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Made in New Orleans: Deion Jones Tries to Be Next Katrina Kid to Take over NFL

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 20, 2016

BATON ROUGE, LA - NOVEMBER 17:  Deion Jones #45 of the LSU Tigers reacts to a defensive stop during a game against the Ole Miss Rebels at Tiger Stadium on November 17, 2012 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

There's a special group of young NFL players and top prospects who liken themselves to savages and consider themselves battle-tested in an extraordinary way. The members of this group of about a dozen Southerners, all between the ages of 21 and 27, have one thing in common. 

As teenagers, just as they were molding their football careers, one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history turned their lives upside down.

Like Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Eddie LacyTyrann Mathieu, Kendrick Lewis, Mike Wallace, Landon Collins, D.J. Fluker, Alfred Blue, Keenan Lewis, Chris Clark and former LSU teammate/future star Leonard Fournette, rising 2016 NFL draft prospect Deion "Debo" Jones survived Hurricane Katrina. 

When the Louisiana-born-and-bred linebacker is drafted later this month, he'll join that group of mean-streaking stars at the NFL level, but he'll be one of the league's first Katrina kids who went through that experience as an actual kid. 

It's now been over 10 years since that Atlantic hurricane struck the Gulf Coast, killing over 1,200 and displacing over 1 million Gulf residents. Louisiana was the hardest-hit state; New Orleans was the hardest-hit city. That's where Jones was, just starting sixth grade, when his life changed forever.

"Coming back from that makes you feel like you can come back from anything," Jones said. "From having to move from where you grew up and make a new start and still have the resiliency to come back and rebuild and keep the tradition of New Orleans alive."

11-Year-Old Nomad

Just as his life in sports was beginning to take off, Katrina forced 10-year-old Deion Jones to live out of a suitcase for half a year. He and his family were fortunate that their townhouse on Kabel Drive in the city's West Bank neighborhood of Algiers wasn't totaled, but the damage—combined with a lack of city resources in the aftermathstill forced them out of their home for about six months.

Living where they do, the Jones family had encountered big storms. So when Katrina first hit, Jones—then an only child—and his parents, Cal and Tahonas, packed some bags for what Deion figured would be a short stay with his maternal grandparents in Magnolia, Mississippi. 

"I figured I'd be able to go back like nothing happened, but it wasn't that at all," he said. "It wasn't that at all."

After a few days in Magnolia, Cal Jones connected with his mother, Montrell, who waited out the storm in the Superdome with her new husband but by then had relocated to Houston. So the family crossed back through Louisiana to unite in Houston before migrating to Duncanville, Texas, just outside of Dallas. That's when it became apparent—based on the aftermath in New Orleans—that the Jones family would be interim Texans for an indefinite period of time.

"My biggest concern was will I be able to go back home?" Deion said. "That's where I grew up, where I had all my friends and childhood memories. I was just worried if I was gonna be able to finish playing football with my friends."

The Jones family wasn't sure if or when it would return to New Orleans, but while living on the road in Dallas, Montrell Jones became sick and passed away. They returned to New Orleans to bury her, and they stayed. 

The entire ordeal—the displacement, as well as the loss of his beloved grandmotheraltered young Deion's perspective and expedited his maturation.

Katrina Made Them Savages

Pretty soon, kids coming up will be too young to remember Katrina. That doesn't mean they won't feel the impact and can't be influenced by Katrina-surviving big brothers and sisters, cousins, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. Katrina's impact may fade as firsthand accounts evaporate, but it'll likely never die. 

Still, there's something special about this group. It's almost as if Katrina made them men before their peers to the north, east and west. That might cause some resentment, but it has also given them unique perspectives on football, life and the world around them. Most—and we've already seen this at the NFL level from guys like Beckham, Landry and Flukerhave chips on their shoulders, and Jones is no exception. 

In the fall, when Alabama football fans made a banner mocking LSU by urging the Crimson Tide to "finish what Katrina started," Jones responded the next day on Instagram with a simple yet fierce three-word message.

"Katrina made SAVAGES!" read the post, which featured an intense picture of Jones in action:

"Katrina never broke us," Beckham posted on his Instagram account the same day, along with a picture of Fournette scoring a touchdown, "it made us savages." And Fournette also used the term "savages" in a subtler tweet:

7⃣ Leonard Fournette @_fournette

Inspire us to go harder love my savages.......

The raw comparison on its own is jarring, but I believe the context for that popular savage metaphor comes from what Jones said about how Katrina "makes you feel like you can come back from anything."

And there are certainly degrees associated with the experiences that stemmed from the hurricane. For Jones, it was a major life disruption. For Fournette, who was forced to live on an interstate overpass for nearly a week, it was life-threatening. For Fluker, whose family never returned after losing its home, it meant a new life entirely. 

Beyond social media, it's clear a lot of these guys share a feisty attitude. Landry has developed a reputation as a scrappy receiver who fights for every catch, every yard. Clark has the same reputation as an offensive tackle. Fluker is a nasty interior offensive lineman who trains with as much fire as anyone in football. The NFL.com scouting report on Jones lauds him for his "willing, aggressive mindset." In the same report on Kendrick Lewis, he's referred to as "aggressive" and praised for his "vocal leadership." Collins is referred to as "aggressive and tough with a desire to intimidate."

