It is July 15, and the woman who helped save Cardale Jones from himself is putting the finishing touches on a modest ESPYs watch party in Willoughby, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.
Hours from now, sitting beside family and friends, Michelle Nash, Jones' guardian, will watch him suffer his first defeat in more than four years. The ESPY for Breakout Athlete will be presented to Little League magician Mo'ne Davis. The award for Best Team will be presented to U.S. women's soccer.
The Buckeyes will leave Los Angeles empty-handed, and Jones will wash away his sorrows by publicly courting Ronda Rousey, the most perilous female fighter on the planet, through social media. The latest chapter of 140-character stardom will surprise no one.
In another world more than 2,300 miles away, hours before the show begins, Nash and Chloe Michelle Jones—Cardale's eight-month-old daughter—are enjoying a sublime Ohio summer day. Away from the spotlight and hysteria, they walk together, smiling, behind a giant curtain. Chloe coos in the background as Nash takes a trip back in time.
We go back to January 12, the night everything changed. Hours after Jones' Buckeyes won a national championship, Nash sat in a Dallas bus on the way back to the hotel as she tried to process what she just saw. Unable to see Jones after the game, she couldn't wait to wrap her arms around his enormous shoulders. Suddenly, her phone buzzed.
She looked down, and a text message came into focus. It was from Jones.
"If it had not been for you," it said, "I wouldn't be here."
Hidden behind the grandiose social media persona and even the cannon right arm attached to the magical right shoulder, there is happiness. There is compassion. There is a love of children. There is lingering immaturity. There is tremendous pain.
And the journey to this point started long before anyone cared to know his name.
"A lot of people don't know that Cardale is an honor roll student. He's great in school and is never in trouble. He was known for being goofy all the time, but I felt like playing in a game has made him grow up more. He knows in order to play, you have to take it a bit more serious. When he was thrown into the fire like that, he grew up." —Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington
Earlier in life, Nash managed a daycare. These days, she works with young people on the verge of throwing it all the way at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Corrections Office.
"I have murderers," she said. "I have robbers. In some shape or form, I have always worked with the juvenile population."
Her clients are no longer small children; they are 18-to-21-year-olds who have lived rough lives. Helping them is as much her calling as it is a job. In many ways, this is how she stumbled upon a sophomore high school student named Cardale Jones.
Unable to have children of her own, Nash reached out to her cousin in 2008, curious if she knew a child she could mentor. Married to Ronnie Bryant, the father of Christian Bryant, Jones' teammate at Glenville High School and Ohio State, the two connected with Glenville head coach Ted Ginn Sr. Within one week, they found someone.
"They told me they had an amazing kid with a beautiful smile," Nash said. "But behind that smile, there was a lot of pain."
Nash met Jones for the first time after football practice, a sport she knew little about. Over the next month, they met regularly. The foreseen awkwardness never surfaced. "It was just natural," she said.
Roughly six weeks after they first met, a distressed Jones phoned Nash in the middle of the night.
"He said, 'Ms. Michelle, I don't want to live like this anymore. Can you come get me?' I went to pick him up," Nash said. "He's been with me ever since."
Jones has stated publicly that he's never met his father. His mother, Florence Jones, worked to provide for her six children—Cardale being the youngest. Ultimately, he wasn't happy with the way things were. Nash sensed the desperation. She opened the door.
For the first three months, Jones slept on an air mattress. When it dawned on her that this was no longer temporary, Nash bought him a bed set and made the room his.
Jones' arrival hit Nash in a way she wasn't expecting. Raised by her grandparents, she lost her grandmother in 2004. Four years later, and one month before she first met Jones, she lost her grandfather. There was an empty hole. She needed something or, in this instance, someone.
"I truly believe God does things for a reason," Nash said. "I needed Cardale, and Cardale needed me. The dots connected."
"He had to mature as a person and not just a quarterback. I think he took it to heart, and throughout the season, he prepared properly and handled himself with proper demeanor. When he got his shot, he shined." —Ohio State offensive lineman Taylor Decker
There are barely any streetlights in Fork Union, Virginia. The nearest Wal-Mart is 17 miles away. There is a post office, a thrift store, a few churches, a florist and a handful of restaurants. There is also Fork Union Military Academy, a buried treasure chest of football talent rarely visited by choice.
