed in between games. Andre was at every practice, every 7-on-7, every game and now he was gone.
"Call me crazy, but every time the wind blew and it blew at odd times, I felt like it was him telling me to get it together or great job," Malachi said. "That was a good experience. It was time to get back on the field after about a week and half being away."
It's been almost three months since Andre passed away. Malachi still thinks of his father all the time. Before each game, he reads the two Bible verses his father would share with him and he visits his grave site.
Malachi wears a wrist band on game day with Central Gwinnett's football plays on the front and three pictures of his father and the words 'Forever A Champion' on the inside. After a big play, Malachi will draw a seven on his chest to give thanks to his father.
"In the back of my mind he's either patting on my back or kicking me in the butt telling me to get it together," Malachi said.
Through three games this season, Malachi has 17 catches for 186 yards and four touchdowns, pretty good numbers despite limited action in blowout victories for the 3-0 Black Knights.
"Malachi is better. He's moving on, but there's still times because I know his dad was so much a part of his life, especially this time of year, he misses hearing him," Central Gwinnett head coach Todd Wofford said. "He was a big man and you would hear him yell. I think he misses those little things."
Andre Jones was a four-year letterman at Notre Dame. The outside linebacker helped the Fighting Irish to their 11th national title in 1988 and he would routinely tell his kids about Notre Dame's glory days.
"All the time," Malachi said. "Every time we would see a Notre Dame alum or every time we talk to one of his friends or go up to a Notre Dame game, he would say 'I was the baddest in the valley.' or 'Y'all call this football? This is nothing compared to Notre Dame football back in the 80s.'"
Malachi's older brother T.J. Jones, who was a receiver on Gainesville's 2009 state runner-up team, plays for Notre Dame. It's a school Malachi grew up watching as a kid and he has dreamed of always wearing the gold helmet. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound receiver hasn't picked up any college scholarship offers, but has received interest from nearly a dozen schools including Notre Dame.
"I'm a diehard Notre Dame fan. I've talked to the coach and I understand that even though I would love to go there, my dad went there, my brother goes there, that this whole thing is a business," Malachi said. "So I understand if I'm not the particular kid Notre Dame needs at the time, that's fine with me, but Notre Dame is still in the picture. Hopefully, as the season progresses, that elusive offer will come from them."
Central Gwinnett is the third school in four years for Malachi. He was at Gainesville as a freshman when Wofford coached him and his brother. Malachi transferred to Wesleyan as a sophomore and was the team's leading receiver for two years. He had such a strong relationship with Wofford that he transferred to Central in the spring.
"I learned everything I know from Coach Wofford. I look at him as a father figure now," Malachi said. "Just being with him, I feel comfortable around him and I know he's going to take care of me regardless of what happens. I really do feel I was supposed to be with him and finish my high school career with him."
It's because of the transfer that Malachi hasn't picked up any scholarship offers. Wofford didn't have any film to send recruiters this summer, so many schools have waited to see what kind of season he would have this year.
"I told him to relax and that it's going to come. He's that kind of player," Wofford said.
After Andre went to take a nap on that Tuesday in June, no one expected it was the last time they would see or hear from him.
Malachi got to spend the morning with his father, talking football like they always do. But it wasn't the advice his father gave him on route running or blocking that he remembers. It's the words he would make sure he told Malachi every day that get him choked up when he thinks about it.
"Every day on the ride home he would say 'Did I tell you I love you?,'" Malachi said. "He told me that and that's the one thing that sticks out."