In August of 2016, JaWuan Jones’ life changed.
The current Waynesburg University wide receiver was 20 years old and still figuring out his plans for a college education, when at midnight Aug. 31, his daughter, Ariah, was born.
Upon becoming a father while still a college student, Jones was eager to embrace the challenges that come with raising a child.
“I was actually excited,” Jones said. “[Becoming a father] gave me a reason to push to do things more. Actually gave me a reason to get back on the field and play football.”
After graduating high school in 2014, Jones attended Youngstown State University, and was a walk-on to the football team. But things didn’t go according to plan. Due to poor grades, Jones didn’t come back to YSU for his sophomore year, and never got a chance to stand out at a Division I level. When Jones stepped away from football, he felt that he might have lost the sport he loved.
“Once I stopped playing football to get my grades right, I kind of started falling apart a little bit from football,” Jones said. “Then when I found out I was having a daughter, it just kind of got me motivated to want to get back on the field.”
Jones had the eye of the Waynesburg coaching staff since he left Youngstown State, and according to current Special Teams coach John Sikora, even as early as high school. Sikora said that the coaching staff was aware of Jones’ situation and that did not affect Waynesburg’s interest in Jones.
“We knew he did have a kid,” Sikora said. “We had that talk with him when we recruited him, and that didn’t stop us one bit. We know [Jones is] a quality kid, and we knew that he’s passionate about trying to get this degree, so he can put his family in the best possible position three years down the road.”
The Waynesburg coaching staff took an interest in Jones that went beyond his accomplishments on the football field, which is important to Jones.
“It meant a lot. It really did mean a lot,” Jones said. “I feel like I can trust [the coaches]. I feel like I have people I can go to if I ever needed someone. So it really means a lot that they care about their players and their situations that’s going on.”
Jones had planned to enroll at Waynesburg in the fall of 2016, but was unable to due to his academic standing. So he turned to community college, where he spent the 2016-17 school year at Eastern Gateway Community College in Youngstown, Ohio. While there, Jones focused on academics and worked to earn a 3.6 GPA, which got him into Waynesburg this fall as a marketing major.
When interim head coach Chris Smithley first got a glimpse of Jones in preseason camp, he saw a lot of unpolished potential.
“[Jones was] really athletic but really raw,” Smithley said. “Had a lot of progression to do to get to where we needed him to be, someone that could contribute to us.”
As the season progressed, Smithley saw Jones improve, and thus, his role increased. After having just 190 all-purpose yards in the first six games of the season, Jones had 554 in the last four contests, finishing with a team-leading 736 all-purpose yards, with 392 of them coming from kick returns. Jones’ performance earned him a birth on the All-PAC team as an honorable mention.
“As the year is going on you see his progression, and you see how much more we’re using him, how much more we’re targeting him in the pass game,” Smithley said. “JaWuan wants to be great, and JaWuan has all the abilities to be great. But he still has to continue to progress the way he has in the next couple years to get to that point.”
For Smithley, it’s essential to find a way to get Jones involved in whatever way possible.
“He’s a guy who you want to find ways to get the ball in his hands,” Smithley said. “It’s key to be able to have a guy that you just have to be able to find a way to get him the football, and you trust that he’s going to make things happen with that football. It’s not easy to find guys like that, but when you find them…you want to make them better, and you want to keep moving forward with the process with them to continue.”
A turning point in Jones’ development on the field, Smithley said, took place during Week Two. The Jackets were playing Westminster and were trailing 14-7, with less than five minutes left in the third quarter, and faced a third-and-nine from their 4-yard line. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Perone threw the ball deep to Jones, but awaiting him was freshman safety Gary Anderson-Davis. Davis greeted Jones with a hard hit that Smithley said could have warranted a targeting penalty, but Jones hung on to the ball for a 20-yard gain and a first down. Although Waynesburg didn’t score on that possession and wound up losing the game, 28-7, Smithley saw that play as a signal that Jones had arrived.
“I can’t say enough for how big the play was in the Westminster game,” Smithley said. “Coming out of our end zone, and [Perone] throws him that vertical up the sideline, and he takes that hard hit on the sideline…but him taking that hit and holding on to that ball… that was the play for me, as his coach, that said, ‘hey, this guy is legit, let’s get more on his plate.’”
From a playmaking standpoint, Jones was somebody that, according to senior defensive back Justin Willkow, was a player that upperclassmen could look to provide a spark whenever the team was struggling to put points on the board.
“He was definitely somebody that I looked up to because, at some points in the season, we weren’t getting the things done that we needed to get done,” Willkow said. “When he [returned kicks], he was that guy that you knew at any given time when he touched the ball, he was capable of scoring.”
For Willkow, a moment that signified Jones as a team leader took place in a mid-October game against Thomas More. The Yellow Jackets, who were 0-6 at the time, trailed the Saints 48-0 at halftime. How Jones handled the situation in the locker room, Willkow said, was a sign of how far he had come from a leadership standpoint.
“We were getting completely embarrassed,” Willkow said. “I was talking to [senior tight end Alec Watts] at halftime, and he was just like ‘[Jones] went off in the locker room.’ He was just screaming and yelling, and once I heard that, I [thought] ‘yeah, he’s bought in.’”
After his time at Youngstown State did not go according to plan, Jones sees his time at Waynesburg as a second chance. So far, Jones believes he’s making the most of that chance.
“I feel like I’m taking advantage of all opportunities,” Jones said. “I could have not [gone] to school, I could have just stayed back home and just tried to find a regular job, but that wasn’t my intention. I told myself [I was] going to go to school.”
Jones said that his experience as a young father helped translate into leadership on the field.
“[Being a parent] helps me be a leader,” Jones said. “Just being a father, you learn, you take on roles and you adapt to things. So just coming out [to Waynesburg], it just helps me be a leader and try to get everyone going on the same page.”
Although Ariah and her mother are currently living in Youngstown, Ohio, Jones’ communicates with them through facetime. Also, his mother and girlfriend bring his daughter to all of Waynesburg’s home games.
For Jones, having a child drives him to excel both on the field, and in the classroom.
“To be honest, I think about my daughter all day,” Jones said. “Just all day…whether I’m at practice or in class, she’s always on my mind. She gives me motivation to do things.”