Unable to Walk at 16, UNC Lineman Naz Jones Is About to Get Drafted into the NFL

Tyler Dunne NFL Features WriterApril 6, 2017

CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 07:  Nazair Jones #90 celebrates after a win against the Duke Blue Devils at Kenan Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 66-31.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

On Nov. 5, 2011, Nazair Jones woke up and could not move.

His brain told his body to get out of bed, to go the bathroom, yet this morning after a high school playoff loss his junior year, Jones was frozen in place.

He panicked. He shouted to Mom.

Mom thought her son was trying to ditch school.

So Jones, terrified, shouted again.

"It's hard to explain," he said. "I was still in shock because it's so weird when your brain tells your body to do something and it doesn't listen. That's when you need to get worried. It was a shock. Literally, in my head, I'm saying 'Walk. Walk! Why aren't you walking?' It was scary.

"When you lose an ability that you had your whole life, it scares you."

When son looked into Mom's eyes and said, "For real, I can't walk!" she instantly felt equally helpless and called 911. A rescue squad arrived at their Roanoke Rapids, N.C. home, loaded Jones into an ambulance, drove him to the emergency room and…and…and…nothing.

Oh, Jones' local hospital gave him injection that killed the pain that day. But the pain returned, persisted and on to hospitals in Rocky Mount, then Chapel Hill, doctors were all dumbfounded. They had no clue what ailed this otherwise perfectly healthy 15-year-old. Mom? She grew "beyond sick." She felt crushing, instant "drastic heartache." Son? He turned 16 the day he was admitted into the Chapel Hill hospital and, feeling paralyzed from the waist down, had no clue when he'd walk again.

Days? Weeks? Months? Years?

Ever?

"They didn't know what was wrong with me," Naz Jones said. "That was the worst part. … They didn't know."

Eventually, doctors discovered Jones suffered from the extremely rare Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). There are torn ACLs, shoulder surgeries and broken limbs. And then there's a kid who loses complete control of those limbs, drops 40 pounds and must learn how to walk all over again.

Somehow, Naz Jones did exactly that, starred at defensive tackle for North Carolina and is now on the verge of the NFL. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller projects him going to the New England Patriots in the fourth round.

Wherever he goes, it will be the culmination of a transformation like no other.

Said Jones, "I try to cherish every moment I have."


When you turn 16 years old, you're supposed to be rushing to get a driver's license. Getting in trouble for staying out too late. Taking a date to the movies.

You're supposed to be running, no, sprinting from one activity to the next.

You are not supposed to have to inch through life with a cane, then a walker, then confined to a wheelchair. But here was Naz Jones through that November and December. Part of him initially wrote the pain off as just another injury because he always played football and basketball at one violent pace—Naz was the first to foul out in any organized hoops game.

There would be no home-schooling. Jones insisted he was OK, went back to school, and his test scores never slipped.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Yet as days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, his concern grew. Shots helped relieve the pain, but it always returned. Through bloodwork, nerve tests and ultrasounds on his legs, the UNC doctors couldn't crack the code. For most of these two months, Jones could not walk. And when he looked down at his legs, he was so often mortified.

He'd fall asleep with one leg swollen and wake up to see his other leg swollen.

His ankles, especially, ballooned.

"The swelling was so bad that you could see my legs sweating," Jones said. "I was just laying there. But my legs would sweat. It was so ridiculous."

All along, Tammy Jones rubbed his feet, prayed and promised her son he'd be OK. Such assurance gave Naz peace. He never went insane when it would've been perfectly understandable to do so—and that was solely because of his mom. Because she stayed strong. Still, even Tammy Jones admits that she'd break down in tears out of her son's view.

"I had my own private moments," she said.

Mom could only sleep if Naz slept. At the hospital, she'd sleep at his bedside. Seeing her son hooked up to an IV 24 hours a day was brutal, but Dad was always out of the picture so, as Tammy said, "I had to suck it up."

For her, the worst moment was when her son asked a doctor if he'd ever play football again.

"And they said, 'We have to see if we can even get him walking again,'" Mom recalled. "That was a hard pill to swallow. That was very drastic for me."


Finally, into late December, there was clarity. The Chapel Hill doctors reached out to other professionals—even phoning experts overseas—before finally coming to the diagnosis of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, chronic arm or leg pain that results from an injury. According to one study, CRPS occurs in only 1.2 of every 100,000 children. It's most common in women, and the average age of diagnosis is 49.

There is no cure for CRPS. It's only managed.

To this day, Jones doesn't know which injury could've caused his CRPS, but his central nervous system was clearly affected.

All red flags applied. He'd need to learn how to walk all over again.

So for six weeks, Jones stayed at a Ronald McDonald House in Chapel Hill. And this was precisely when very real "Am I going to die?" and "Am I going to walk again?" thoughts ravaged his psyche nightly. This disease, Jones was told, attacks all limbs. So as the swelling flipped leg to leg, he now worried if his arms could go numb.

He'd fall asleep terrified of what he'd discover the next morning.

"I didn't know if it'd attack my arms next," Jones said, "and this was just the beginning of a super long, scary process. So I was just as confused as everybody else about the whole thing but at the same time trying to stay positive."

