How UK football's Jacquez Jones formed 'a bond for life' by mentoring a boy from Lexington
The first thing Jacquez Jones noticed about TJ was his smile.
Then, the 6-year-old boy asked the Kentucky linebacker a question: "You want to see how many push-ups I can do?"
"He started knocking out push-ups," Jones said.
Jones met TJ in the fall of 2021, when he and other Wildcats delivered Thanksgiving food baskets to families around Lexington through a partnership with Southland Christian Church. While the group visited the home of TJ's grandparents, Jones learned about the boy's connection to an organization called Amachi Lexington, which supports children affected by incarceration.
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It just so happened that, with TJ turning 6 earlier in the year, he was eligible for the organization's mentoring program and eagerly awaiting a match.
"He was on our waiting list for a while," said Maggie Middleton, the program director of Amachi Lexington. "It just takes a while for us to find mentors at times, especially for our boys. It’s a little bit harder to find men to be mentors."
According to Middleton, the organization was on the verge of matching TJ with someone else when the UK football players showed up at his grandparents' house. Like a good linebacker is prone to do, Jones disrupted that game plan – by the end of the visit, he'd been asked to take the boy under his wing.
"I was like, 'Man, that’s great,'" Jones said. "'I’ll do it right now.'"
Nearly a year later, Jones said he and TJ have developed "a bond for life." The linebacker is even looking to his mentee for motivation heading into his final season with the Wildcats.
"He’s one of my reasons why I keep going so hard," Jones said, "because he looks up to me."
Inspiring 'the next generation'
These are exciting times for both Jones and TJ on the gridiron.
Jones, an Ole Miss transfer who led UK in tackles last season, was named a team captain Tuesday ahead of the season opener. He and Kentucky's veteran linebackers will anchor the defense as the Wildcats pursue their first trip to the Southeastern Conference championship.
TJ, meanwhile, is suiting up for his first season with the Lexington Ravens youth organization as a member of its 7U team. Like his mentor, he's playing linebacker.
It's a heartwarming detail, but also smart coaching on the Ravens' part. How many kids can say they've been trained at linebacker by someone who starts at the position in the SEC? Jones said TJ frequented the Joe Craft Football Training Center with him this offseason to lift weights and work on his tackling form.
"He has muscles," said TJ's grandmother, Iris Sidney. "They’re not big muscles, now, they're little muscles."
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"Whenever he comes into our community center and he sees me, he'll come up and he’ll give me a big hug and then he’ll say, 'See my muscles, Miss Maggie,'" Middleton added.
While TJ keeps building his muscles — and flexing for the camera — Jones said speed isn't an issue: "I watched him play baseball. He (was) the fastest kid out there."
According to Middleton, TJ is one of 185 kids participating in Amachi Lexington’s mentoring program. Fifty of those children are waiting for a match like TJ was before Jones walked through his grandparents' door.
TJ’s father "is not involved in his life, nor has he ever been," Middleton said. "His mom is involved, but he is very much so being raised by his grandparents."
In a 2017 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kentucky ranked second in the country with 15% of children having experienced losing a parent to incarceration. A 2022 report from the Prison Policy Initiative says nearly half of the approximately 1.25 million people in state prisons nationwide are parents of minor children, and about 1 in 5 is age 4 or younger.
"Research does suggest that kids with an incarcerated parent have a really high rate of going to jail themselves if there's not an intervention around, and we don't want that to happen," Middleton said. "A kid like TJ, who’s just so incredible already at 7 and full of joy and he’s so bright and so smart, I don’t want that in his future.
"He needs someone like a Jacquez who can keep up with him, because he’s full of energy," Middleton added. "Especially being raised by his grandparents, too. They work really hard and are doing all they can, but this is their second go-round of parenting."
Jones said he has not experienced losing a loved one to incarceration but saw the mentorship program as an opportunity to "inspire the next generation."
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"No matter your circumstance, no matter what you go through, you can always do what you dream," he said. "With TJ, his dream is to be an athlete, and so that’s my goal, to make sure he does that."
Amachi Lexington tells its mentors that their job isn’t to be a stand-in parent, Middleton said, because "no one can take the place of a parent." That hasn’t stopped Jones from taking up at least one parental challenge — getting TJ to be less of a picky eater — to little success.
"All he wants to eat is McDonald's chicken nuggets," Jones said. "I’ll take him out to a steakhouse, and all he wants is McDonald's chicken nuggets."
A lifelong bond
Jones' time in Lexington is almost up, and the linebacker is already dreading saying goodbye to TJ when he moves on to the next chapter of his life.
"It’s gonna be hard on me, for real," Jones said, "because I got close to him."
According to Middleton, children stay on Amachi Lexington's caseload until they turn 18, but mentor/mentee relationships often continue unofficially because of the bonds the two parties form.
That will soon be the case for former UK linebacker Courtney Love, who is going on Year 6 with his mentee, a 13-year-old named Antonio.
"It’s a life thing for me," said Love, who now works on Mark Stoops' staff as a director of player development. "I like to say, 'I've taught him a lot,' but he's taught me a lot about life and patience.
"I think it's essential and critical that we do it," Love added. "If we can do that and have an impact as student-athletes, as men in the community, having somebody that looks like you, you know. Those guys, they come from broken homes, so it's great to be a part of that."
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Love, who said he played a role in recruiting Jones to Kentucky, was with the linebacker when he met TJ during the fall of 2021. After experiencing Amachi Lexington's impact firsthand, Love encouraged Jones to be the boy's mentor. Now, they sometimes take TJ and Antonio out together for movies.
"He’s a huge family guy," Love said of Jones, "(and) also took a step this year. He continued to become a leader on that defense and, not only that, but in our locker room. I just got a chance to see him grow, and I look forward to seeing him continue to grow."
Jones will also bring his parents, Kendrick and Lakeshia, around TJ when they visit Lexington, according to Sidney, the boy’s grandmother. Sidney said TJ "loves them, too," and there’s a good chance he’ll be at Kroger Field with the Joneses to watch his mentor play several Saturdays this season.
To return the favor, Jones said he will catch as many of TJ’s games with the Ravens as his schedule allows to see how their training pays off. No matter what, the linebacker said he’s hoping to make time every Sunday for the 7-year-old while he still can.
If all goes according to plan, Jones should hear his name called at some point during the 2023 NFL Draft. As a super senior, the linebacker could leave Lexington when the Wildcats' season ends to begin preparations for the jump to the pros.
Jones can't take TJ along for the ride, but they'll no doubt stay in touch. And there's at least one thing from their relationship that Jones will have with him wherever he goes; it's the first thing he noticed about the boy: his smile.
"He never goes without smiling," Jones said. "So (on) days where I get down on myself and think about other stuff, I just got to lock in and be like, 'I’m smiling because I got this little kid right here who’s looking up to me.'"
Reach recruiting and trending sports reporter Brooks Holton at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @brooksHolton.