Interstate 5 is one of the arteries of West Coast traffic, a mighty vein chugging through Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seattle. It is where trucks run from the Mexican to Canadian border, where commuting minivans shoot through twisting highway junctions.
But when it hugs the edge of California’s Central Valley, the I-5 absorbs salt, earth and grit. The concrete pavement whittles down to two lanes, slipping past places named Chaney Ranch and Hamburg Farms, Buttonwillow and Crows Landing. It is a lonely drive, yellowing fields framing a fierce and endless sky.
Somewhere along these 300-odd miles, Marvin Lewis Jones, Jr. became a man.
Three years ago, Marv was an 18-year-old preparing for his first season of collegiate football. Four stars from both Rivals and Scout, the pride of Etiwanda High. The Inland Empire kid with the All-State resume ached to make the same impact as a true freshman at Cal. The Bears had lost every starting receiver to graduation or the NFL; what was left to stop him?
First day of fall camp was almost over when his phone rang. It was Jazmyn, his girlfriend of two years, still at home in Fontana. I’m pregnant. Throat knotted, stomach dropped. His position coach noticed, asked what was wrong. Five minutes later, head coach Jeff Tedford beckoned Marv into his office. Call your dad, he said.
Marv broke down, afraid he had failed his father’s expectations. But even as his tears welled and his voice cracked, Jones must have known deep down that everything would turn out fine. Marvin Sr. was strict, but disciplined his children to teach humility and responsibility. The man once toted four-year-old Marv on his back on walks to the park. He wasn’t about to shake his son off now.
“He said he’ll never be disappointed in me. He backs me up 100 percent,’” Jones says. “It switched from a type of sad tone to a happy tone.”
Life turned into a grow-up-fast experiment, and he began to miss home. His family visited Memorial Stadium, but every time they left, Marvin Jones III continued kicking inside Jazmyn’s belly, tugging at the father day after day. A knee injury hit Jones at the bye week and eventually reduced his season to one catch, eight yards.
So he drove. Not long after the team plane returned to Oakland, perhaps after a two-hour shot from Tucson or 90-minute jaunt from Eugene, Jones embarked on solo trips. He tossed a backpack and some spare clothes into his 1995 Honda Prelude, which snaked down the 580, the I-5, the 210 until it crossed the San Bernardino County line. Seven hours to get home, and another seven to squeeze back up before another week of classes and practices.
On Jan. 12, near the end of winter break, Jones saw the birth of his first child. He would have stayed forever if he had the chance, but there was still school and football. He would make do with his long drives home.
Maybe people whispered. Irresponsible, careless, just another stereotype. If they did, Jones couldn’t hear them. His family looked after little Marv when he was away, and their support was enough to see him through.
In Berkeley, there are Thirsty Thursdays and Beat the Clock, frat row and other hangouts and happy hours. When not bogged down by midterms and papers, these are the spots many 18- to 21-year-olds spend free time.
While others wolfed down food or spilled drink, Jones planned. He and Jazmyn talked about moving in together. They flipped through forms to find grants for students with children. Along the way, he realized he could be a role model; after he graduates, he wants to start a non-profit for inner-city kids. “He’s not much of a partier anymore,” says cornerback Marc Anthony, who met Jones at the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl before rooming with him at Clark Kerr. “He has more responsibilities as a father. He’s stepped up to the plate, taken care of business.”
He does not have hours to waste, not when he’s already missed precious moments from little Marv’s first year of life.
“His first word was, ‘Dada,’ and I wasn’t able to catch any of that,” Jones says. “When he walked, when he first walked, they sent me a video … It’s just the little things that you want to catch.”
The long-distance give-and-go ended after Jones’ sophomore year. Two summers ago, Jaz moved up to live with him, and the couple rented a unit in Albany’s University Village, the school’s family housing complex.
The father now wakes up a little before six, then heads to campus for the day’s first set of practices and meetings. He might jet to class at around 11 or 12, shuttling between buildings like Barrows or Wheeler.
When he closes the books at around 5 p.m., he rushes back home to squeeze in some playtime with little Marv.
Jones says his son, three years old next January, can already catch and run routes. Next up is ladder drills, and Marv can’t wait — neither of them.
When Jones isn’t home, his two-year-old might open the door for visitors. It’s a cozy place: two bedrooms with toys scattered on the ground, an immaculate kitchen, a mini basketball hoop in the living room corner. A drawing is stuck to the freezer door, a Pollock splatter of orange, green and pink.
A framed picture of little Marv sits by the television, his smile preserved in gentle shades of gray and white. He’s the spitting image of his father, the same brown eyes and buzzed-down haircut. Below his face, printed in script: “Legacy.”
This past Halloween, Jones became a 21-year-old father of two. At 12:48 a.m., Mareon Lamont Jones was born at Berkeley’s Alta Bates Hospital. M.L.J., the same initials as big brother, daddy and grandpa. The Bears’ 17-point loss to UCLA, their most embarrassing outing this season, was not yet 30 hours old, but what did that matter, really? “When he was born, everything just went away,” Jones says.
His relationship with Jazmyn is nearing the six-year mark. A licensed vocational nurse, she is taking classes at Berkeley City College. If and when Roger Goodell reads out, “Marvin Jones, wide receiver, California,” he’ll be taking her and their boys to the city that grabs him.
The receiver is not a can’t-miss prospect, but he has savvy, size and sticky fingers. For some, taking care of a family would have shot down those Sunday night dreams. Instead, Jones has been a steady option in Cal’s inconsistent passing game, the team’s No. 1 target in each of the past two seasons. But when he slips off his gloves, his hands feel even more at home, free to hold his two sons.