This seclusion is by design.
John Shuman has been with the program for the last 35 years and the head coach for the last 28 of them. During that time, players such as Vinny Testaverde, Plaxico Burress and Eddie George have passed through the program. More recently, Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde played for Shuman before finding stardom in Columbus.
A combination of academics, drills, chores and football, Fork Union is a place young men go for repair. They wear uniforms and operate on an exact schedule that they do not create.
"We're off the beaten path," Shuman said. "There's not much here. The first week is homesickness. The second week is 'I miss my girlfriend.' The personal problems come in the third week because it's so wired up every day."
In the fall of 2011, Jones arrived at Fork Union with fellow Buckeye Michael Thomas—a move orchestrated by Ginn, Nash and then-Ohio State coach Jim Tressel.
When he first met Jones, Shuman assumed he was a lineman because of his size. Then he saw him throw and move. There were no issues on the football front, but the day-to-day at Fork Union did not come as easy.
The rigid agenda, lack of female students and overbearing structure shocked Jones' system. Shuman recalled that he and Jones clashed over the particulars—shaving, making the bed, wearing his hat sideways, throwing out the trash, hiding cell phones and things of that nature.
Progress was slow but apparent. Jones never settled into a routine, but he did adjust.
"I told him that when his mind caught up to his talent, he would be a pro. He'll make it where he dreams to go," Shuman said. "As soon as he started maturing, you could see some flourishing. We didn't straighten him out, but he was a better product as a human being when he left."
"It's been pretty amazing. When I came in, he was just Cardale the goofball. A lot of things weren't serious, nothing was too urgent for him, and you could see the growth. He was thrown into a position where we needed him in order to be successful, and he did it. We're really proud of that." —Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry
Sent by his boss to deliver a specific message, Tom Herman made the voyage to Fork Union to speak with a quarterback who possessed a special right arm, so he was told.
Wearing combat boots and his military uniform, Jones met his future offensive coordinator shortly before he enrolled at Ohio State. Herman did not mince words with his future player. There was work to be done.
"He was just a big, overgrown child," Herman recalled on their first encounter. "Not a bad guy, not a thug. Doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, not disrespectful, but just lazy. He didn't understand the urgency of playing college football or the urgency of life in general."
In 2012, Jones said goodbye to Fork Union and hello to Columbus. Shortly after he did, he hit "send" on a tweet that would define him for some time.
"Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL," Jones wrote. "We ain't come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS."
The social media lapse resulted in a one-game suspension. More importantly, it moved Jones into Urban Meyer's lavish doghouse. It nearly led to his departure.
"I wanted him to go somewhere else," Nash said. "It wasn't so much of him not playing. I felt that Cardale's spirit was being broken. Sometimes when I talked to him, he would be very, very down. I had a real hard time with that."
With Jones inching closer to a new program, Herman intervened. He made the quarterback his project. Helping him was an unexpected source: Michelle Herman.
"My wife dove into his life pretty good," Herman said. "She would text and call him on a regular basis to see how he was. She would provide the good cop version to my bad cop. Urban was ready to kick him off the team a couple of different times, and we told him to give us a chance and let us turn this guy around."
On days when Herman would really lay into Jones, he would quickly text his wife right after. "Hug him up a bit," he would write. And she would. It was an unorthodox tag-team effort that was surprisingly effective.
It didn't happen in an instance. There were lapses sprinkled between advancements. But slowly, Jones worked his way back into good standing.
"On a 1-10 scale, it's a 10. I did not see that in him. That's not a shot at him. That's an honest evaluation. His preparation for the Alabama game changed my whole perception, and really it has continued all the way through." —Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer
Ohio State's starting quarterback walked through the front doors of the Nationwide Children's Hospital four days before he won a national championship. Having clobbered Wisconsin and Alabama, Jones' next opponent before Oregon was a 16-year-old recovering from his seventh open-heart surgery.
Inside a crowded room, Jones demolished young Jared Foley 98-35 in a game of EA's NCAA Football. It was a spectacular beatdown, one that became national news.
