GOODYEAR, Ariz. — In the moments after the axel of his 2010 Range Rover carved up his left leg, Chad Jones wasn’t thinking about the severity of his injuries. He wasn’t thinking about the possibility of losing the leg or the life-threatening amount of blood he was losing in that driver’s seat.
Instead, his mind turned almost instantly to football.
The former standout safety from LSU had signed a rookie contract with the New York Giants the previous week, and as he lay bleeding in the sport utility vehicle for 45 minutes while New Orleans firefighters worked to extract him, he started to imagine what it would take to get back on the football field.
“At the time I was just thinking ‘Oh man, I’ve got a broken leg, I’ll be out two or three months and be back for the playoffs,'” Jones recalls. “When I woke up the next day in the hospital, it was a totally different story.”
Jones’ initial assessment, perhaps formed in a state of shock, was far from accurate. He wouldn’t walk any time soon, let alone play football. In fact, Jones ultimately had to give up his NFL dream, never able to get quite healthy enough to compete.
Jones did not, however, give up his aspirations of being a professional athlete. He instead returned to baseball, which he also played at LSU.
Now more than three years after almost losing life and limb, Jones is competing again, pitching for the Arizona League Reds on the first stop of what many in the organization believe is a path to the majors.
Because Jones never lost consciousness during the crash early on the morning of June 25, 2010, he remembers the entire ordeal in vivid detail.
He remembers driving south down Carollton Avenue on the west side of New Orleans. He was changing lanes, going from the right to the left, when his front left tire got caught in a streetcar track. When Jones turned the steering wheel to the right to get free, the vehicle flipped onto the median, smashing into a pole, which split the axel of his SUV.
“It shot straight up through my heel, through my leg, and took a big chunk of meat out of my thigh,” Jones said. “I didn’t really feel initial pain. It was just a lot of pressure.”
Jones’s friend in the passenger seat took one look at Jones’ leg and passed out. As Jones recalls, he could see black jeans on his right leg and nothing but dark burgundy blood on his left. He knew he was losing a lot of blood but had no idea the rescue team on site was considering amputating his leg as the only means to save him from bleeding to death in the car.
“I remember on day one after my car wreck doctors walked into the room and said ‘Chad, we were able to save your leg, but your professional career is over,'” Jones said. “They said ‘Your leg is going to be locked in a fixed position. You’re not going to be able to walk unassisted again.'”
In the first month and a half after the accident, Jones had 15 surgeries on his left leg. He had suffered nerve and soft tissue damage in his thigh, heel, calf and ankle and a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula.
Hard as it might be to believe, Jones says it was that same day doctors said he was done playing sports that Jones told his family he would play football again.
As much as potential led the Cincinnati Reds to select Jones, a left-handed reliever, in the ninth round of the MLB First Year Player Draft last month, makeup played just as big a part in the decision.
“For him just to get back to the level he’s at athletically after what he’s been through is pretty amazing,” Reds scouting director Chris Buckley said. “Most people would have said ‘I can’t do it.’ This kid was having none of that.”
But truth be told, there were days Jones wanted to give up. He recalls one story in particular: He had driven to his gym to meet Carter Stamm, his trainer at the time. But when Jones parked, he let the frustration of slow progress get the better of him. He turned around and drove home.
About 30 minutes after Jones got home, there was a knock at his door. It was Stamm, with workout equipment.
“He brought the workout to me,” Jones said. “It showed you the type of guys I had around me. They all wanted the same thing I wanted, and they reminded me what I needed to do.”
Stamm was one of what Jones calls “small angels” that helped him regain the use of his left leg. There were many, Jones says, and the first arrived at the scene of the crash.
As Jones would later learn, a doctor on-site recommended the amputation of Jones’s leg, but the lead firefighter on the scene wouldn’t allow it. The man had been Jones’ baseball coach when Jones was 10 years old and knew Jones couldn’t afford to lose his leg.
“He knew who I was and told them ‘We’re going to do whatever it takes to get him out of this car and get him into surgery,'” Jones said.
At the hospital, an aunt was an anesthesiologist and was able to provide detailed updates to Jones’ family. One of the nurses who cared for Jones during his hospital stay was a former neighbor from his youth. His first physical therapist was an LSU alumnus.
The Giants, too, did more than anyone would have expected. The team paid Jones’ entire signing bonus and continued paying his salary during his rehab, which they allowed him to do in New Orleans. They also picked up every medical expense, including more than $1 million on surgeries alone.
But the greatest motivator was his son, Chad Jones Jr, who is now 5 years old.
“I didn’t want him to see his dad as a quitter,” Jones said. “I wanted him to know his dad was something special, something a little different.”