The motivation could be found 1.4 miles away: UNC's Kenan Stadium. It was Jones' lifelong dream to be a Tar Heel. Julius Peppers was his idol. The plan was always to wear No. 90, to follow a legend and create his own legacy.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - OCTOBER 18:  Nazair Jones #90 of the North Carolina Tar Heels gestures during their game against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Kenan Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 48-43.  (Photo by Gr
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Even if many nights it seemed like he had a better chance of winning the lottery.

"It wasn't something that I thought was super reachable at the moment," said Jones, pausing. "But it was a huge goal of mine."

His daily physical therapy was grueling. Jones churned his legs in a pool to simulate walking, to feel that sensation again. He had his brainwaves studied. He had an epidural procedure done. He did exercises in front of a mirror to reconnect his brain with his legs. And the toughest challenge, by far, was trying to walk the lap on his floor at the nearby children's hospital.

Some days, it'd take him 30 minutes. Other days, an hour.

"It sounds easy to take a lap, but it was, by far, the worst pain," Jones said. "You're trying to get your body to do something—you want it to do it—but it's just not doing it. You're forcing yourself to move, and it just hurts. I can't even explain the hurt. It just hurts. I hated those 30 minutes, but I also loved it looking back at it because those were the beginning steps of me walking again. But during the time I was in the hospital, it sucked. It sucked, man.

"I was forcing my body to do it and my body didn't really want to. So just picking up my legs and putting pressure on my feet again, with all of that swelling, that was the most painful part. When you have to put pressure on those areas where there's so much swelling. That was super painful."

Added Mom, "His motivation was 'I'm going to walk.' So his mind was set: 'I'm not going to let this beat me. I'm going to beat it.'"

Gradually, his condition improved. Jones moved from the wheelchair, to the walker, to the cane, to finally walking on his own by May. That summer, he rejoined his AAU basketball team and started putting on those lost 40 pounds through a heavy diet of milk, milk and more milk. By July, Jones was ready. Cleared to play football again, he headed to North Carolina's football camp to prove to coaches he was still that stud recruit who piqued their interest and was named a 3-star by Scout while he was at Roanoke Rapids.

No, it wasn't all pretty—at one point trainers treated Jones for dehydration—but he gutted it out.

Coaches saw heart and offered him a scholarship on the spot.

Naz Jones hasn't looked back since.


The nightmare could theoretically return. Jones could wake up one day unable to walk.

But he's not concerned. The thought doesn't even cross his mind.

Jones sees only positives.

"When you're a 15-year-old kid," he said, "and you get football snatched away from you and you don't know how and then you're diagnosed with this disease and you have to deal with that, it changes you as a person. It definitely changed me. It made me more mature than people my age and more thoughtful. Football can be taken away from you just like that.

"I'm not really sure if it could 'come back' or if it's really 'gone' for that matter. I just know I've been able to be myself with no pain."

The anti-inflammatory arthritis shot, Enbrel, keeps the swelling down. Aside from one instance of tightness in his lower back and tingling in his legs two years ago, Jones hasn't suffered any setbacks.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - OCTOBER 24:  Injured Nazair Jones #90 of the North Carolina Tar Heels watches during their game against the Virginia Cavaliers at Kenan Stadium on October 24, 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 26-13.  (Photo by Gran
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The last three seasons, the 6'5", 304-pound Jones anchored the Tar Heels' defensive line. In 2016, he totaled 70 tackles (9.5 for loss) with 2.5 sacks.

One Tar Heels teammate, end Dajaun Drennon, has played basketball with Jones and insists he can throw down monster jams with one drop step on the block while defenders hang all over him. He's seen Jones drain threes, throw down "rock-and-cradle" dunks and, on the football field, maul offensive linemen with a unique blend of size and relentlessness.

"Once Naz gets it into his head that he'll go get it," Drennon said, "the sky's the limit for him. He's unblockable."

And it's no coincidence that one of Jones' best collegiate games, the 2015 ACC Championship Game, came moments after he met Peppers on the sideline. The future Hall of Famer told Jones to "ball out," and he did, with six tackles and an interception.

A Peppers poster hung on Jones' college bedroom wall.

Drennon sees similarities in the two.

"Listen...Naz can be that great, he can go get it," Drennon said. "He has all the makings. He has the size, he has the speed. His twitch could be a little bit quicker to be Julius Peppers. We are talking about Julius Peppers. But he's a big-time playmaker. He gets in the backfield. He gets TFLs. He gets sacks. He does it all."

Naturally, one by one, NFL teams have asked Jones about the disease during the pre-draft season, and he's re-told the same story over and over—relived the nightmare, the mystery, the recovery and insisted it all made him stronger. Jones already has his own foundation, M.A.D.E. Men. Through this "Making A Difference Everyday" mentoring program, he'll be able to re-tell his story for decades.

Be it Pick No. 1 or Pick No. 253, draft weekend will be emotional for Jones and his mom.

Of course, so was his high school graduation. Thinking back to the sight of her son walking across the stage with no walker, no crutches and no worries, Tammy Jones gets choked up.

There was no stopping her son then, and there's no stopping her son now.

"Giving up is not an option, not in the Jones family," she said. "We don't give up."

 

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.