RENTON — Each day, Nazair Jones wakes up in his newly rented home near Seattle Seahawks headquarters. Though it’s early, maybe dawn, he’s not tired. Not even with this being at the end of a long, hot, first pro training camp and preseason.
Jones is not daunted by all that’s new in his life as a rookie defensive tackle, living on his own on the coast opposite his native one.
He’s thankful. Absolutely, unmistakably appreciative, not only that he’s about to walk into a prominent role in Seattle’s defense from game one — but that he can walk at all.
“It definitely crosses my mind when my alarm goes off and I’m going to work. It’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to go play football today for the NFL!’” Jones said Tuesday off the edge of the Seahawks’ practice field.
“You know, it hits me then.”
“It” is having lived in a Ronald McDonald House for long-term physical recovery as a teen, weeping and fearing he’d never be able to run again. “It” is having to learn how to walk again.
Jones did that six years ago. A rare disease left him frightened he may be permanently paralyzed. He was 16.
Jones was a junior playing football at Roanoke Rapids High School in November 2011. His team had lost in the North Carolina state playoffs on a Friday night. Jones fell asleep into Saturday morning.
When he woke up, his legs didn’t work.
For the next month, he had searing pain in his legs and back. He lost about 50 pounds. He was admitted to the University of North Carolina Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill on his 16th birthday.
Then, as an in-patient there, more weeks of tests. And pain. A previously strong, energetic teen athlete playing three sports is not supposed to be inexplicably paralyzed for weeks.
Two months down that long, dark path, doctors diagnosed him with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. The Mayo Clinic defines CRPS as “an uncommon form of chronic pain that usually affects an arm or a leg.” The few that this nervous-system disorder afflicts are usually far older than Jones was.
“Complex Regional Pain Syndrome is so different, and it is so uncommon, that some of my doctors had never heard of it,” he said. “Had never diagnosed anyone with it.”
As his mom, Tammy Jones, told The News Tribune in May when she visited Seahawks rookie minicamp: “It’s a wonderful feeling … The sickness came. The sickness went.
“Now, he’s here.”
He’s here in the center of a Seahawks’ defense that needs him. Defensive line coach Clint Hurtt has been trying Jones up and down the front line, and Jones has consistently impressed. All month, he’s knocked down passes. He’s chased down ball-carriers. As defensive coordinator Kris Richard noted Tuesday, Jones has showed remarkable strength while holding his ground against opposing blockers with far more experience.
Jones and surprise seventh-round pick Chris Carson, the decisive running back, have been the rookie standouts of Seattle’s preseason.
“Gosh, he has been probably the, maybe the biggest surprise — maybe other than Chris — of the group,” coach Pete Carroll said of Jones. “He has been so comfortable in taking to the challenge of the aggressive way we want to play. …
“We weren’t sure how he would bring that early on, but he has shown that he is really smart. He has picked up multiple positions already, and really Clint has no problem with counting on moving him around a little bit, which is really good and positive for him. He has shown good motor. He is a big, long tough guy and he is making progress.
“We can really see him playing and helping us in the rotations — right now.”
As in, at Green Bay in Game 1 of his rookie year.
“That is a lot of progress to have made in this short amount of time,” Carroll said.
Jones’ rapid emergence is timely. Seattle is currently missing three of its four starters on the defensive front.
End Frank Clark has been out since injuring his wrist in the third preseason game Friday. Last season’s 10-sack man won’t play Thursday in the preseason finale at Oakland. But Richard said following Tuesday’s practice the team expects Clark to play Sept. 10 in the opening game at Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
The Seahawks think the same about Pro Bowl defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril this week. They are two of five starters away getting the suddenly Seattle-chic regenokine treatment. Second-year defensive tackle Jarran Reed, a third starter on the defensive line, has also been out injured.
The Seahawks are already without rookie defensive tackle Malik McDowell. Their top draft choice from the spring may not play at all this season following his ATV accident in Michigan in July.
The door to opportunity is wide open for Jones to step through.
So far, he’s been doing it all. He’s been a “three-technique” tackle to control the guard-tackle gap. A “one-technique” tackle off the shoulder of the opposing center. A “zero-technique” nose tackle head-up on the center. Even some “five technique” on the outside shoulder of the guard.
“I’m just out here trying to earn my check,” he said.
To that end, Bennett has given him some practical, potentially multimillion-dollar advice.
The first thing he told Jones about working to master multiple positions on the defensive line: “That’s just part of being a pro.”
The second thing: “How much money do you want to be paid?”
Jones laughed at that.
Bennett, 31, re-signed in December for $17.5 million guaranteed.
Jones, 22, signed his rookie contract in May. He’s guaranteed $706,000, all in his signing bonus.
“At the end of the day, the more you are on the field, the more you can do, the more valuable you are,” Jones said.
“That’s been another reason why I’ve tried to learn multiple positions.”
Jones prefers to be so understated, he said he hasn’t made any fancy purchases with his first professional money. No, he’s renting, a house and a truck.
“A Chevy. A Chevy Silverado,” he said. “Just a regular pickup truck. Nothing special.
“I’m not big on spending my money too fast.”
Jones shrugged when asked about Carroll calling him a star of this preseason.
“It’s good to get noticed, absolutely, especially by the head coach,” Jones said. “But I’ve still got a ton of work to do.
“I really could be a lot better. I’ve glad I’ve made a couple plays. But I can play a lot better.
“I’ve been trying to learn multiple positions so I can get on the field.”
Jones said that’s been the plan all along for him, that the Seahawks didn’t increase his workload and responsibilities after McDowell’s accident.
“I’m just hoping he gets better soon,” Jones said.
Yet the coaches have made it clear to Jones they want him to be what McDowell was going to be this season at defensive tackle: dynamic, with varied roles depending on whether it’s against the run or the pass.
“I have to get better pass-rushing,” Jones said.
“That’s my weakness. That’s what I’ve been working on getting better at. And I’m going to have to, if we are going to lead the NFL in sacks, which is one of our goals.”
Jones said he never did anything other than be a three-technique, gap-controlling tackle at North Carolina. Not much pass rushing. Not much more than swallowing up blockers and clogging up running lanes.
“I was capable (of doing more),” he said. “But also, I was just doing what I was asked to do.”
The Seahawks love Jones’ height for rushing quarterbacks. At 6 feet 5, he can ruin passes while being blocked. His extended paw and a correctly timed jump can easily bat down throws intended for the middle of the field.
But Jones is learning there’s flip side to his height in the NFL.
“It’s a really a downside, man, when you get these guards and it’s time to play the run, you’ve got to keep your pads low,” he said. “So being 6-5 with long legs, it’s hard to do. I have to be extra mindful of that.”
To remind him each day during training camp, the Seahawks had a black, metal, cage-like contraption over the defensive linemen’s heads. They fired out of their three-point stances low. If he got out of his stance too quickly and not low enough, Jones got a smack in the back or top of his helmet from the metal bar.
That’s a small price to pay compared to what he’s overcome.
“I just trying to take the opportunities that I’m given,” Jones said. “Whether it’s a lot or a little, I’ve got to go out there and do what I can.
“I’m really just blessed man, to go through everything I’ve gone through.
“I really can’t ask for anything more than that.”