When Jones arrived at the Reds minor league player development facility in Goodyear, Ariz., three weeks ago, pitching coach Derrin Ebert was a bit taken aback by the 24-year-old’s 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame.
“He came in and the first thing I said was ‘Man, this guy looks like a football player,'” Ebert said. “Then they told me ‘Yeah, he was drafted by the Giants in the third round.'”
Football had always seemed like Jones’s destiny. His father had been an All-America linebacker at Tulane University. Jones was ranked by recruiting services as the best high school safety in the nation, and as a college freshman he helped LSU win a national championship in 2007.
Jones even has a Super Bowl ring from the Giants 2011-12 season. But late last year Jones realized he would never play in the NFL. He had gotten healthy enough that the Giants were prepared to re-sign him to a new contract for the 2012-13 season. In fact, he had already signed the medical clause of the contract before doctors discovered an infection in his leg that would keep him out another four months. The two sides agreed a new contract didn’t make sense.
Last November, Jones worked out for the Eagles, who were impressed but decided not to sign him when a team doctor wouldn’t pass him on a physical. The same thing happened with the Saints.
So in March, Jones returned to baseball. In May, about two weeks before the draft, he worked out for a handful of scouts at a high school in New Orleans.
He was a known commodity as a baseball player, having helped LSU win the 2009 College World Series, and the Reds had been watching him since high school.
“You always wondered how good he could be in baseball if he wasn’t devoting most of his time to football,” Buckley said. “Even when he was at LSU, he was coming over to the baseball field from the football field.
“Baseball never thought it would see Chad Jones. We thought he would go on and play 10 years in the NFL and that would be the end of Chad Jones.”
When Jones started training again in March, it had been almost four years since he had played baseball. Things came back slowly, but in his workout, his fastball topped out at 91 mph.
Because of the long layoff, the Reds are taking it slow with Jones, but he has no physical limitations.
“I talked to our training staff because I wanted to know if there were limitations on him,” Ebert said. “They said after they did their physical with him he’s by far the strongest player we’ve ever had come through camp.”
Ebert put Jones on a routine throwing program to build up arm strength and was immediately impressed with how Jones approached it.
“He stops before every ball he throws, and he stands there and looks at his feet, looks at his hands, making sure everything is doing the right thing,” Ebert said. “He’s training his body to do it right, and every throw is for a purpose.”
After a series of bullpen sessions and live batting practice, Jones made his professional debut July 5, throwing a scoreless inning of relief against the Indians’ rookie league team. He gave up two runs in 1/3 of an inning in his second outing.
“I was in the bullpen for a while, so I got all the jitters out,” he said. “I got on the mound for my first pitch, and it was a strike. That first pitch turned into a strikeout for my first batter, so it couldn’t have gone any better.”
Jones’ son and girlfriend, Jade, arrived in Arizona two days earlier to be there for his first competitive action since the 2009 College World Series. Afterward, he was able to spend time with them and reflect on how far he has come in three years.
“It just shows the long road I took to get where I want to be,” Jones said. “I’m finally getting a taste of success again.”
Jones admits to feeling rusty when he first started throwing in Arizona, but he’s quickly gotten more comfortable.
“I’ve felt the progress over the past two or three weeks,” Jones said. “I started off a little shaky. I couldn’t really find the strike zone, threw a few dirtballs, of course.”
Ebert says Jones’ command still has to come around, but his fastball, changeup and slider have been impressive, and he’s picking things up quickly, from mechanics to bunt defense.
Where Jones goes next depends on how quickly he develops during the Rookie League season.
“No one really knows what Chad can do,” Buckley said. “He hasn’t played all that much.”
Wherever his path leads next, Ebert and Buckley agree that Jones has big-league potential.
“We want to give him the chance,” Buckley said. “I would not want to be the person who bets against him, and that’s what we’re doing — we’re betting on him.”
A week ago Tuesday, Jones received an early-morning text message from his girlfriend.
“Chad, this is your three-year anniversary,” the text read.
“Three year anniversary?” Jones thought, not realizing immediately it had been that long since his accident.
That’s how far Jones has come mentally. The wreck that took away his football career does not haunt him. Physically, Jones has come just as far, though massive scars on his leg serve as a reminder of what he’s been through.
Jones says he has moved on from his dream of playing in the NFL and doesn’t expect to have an endless itch to play football again. He’s unequivocally accepted his new path in baseball.
As he went through a long toss routine and worked on fielding from a pitcher’s mound of his “anniversary,” Jones started feeling even better about his future.
“It was definitely a monumental day as far as me seeing where I was and seeing where I am now,” Jones said. “I feel I had a great go with football, and now I’m ready to turn my life back over to baseball.”