DALTON, Ga. — There is a group of football players and their parents at Christian Heritage School who refer to Duane Jones as "Dad."
The senior linebacker smiles at the mention of the nickname, knowing it's meant as a compliment. In a little more than a year in Dalton, Jones has earned a reputation for maturity beyond his years.
Three years living in a foreign country can do that to a teenager.
Help has arrived
A Dalton native, Jones returned to Christian Heritage in August 2017 after he and his missionary family spent three eventful years in Slovenia. Training camp already had started for the Lions, some of whom remembered the athletic Jones from his middle school days.
He quickly was given a conditioning test by coach Jay Poag and his staff to see what they had on their hands. At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, he certainly had the size to contribute for a GHSA Class A team coming off a two-win season.
It would be the first chapter in the legend of Duane Jones.
"When he walked on campus, he looked good," recalled Poag, then cracking a smile, "and when we saw him run, he looked even better. Yeah, this kid can help us."
In Slovenia — first in the country's capital, Ljubljana, for two years and later Domale — Jones spent his days going to school, making friends and, of course, meeting girls. The country, formerly part of Yugoslavia, has roughly two million people, most of whom adore Americans, Jones said.
"They hear you talk and immediately go, 'Ah, you're American,' and smile," he said. "If you are American, you are a superstar over there. They all spoke English. If you were American, you were always a hit to the girls — except when they found out I was 14."
Jones attended American International School, where the student population consists mostly of children of missionaries or embassy workers. While he was able to do a lot of normal teenager activities, the void in his life from being away from football affected him more and more.
"For a time in Slovenia, when I thought I might not be able to play in high school, much less beyond, I would cry," Jones said. "Not much can make me cry, but that did."
Beyond his years
To help stay in shape, he began taking mixed martial arts classes (the name of the establishment, Fight Club Ljubljana, still makes him chuckle). His dad, Chris, found out about the Austrian Football League and thought it might be a chance for his son to get back into the game.
"Duane was upset he wouldn't get to play football," he said. "In Europe, it's all club league. It's American football played on soccer fields, but it's pretty serious."
When the family, which includes his mother, brother and adopted sister, moved to Domzale, Duane tried out for and made the local team, the Domzale Tigers, at age 17. The league consists of players up to 30 years old and includes several "imports," American players brought over to play.
"The quarterback was usually the import player because you had to know the game," Chris said. "Though Duane didn't play quarterback, people thought he was an import until they found out he lived there."
As endearing as he was off the field in Europe, he was the polar opposite on it. The young American linebacker would routinely hit players so hard that he learned a few new words in the process.
"I tended to get cussed out for hitting too hard," he said, smiling. "I had one quarterback who played in college here, and he got mad at me for hitting him the way I did. He got in my face after a hit, then apologized because he said he wasn't used to getting hit that hard.
"I didn't know what to say. It's the only way I know how to play."
Older and wiser
It's halftime of Christian Heritage's game at LaFayette on Sept. 7, and "Dad" is taking care of his teammates in the locker room after a disastrous first half in which the Ramblers nearly ran the Lions out of the stadium.
Down 26-0 — and it could have been worse had the Ramblers not lost a pair of early fumbles — the Lions were understandably dejected. Jones and his small band of senior teammates (only four are starters) calmly began reassuring groups of younger players that the game was still there to win.
"Last year if we had been down 26-0 at the half, we would have lost 70-0, to be honest," Jones said. "At halftime we regrouped. Coaches weren't yelling at us or anything. It was mostly players talking to players and getting things straightened out. We came together at that moment."
The Lions proceeded to score the next 35 points and pull out a shocking win, sending the Class AAAA Ramblers to their first defeat and moving Christian Heritage to 3-0, the program's best start in its GHSA history, which began with the 2012 season. In the process, Jones, now at 6-3 and 220 pounds, registered 15 tackles, caused three fumbles, recovered one of them, had a sack and blocked an extra-point attempt.
"He's our leader, he's our heartbeat, he's the soul of our team," Poag praised. "He's the hardest worker, the most talented, and the kids always look to him.
"He's right. A year ago we don't come close to winning that game, and a large part of it is due to his leadership."
Jones and quarterback Matthew Neff hit it off right away when Jones showed up in August 2017. Neff and his family had lived in the Republic of Georgia, so the connection between the "Third Culture Kids" was immediate.
TCKs, Jones' father explained, often make deep friendships quickly.
"Studies have shown that TCKs skip the first six steps in building relationships and go directly into a deep bond," Chris said. "It's a great thing to have here, because most of the students here came from somewhere else, and sometimes it's hard to make friends."
Neff, maybe more than most, sees the drive in his teammate that has him on the verge of late stardom. It's also something he doesn't mind taking advantage of when the moment comes.
"Duane takes pride in being the best, but if he doesn't play to his best we make fun of him," Neff said with a smile. "We got on him a bit before the LaFayette game, and he went off. I guess we'll have to do it every game.
"Really, he's the nicest guy off the field, and he cuts up all the time at school. On the field, he's all business. It's great he can flip that switch like that, because most can't."
Despite the great start to this season and coming off a year in which he had 100 tackles and earned all-region accolades, Jones' dream of playing college football is far from a sure thing. College recruiting files usually are not filled with players with zero high school video through their sophomore seasons. Class A players are downgraded due to a perceived lack of competition.
It all adds up to an uphill battle.
"Duane has all the measurables," Poag said. "He benches 300 (pounds), deadlifts 600, squats 400 and runs a 4.5 (40-yard dash) at his size — all the things college coaches look for. He's just beginning to scratch the surface, and he's going to continue to get bigger.
"He's a kid who can carry 230 to 240 (pounds) and still keep his speed. He's got a world of potential and a great future ahead of him. If he keeps playing as he did against LaFayette, the tape will be there. I recruited for over 20 years at the college level, and I know a lot of people. We just have to get him in the right spot."
Jones has been to some camps and has talked with coaches from Austin Peay, Georgia State and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, as well as Georgia Tech — his dream school and his father's alma mater.
"It's been slow so far with colleges," he admitted. "If I keep playing like I did (against LaFayette), they will catch on. I realize no one knew me, so there was a lot of ground to make up."
Jones won't give up on his dream without a fight, but he also won't sacrifice his future just to put on a uniform.
"I won't walk on. I don't like debt," he said, the practical, mature side showing. "I would rather go to Georgia Northwestern (Technical College) and get my (trade) certificate and make $70,000 right out of the gate.
"Look, football is number one for me, but if that door closes, I'm not about to spend four years and get $30,000 in debt to get a job that doesn't pay well. I guess my brain just doesn't work like that. But I'm really hoping football works out."
In the meantime, Jones and his mates (they've dubbed the defense "Bad Company") continue to work, having upset No. 2-ranked and preseason Region 6A-A favorite Mount Zion of Carrollton. The back-to-back impressive wins have propelled the Lions to the top spot in the GHSA's Class A private school power ratings and all but assures them of a place in the state playoffs.
The Lions last made the postseason in 2015, reaching the state quarterfinals when Jay Poag's brother, Preston — now the coach at North Murray — was in charge. Four more wins would tie the program's GHSA-era record, but this team is thinking higher.
"Could we finish 3-7 and miss the playoffs?" Jones asked rhetorically before the Mount Zion game. "Sure, but we have a chance this year to be something special. I know one thing: I have seven guaranteed games left and I will not let those opportunities go to waste.
"And I will not let my teammates waste them, either."
"Dad" has spoken.
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.