But what's clear is that shared resiliency regarding a somewhat mutual experience has created a strong kinship among this particular group of football players.

"Not a lot of people have been through that," said Landry, a Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins who grew up just outside of New Orleans and spent three years at LSU. "That's kind of the beauty of football—it brings people together. At that time, we needed to be together. And that has created a long-lasting brotherhood between the guys from New Orleans and Louisiana. It definitely created a bond that is unbreakable."

Guided Back

That potential silver lining might not exist for every kid who encountered Katrina, but it has to be considered that the disaster could have just as easily corrupted Jones, Fournette, Fluker, Landry and the rest of their successful New Orleans-based cohorts. 

Dealing with a scarcity of resources, the city encountered a surge in violent crime as residents resettled in 2006, making it easy for a New Orleans adolescent to stray. Jones recalls seeing friends fall in with bad crowds, caught up in a world that contained many post-Katrina distractions. 

Provided by the Jones family

"He was in junior high during Katrina, at a real impressionable age," said Wayde Keiser, a now-retired New Orleans high school football coach who brought Jones to the city's Jesuit High School. "And there were a lot of kids that could have lost their way and gone in the wrong directions, but it's a credit to his dad and his mom, because they're solid parents and they always kept a thumb on Deion in making sure he was doing what was right."

Indeed, Jones credits his parents for helping him stay focused once the family returned to a damaged city, noting that Cal and Tahonas "ran a pretty tight ship, and I really didn't want to disappoint them."

Cal Jones, who also grew up in Algiers, and the rest of the Jones family are so deeply entrenched in that community that they were always aware of what Deion was into and who he was into it with. 

"It's easy to get into [trouble] in New Orleans because of the nature of the city," said Cal, who spent five years working for the clerk of court, drove taxis for another 11 and is now in the air conditioner business. "It's a great city and a great place to raise your kids, but you have to put them in an environment where they won't run into things that are detrimental to their growth and their health." 

Deion Jones found the right environment at Jesuit—a private and well-reputed high school in Mid-City. After Katrina scattered children and their families, with many never returning, the Jesuit coaching staff identified local families and students whom they felt could help rebuild their program. That's what led them to Cal, Tahonas and Deion.

As an elite basketball player who had been on a traveling team since the age of six, a skilled recreational football player and a Katrina survivor, Deion Jones had already been groomed within a family held in high esteem. A lot of kids displaced by Katrina were forced to repeat grades when they returned, but Deion remained on track and eventually graduated early from Jesuit.

That might not have happened if not for his parents, as well as the guidance Cal—and later Deionreceived from the late Montrell, a former New Orleans teacher who kept her children and grandchildren in line.

"She would always give you words of encouragement first," said Cal of his mother, whom Deion still credits for a large proportion of his success. "And if that didn't work, she came with another tactic. She helped raise a lot of people's kids. She brought a lot of kids home, and she'd treat them like our siblings. And that kept us grounded, kept us humble."

But if it wasn't for Cal on one specific occasion, Deion might have given up long ago. When LSU head coach Les Miles called Cal in the spring of 2013 and criticized Deion's effort level as a freshman, Cal remembered having to push Deion during a similar fight-or-flight football moment several years earlier. 

More of a running back on the playground and in ninth grade, Deion became discouraged when Jesuit moved him to linebacker in his sophomore season. But his father urged him to stick with it, and Deion was excelling as a starter within a few weeks. He's a full-time linebacker now, but he didn't see the field much in college until his senior season—a reality that didn't sit well with him, particularly in that first year. 

Jones was used sparingly during his first three seasons at LSU.
Jones was used sparingly during his first three seasons at LSU.Dave Martin/Associated Press

Deion felt he was ready to play from the get-go, but he wasn't getting consistent snaps. His mind may have been a step ahead of his body, especially in the SEC. Naturally, that became somewhat of a problem.

"Les called me and said, 'Hey, Deion's not doing what he's supposed to do,'" Cal said of Deion's predicament early in his college career. "So I asked him if he's ready to come home because I had a job for him. He said no, and we haven't had a problem since."

It does feel as though a lot of those "Katrina kids" were ready mentally, and some physically, at early ages. Keenan Lewis was a star as a 19-year-old redshirt freshman at Oregon State in 2005, Wallace played in 10 games as a freshman at Ole Miss in 2005, Mathieu had 4.5 sacks and two interceptions as a true freshman at LSU in 2010 and Beckham started nine games as a true freshman for the Tigers in 2011 .

Like Jones, a lot of those early bloomers had hiccups. Miles dismissed Mathieu from the Tigers in 2012 for violating team rules, and he was later arrested for possession of marijuana. Lacy's conditioning has been a problem early in his NFL career. Beckham's intensity has at times gotten the better of him.

But there's a lot of evidence these guys are mature enough to acknowledge their flaws and proactively get back on track. 

