Nazair Jones leaned on his mentor, McGrue Booker, to get him through a rare disease diagnosis that literally crippled him during his junior year of high school. Now, he's helping a 16-year-old boy with leukemia the way Booker helped him.
On Nazair Jones’ very first regular season NFL snap, on the road last Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers, the Seahawks’ rookie defensive tackle intercepted Aaron Rodgers and ran it back for a 64-yard score.
A thousand miles away, in Jones’ hometown of Roanoke Rapids, N.C., Angela Mallory whooped in excitement as the play unfolded on her television, and texted her son Derrin to tell him that his mentor had just scored in his first NFL game.
Alas, Jones’ big play was eventually called back on an illegal blocking penalty by Cliff Avril and another penalty from the punch Jeremy Lane allegedly threw at Packers receiver Davante Adams.
The 6-foot-5, 304 pound rookie tackle will get another chance to make a pick that gets on the books this weekend, when the Seahawks welcome the 49ers to CenturyLink Field for their home opener.
But for Jones and the Mallorys, that moment against the Packers will always be special.
Angela Mallory was thrilled to see something good happen to a man who’d been such a big influence in the life of her son, Derrin. Jones took a special interest in Derrin after the boy, now 16, was diagnosed with leukemia last summer.
For Jones, that touchdown – really, just the fact that he was able to run that ball back 64 yards – was yet another small gift to be grateful for after everything he’s been through in his life.
Because it was just six years ago that Jones woke up in his bed one November morning to find that he could not move his legs, and that they were engulfed by excruciating pain.
— Samuel Gold (@SamuelRGold) September 10, 2017
Strength from adversity
What happened next has been well documented in dozens of stories about the Seahawks’ third round 2017 draft pick out of North Carolina.
Jones’ legs swelled up and were painful to even the slightest touch, he lost his ability to walk and had to move around with the help of crutches, a wheelchair or a walker. Over the next couple of months, the pain searing through his legs continued and he underwent a battery of tests as doctors tried to figure out what was wrong.
There were days back then when Jones wondered if he would ever play football again.
“But I tried to keep them out and stay on more of a positive note. I tried not to ask myself those questions,” Jones said. “Really, what motivated me was that I was trying to get back to my teammates. I just wanted to get back to playing ball so I could be back with my friends too.”
The eventual diagnosis was Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a rare disease that affects the nervous system. There’s no cure for CRPS other than rehabilitation.
Initially, doctors did not know if Jones would even walk again, but his condition gradually improved through a grueling course of physical therapy.
Jones’ mother was a big source of support during his ordeal, but equally important was a man named McGrue Booker, whom Jones considers a mentor and surrogate father, and who’s the inspiration behind Jones’ connection to Derrin Mallory.
Tammy Jones raised her son, Nazair, as a single parent, and Jones says he’s never met his biological father. But he met Booker in middle school because he was on the track team with Booker’s granddaughters, and the older man became a significant influence in Jones’ life.
“We were close automatically,” Jones said. “He was a guy who was easy to talk to, and he always had good advice, so we stuck together.”
Booker helped Jones through his battle with CRPS.
“He was always in the hospital when I was there, and always sending me text messages and gifts or whatever, just to make sure I was staying on the positive side because it was such a hard time in my life,” Jones said.
Jones learned to walk again and slowly regained the 50 pounds he’d lost. By the summer of 2012, he was cleared to play football. North Carolina took a chance on him and offered him a scholarship to play football in Chapel Hill.
Booker was with him every step of the way, until Feb. 25, 2016. Jones, then a redshirt junior at UNC, got home from practice to find a missed call from Booker’s son. He called back to receive bad news: Booker had died expectedly from a heart attack. He was 66.
Booker was the man who had taught Jones to swing a golf club. He frequently took Jones out to eat, he checked in on Jones’ academic progress, and every Thanksgiving, from Jones’ sixth grade year, through his junior year of college, Booker would bring Jones and his mother a turkey.
Last Thanksgiving, there was no turkey.
“I just tried not to think about it. Because I miss him so much,” Jones said. “It was heartbreaking at the time. He literally took the place of a dad and treated me like I was his own.”
Paying it forward
Booker’s death was devastating for Jones, but losing his mentor also inspired Jones to try to keep Booker’s memory alive by mentoring other young men the same way Booker had helped him.
Thus, M.A.D.E Men Mentoring was born. The acronym stands for “Making a Difference Every Day.” Jones started the organization shortly after Booker’s death, during his redshirt junior year at North Carolina.
The organization’s mission is to provide a support system for underprivileged young men, and since its founding, Jones says M.A.D.E. Men Mentoring has helped over a thousand kids.
Derrin Mallory is one of these kids. Derrin plays receiver for the Roanoke Rapids High School football team, Jones’ alma mater, and his mother, Angela, was Jones’ seventh grade math teacher.
The two families have known each other for years and Derrin says he always looked up to Jones while growing up because of the older boy’s athletic prowess. Their bond has intensified in the last year.
“When my son was diagnosed with leukemia, last June, 2016, Naz just took on a special interest in him,” Angela Mallory said.
Jones came to the hospital to support Derrin on the day he got his diagnosis, and since then, he’s become one of Derrin’s closest confidants.
Jones’ experience in having to fight back from his CRPS helped him understand what Derrin was going through, and he became someone for Derrin to lean on as he went through chemotherapy.
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Their friendship “is very special to me,” Derrin said. “I feel like if I ever need anything, advice about school, or sports or any personal things, he’s always there for me, just a call or text away. I look up to him as a role model.”
Derrin got good news from his most recent medical check-up last month: “His oncologist said the worst is behind him,” Angela said. “Derrin refuses to give up, and he’s optimistic about the future and about his treatment.”
Once a Cowboys fan, Derrin is now the newest member of the 12s.
His white No. 92 Seahawks jersey with “JONES” on the back arrived in the mail on Thursday, and he’ll wear it on every game day, and when he comes to Seattle in April to spend his spring break with Jones.
Derrin will not be able to play football this fall because he still has a chemotherapy port in his chest, but he’s hoping he’ll be back for his senior season.
In the meantime, he’s kept himself busy by getting his pharmacy tech license. After he graduates high school, he wants to follow in Jones’ footsteps and go to college at UNC Chapel Hill, and would like to eventually become a pharmacist.
Derrin currently works part-time at a local pharmacy, and that’s where he was last Sunday, when he got his mother’s excited text about Jones’ touchdown-that-wasn’t.
“She texted me in all caps: NAZAIR JUST INTERCEPTED AARON RODGERS,” says Derrin, who watched the play several times on YouTube later that evening.
Then, he texted Jones a picture of him running with the football, with Rodgers pursuing him.
“There you go, man!” Derrin said in the text.
“Showing the world my wheels,” Jones replied.
Even though the play was negated, both Jones and Derrin will always savor the memory of his very first NFL interception.
“For me to be a big guy to pick off Aaron Rodgers and take it 60 yards, that will always be a memorable play. Especially as it happened on my first snap. It really doesn’t get any better than that,” said Jones, who also got a black eye from the pick because Rodgers’ pass went through his facemask and smacked him in the left eye.
Jones’ eye closed up immediately, but he kept running, heading straight toward the end zone.
Because after everything he’s been through, Jones plays every snap as if it might he might never get another.
“Things can really change overnight. Literally, the night before everything happened, I played in a football game,” Jones says, referring to the day he woke up unable to move his legs. “So I just have a different love for the game, a different feel for it. I just try to cherish every snap that I play because you never know if it’ll be your last.”