Jones finds baseball lessons in football roots

NFL brother provides Thanksgiving reminder for Angels prospect

Jahmai Jones, 20, was drafted one year after his older brother T.J. was selected by the Lions. (AP Images, Fernando Gutierrez Jr./MiLB.com)

By Gerard Gilberto / MiLB.com | November 22, 2017 2:15 PM ET

This Thanksgiving, Angels outfield prospect Jahmai Jones will participate in a tradition followed by many Americans and join his family for dinner while watching football. His holiday experience, however, will again be well out of the ordinary.

This feast will mark the third consecutive year in which his brother, T.J., will not be in attendance at the family home in Roswell, Georgia, but will still be available in full view on television.

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The Jones family has its heels dug deeply into the game of football, particularly when it comes to one of the annual participants in the NFL's holiday show. Jahmai's father, Andre, was a linebacker for the Detroit Lions -- one of the two NFL teams to play every year on Thanksgiving -- in 1992 as well as on the 1988 national championship team at Notre Dame.

Now, 26 years after his father was drafted, T.J., 25, is a wide receiver on the Lions after playing at his father's alma mater.

"Honestly, it's a little weird watching him play," said Jahmai, the second-ranked Angels prospect. "It's different because I know that 10 years ago he was my older brother growing up in the house and I was doing everything I can to be annoying."

Malachi, 23, was the second of the Jones boys to play college football, putting together an impressive career as a wide receiver at Appalachian State. He recently was honored as the top rookie in the National Arena League.

"Growing up and watching [my brothers] play and everything, [football] is something I wanted to do as a kid. I loved it," the 20-year-old said. "It was playing football in the backyard on Saturdays at home. Growing up, it was just football this, football that."

Jahmai was expected to follow the path blazed by his father and older brothers. He made the varsity football team at Wesleyan High School in Norcross, Georgia, as a freshman and caught 76 passes for 1,137 yards and 12 touchdowns over two seasons before deciding that his future would be in baseball.


Jahmai Jones (second from right) with his mother Michele (far left), brothers Malachi and T.J., niece Easton and sister Jayla at Ford Field on Oct. 8, 2017. (Courtesy Jahmai Jones)

There was no "aha" moment he can recall that pushed him toward the diamond and away from the gridiron. The desire to create a personal identity outside of what was expected weighed heavily on his decision, but, while branching out on his own, he's remained close to his family and the lessons their experiences in football could teach.

"Everybody in this family has done so much for me that it's only right that I give credit where credit's due," Jahmai said. "I wouldn't be where I am without them. … They're my world. Without them and without their support, there would be no reason for me to play this game."

The 2015 second-round Draft pick refers to a tireless work ethic that was passed between generations and brothers as something that has not only helped but created his track to professional baseball.

"There are people with natural talent -- this game comes easy to them -- but at the same time, hustling, doing your job, a great attitude, great mindset is something that could be unrivaled regardless of who you are," Jahmai said.

Early in his teenage years, his family was rocked by a tragedy that would force him to look elsewhere for a source to help him handle the nuances of life as a professional athlete. His father passed away from a brain aneurysm at 42, just before Jahmai's freshman year of high school and T.J.'s sophomore season at Notre Dame.

"The way we look at sports and the way we look at life is completely different from somebody else," Jahmai said. "No one really understands the passion, just the overall energy that we bring to the game and why we do it."

The family was fortunate enough to be in a network that knew how to lend a helping hand, at least when it came to a life in pro sports. Notre Dame legends like Ricky Watters, Jerome Bettis and Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, who's also T.J.'s godfather, have remained close to the Jones children, serving as a source of wisdom.

Outside of his network of former pro football players, Jahmai became a student of baseball under 12-year Major League veteran and 2005 Silver Slugger Award winner Michael Barrett. He recalls moments during middle school when he and Barrett, who currently runs a baseball academy in Atlanta, spent hours taking batting practice and learning about the game into the early morning hours.

"It's been the same love and passion every single day. … I mean, I love practice," Jones said. "I get to do what I love every single day in my life. When I looked at football being my future, I just couldn't see myself playing all the way through and leaving baseball behind. I just really couldn't."

The decision to pursue baseball -- aided by all that he's learned from Barrett; his agent, Eric McQueen; and everyone in the Angels organization -- has worked out.

Video: Inland Empire's Jones homers, extends streak

In 127 games between Class A Burlington and Class A Advanced Inland Empire, Jones batted .282/.348/.446 with 14 homers, seven triples, 29 doubles, 47 RBIs, 86 runs scored and 27 stolen bases in his first full season. He even had a California League season-high 25-game hitting streak through late August.

"We were just happy that when he made the decision to solely be focused on baseball that he was mature enough to make that type of decision, looking five, 10 years down the road to where he wanted to be professionally," T.J. said. "It was probably the smarter route, as you see. "

Despite their best efforts, his family has not made it to a Thanksgiving game at Ford Field.

"Being able to watch him on a holiday, it kind of has the sense that he's at home and he's part of our household still and we can include him every single Thanksgiving," Jahmai said. "He's pursuing his dream, just like I am doing mine, so watching him on the holiday is kind of icing on the cake."

The Joneses have been able to see T.J. play live in Detroit, and Jahmai still admires how his brother has embraced a leadership role within the family. T.J. describes his adjustment to becoming the "man of the house" as one that did not afford him the time to learn from typical teenage mistakes, especially with younger siblings ready to follow his example.

"He taught me what it meant to be a professional athlete," Jahmai said, "how you carry yourself, how you act when you're off the field, what you need to do to stay focused, not letting things get to you when they're going bad and not let your head get big when they're going well.

"It's one of those unwritten rules of sports in general that I was able to take away from him."

In the midst of his own success, Jones understands that it all comes back to family. While the logistics haven't worked out for a family trip to Detroit on Thanksgiving, circumstances didn't quite align for T.J. and Jahmai this summer.

"The first chance I get ... I'm definitely going to drive down to wherever he's at," T.J. said. "We want to be there, not only to witness him play professional baseball but just be there to support him."

The brothers were unable to link up at any Cal League games, but Jahmai said he hopes that a climb up the organizational ladder to the Angels' Double-A affiliate in Mobile, Alabama, will get him closer to home.

"I don't want him taking his fiance and their daughter, who's turning 2 in December, on a plane ride … all the way out to California," Jahmai said. "Hopefully, I can get [to Mobile] soon and he can come see play."

Gerard Gilberto is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @GerardGilberto4. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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