"The Superstar, Big-Armed Quarterback Clobbers Sick Kid" headlines were printed in bulk.
Man I wish everyone stop saying I beat a kid in the hospital 91-35.... It was 98-35, had 91 with 1:26 left in the 4th pic.twitter.com/TAJxefv5A4— Cardale Jones (@CJ12_) February 10, 2015
The headlines written inside the hospital walls were drastically different. Jared needed someone to help him figuratively heal—someone to make him laugh—and he found it from an unexpected source.
The score of the game was inconsequential. If anything, it made it that much more special.
"These are things I was doing before the spotlight ever came," Jones said after the visit. "It means a little more to people now because they see a guy with some influence, but this has always been me. I don't want people to think that because I'm in the spotlight, I'm doing outreaches. These are things I really enjoy doing. This is my passion."
There is more to this story—a sequel that has yet to truly be told.
This summer, Foley suffered a very serious stroke—a complication from a blood thinner that wasn't thinning his blood enough. Foley spent days in the ICU, and the initial prognosis was troubling.
Jones learned of Foley's latest hospital return and wanted to see his friend immediately. In fact, he tried to visit the very next day, but Foley simply wasn't ready for visitors.
Jones remained persistent, and a few days later, when Foley's latest miracle recovery began, he made his way back to Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus. They were two doors down from where they first met back in January.
Jones stayed past visiting hours, bringing with him a signed mini-helmet and a national championship T-shirt.
"It was nice to see him again," Foley said. "We watched baseball and talked the whole time."
Three days later, Jones returned to the hospital. This time, he was not alone. He brought his daughter Chloe.
As Jared and Jones played a rematch of NCAA Football, a game that resulted in a far less one-sided victory for the Ohio State QB, Foley's father walked Chloe around the hospital, showing her off to nurses and patients.
"It's been exciting for Jared. He has had a rough life, but to have somebody that has taken to him like this has been so good for him," Jared's mother Stacey Foley said. "Cardale has always said that it's been good both ways. He likes having someone to look after, because he's always had someone looking out for him."
The Foleys hope to make it to at least one Ohio State game this season, regardless of who is named the starting quarterback.
The sound of camera lenses opening and closing at a tremendous pace pepper the Columbus air at Ohio State's media day. It sounds like a torrential rain bouncing off a skylight.
This is not unusual for one of the nation's premier football powers. The main attraction—a former third-string quarterback who, this time a year ago, blended seamlessly into the backdrop—certainly is. The face of college football, an ascent still not at its apex, is now fighting for his job.
"If I'm not the starter, I won't look at it and say I should have gone out last year," Jones says. "If I'm not the starter, then I should have worked harder this offseason, and I should have worked harder in camp. It's simple."
Seated at a makeshift table, drowning in microphones, tape recorders and noise, Jones and his daughter look completely at ease amid madness. It is three weeks and one day before Ohio State will travel to Blacksburg to open up its championship defense against Virginia Tech.
On occasion, Chloe—who is attending her first press conference—looks up at her father in his scarlet jersey as he fields questions. Her Ohio State pacifier bobs up and down. Jones addresses the decision to forgo the allure of possible NFL fortune to return to Ohio State.
If J.T. Barrett ends up reclaiming the job he won a season ago, many will deem Jones' decision to return a fault of judgment. They will declare that the young man who wanted nothing more than football when he arrived should have cashed in his lottery ticket when he had the chance.
Having built his brand through touchdowns and Internet cannonballs, Jones finds comfort in an unexpected place.
"The only individual award that I want and came back for, outside of playing for my teammates this season, is a degree. I think my degree is more important than having a career in the NFL," he says, looking down at his daughter. "It's about her. She's the No. 1 priority. Everything I do now is not just for me. It's for her."
Jones takes off his wristband and hands it to his daughter as she grows restless. The questions regarding fame and success persist. With so much still to be answered—with many chapters in a remarkable journey still to be written—Jones flashes his trademark smile as he searches for the answers he simply doesn't have. Not yet.
He looks down again at Chloe and sends a smile her way as she lifts the wristband toward the sky like a trophy, a ritual her father knows well. The camera lenses never stop shuttering.