Mathieu has become an NFL star as well as an upstanding citizen, a role model and an altruist off the field. A recommitted Lacy has lost at least 15 pounds as part of a new training regime this offseason, according to ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. Beckham immediately issued a strong apology after crossing the line in a feisty December game against Carolina. 

That shared resiliency might stem from their shared experience. And that Jones responded as well as he did to that wake-up call from Les Miles and his father is an indication that he also gets it. 

Katrina Turned Children into Men

"Some of us had to be the tough guys for our families," the 21-year-old Jones said. "Some of us had to do a lot of things that most kids didn't have to deal with at that age."

After Katrina, thousands of displaced students had to attend school at night, and Keiser notes that many of them had to spend their off hours helping tear down and rebuild homes. 

"It helped mature a lot of these kids," Keiser said. "They saw a different side of life that you hope kids at that age don't ever have to see again."

So there's no doubt Katrina robbed a lot of Gulf Coast kids of their childhoods, but does that also explain why that generation continues to produce high-quality, NFL-ready football stars at a high rate?

"You look at kids from out West and they really don't struggle too much with Mother Nature," Landry said. "I don't want to say that their lives are so much better than ours, but you typically see that kids from the Southeast region grow up and mature a little bit faster."

The Superdome became a place of refuge in the aftermath of Katrina.
The Superdome became a place of refuge in the aftermath of Katrina.NICHOLAS KAMM/Getty Images

You could argue that it also enabled kids like Landry and Jones to view all of the advantages in their lives with a fresh, mature perspective.

"The kids that went through that learned to appreciate not only their school, but also the chance to be able to participate in co-curricular activities," Keiser said. "Not just footballtheater, the band, whatever."

We'll leave it to outlets that specialize in nonsports fields to determine whether Katrina era kids have flourished in other areas, but there are some promising indications that many have made lemonade out of the lemons handed to them in August 2005. And because sports careers peak earlier than others, the hungry group Jones belongs to could be acting as a harbinger of what's to come in the realms of entertainment, music, medicine, business, you name it. 

"What Katrina did do is give him a platform to find out about his growth," Cal said of Deion. "It helped his transition. Katrina solidified what we were instilling in our kids as coaches and as parents, because you have to adapt."

What's more regarding perspective, you don't know what you've got until it's gone, right? Many of these guys realized that at a young age, which probably makes it easier to overcome obstacles that in another life may have seemed insurmountable. 

That might explain why Jones isn't worried that some critics are concerned he's undersized as a linebacker, as he said emphatically that he's "still good enough to play on that level" before issuing a warning: "You shouldn't discredit me just because of the size I'm at now."

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

It might explain how after an admittedly disappointing performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, Jones bounced back to post an incredible 4.38-second 40-yard dash at LSU's pro day, which, according to ESPN.com, was nearly a full tenth of a second faster than any other linebacker at the combine. 

And it might explain how he's become—per ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. (via Jim Kleinpeter of NOLA.com)a potential first-round pick despite spending three of his four seasons at LSU riding the bench. 

Deion Jones: College Stats
SeasonTacklesTFLSacksInterceptions
201223300
201315100
2014263.500
20158812.552
Sports-Reference.com

"I wish I could have played earlier, but I had the best time of my life at LSU," he said. "I loved every second of it, and those two years playing special teams made me the player I am today and made me really appreciate what was coming."

Football as an Elixir

A lot of credit belongs to Jones, his family, his school, his coaches and his community. But it would be a mistake to overlook the common denominator among these stories of resiliency and the factors that have gone into them. 

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh once wrote that football saves lives, and when you consider how dire life became for kids in New Orleans a decade ago, and how far many of those football-obsessed kids have come, it's hard to disagree. 

"When all that went down, kids were displaced from their homes, and many went and played at other schools around the state, outside the state," Keiser said. "Playing football was kind of the binding glue for them. It offered them the haven to be able to take their minds off of flooded houses and everything that was lost."

Football might not have wholly saved Jones, who's a smart kid with a good education and a hell of a family. But it's fair to wonder where he and many of his peers would be right now if not for what Landry called his post-Katrina "safe haven."

"Football kind of brought things back together for our state, for Louisiana," Landry said. "Once we got back into the football routine, it started to take the pressure off of what happened."

Made in New Orleans

Provided by the Jones family

"She's the main reason why I'm so humble," Jones said, remembering his grandmother while trying to explain his success. "She always preached no matter what happens, stay humble and good things will happen."

Ten years later, Jones remains humble as he awaits draft day with his grandmother still in mind—there in spirit to remind him of what he overcame. 

"I really wish she was here to witness all of this and celebrate some of the good things happening," Jones said. 

But Montrell Jones was one of those fiercely loyal old-school New Orleanians who refused to leave when the hurricanes hit, which is why her final living moments in the city were spent with fellow displaced residents inside the Superdome—a place where her grandson will likely suit up as an NFL linebacker in the years to come. 

With that in mind, you'd have to think she'd be proud that in her last act, she brought Deion home, and that in a post-Katrina New Orleans that once resembled a war zone, her grandson has taken off without leaving. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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