Unlike many players and coaches, Zach Jones lived out what would be a dream for anyone else.
The Lumberton native not only got to be the head football coach for his hometown team but solidified himself into hometown folklore as he brought home a 1A state championship trophy this past season.
That’s what made last Monday even more difficult for Jones as he turned in his resignation. Jones will depart Lumberton to begin his new chapter as the athletic director and head football coach at 3A power Magee.
“It’s been a whole lot of fun,” Jones said. “I got to come back and coach football at a place that I love, and that will always be dear to me. It’s something that will always be near and dear to me and something I’ll never forget. I will always remember watching our kids and coaches celebrate. Everybody put in a whole lot of work. That was one of those things that I just sat back and watched for a few minutes. That’s a thing that will always stick out to me which is take a group of kids, preach a dream to them and be able to see that finally payoff is as good as it gets.”
Jones will take over the position of his mentor Teddy Dyess, who was Lumberton’s football coach from 2001-06, as Dyess takes the head football coach position at Ridgeland. According to Jones, it was a bittersweet decision, as he turned down the Southeast Lauderdale coaching job earlier, but leading Magee was an opportunity he could not pass.
“I’ve had some opportunities over the years, but this one checked the boxes,” Jones said. “My wife is pregnant, and it’s a chance for her to get closer to home. I’ve come to another place that loves football. It was definitely a hard decision to make because I do love my kids. I always have and always will. They will always be my family.”
It’ll be hard to replace the results Jones had on the football field. In six seasons, Jones posted a 65-19 record, won five straight region titles, finished as a state-runner up twice, and most recently coached the Panthers to a 2020 state championship win.
According to Lamar County Athletic Director Patrick Lee, Jones taking over was a perfect storm that the Lumberton community needed after suffering several economic problems through the years. In the past and during Jones’ tenure, Panther football has helped the community rally together.
“People didn’t have a whole lot to celebrate, and football kind of brought it together,” Lee said. “No matter what COVID was doing or who all was affected by COVID and how it hit everyone different or what side of politics people was on, everybody in Lumberton can unite around Lumberton football. Then having a home guy there leading that charge with a staff made up of mostly home guys made it easier for the community to ban together behind those guys and support them.”
While Jones gave the area something to rally around on the football field, it’s the devotion that the community and school recognized the most.
“It was one of those deals of the hand fitting the glove perfectly,” said Jones’ longtime friend and defensive coordinator Jonathan Ladner. “Coaching is about being at the right place at the right time.
“Zach was the perfect fit at the perfect time, and community kind of identified that he was one of us. If he is working this hard, then we need to step up and support these kids and this program like we never have before.”
For Jones, his program’s culture wasn’t built on simply winning. His focus and model is having his players become better people no matter how much or how little they played. Jones practiced what he preached by showing loyalty and devotion to his players.
“He didn’t just look out for kids and take care of kids because of football, but he was in their life in general,” Lee said. “If there were issues going on and they needed somebody, then he was there. From needing a ride, somewhere to blow off steam, he’d open the fieldhouse to let kids work out outside of his normal duties, he just being there for kids constantly.
“They have all the football accomplishments, but then at the same time, I think he impacts them so much with the things people don’t know about, the intangibles. When a kid needed a meal, a ride when they needed a shirt because they didn’t have a school shirt because they weren’t at their house and stayed with somebody else because of a home situation. He just took care of the kids.”
It was a regular sight to see Jones’ truck filled with players as he regularly provided transportation for his players to and from practice. However, his loyalty stemmed much deeper than providing a snack or a ride. Jones was there for his players in their personal problems.
“A lot of males have a hard time telling another male ‘I love you,’” Ladner said. “(Jones) doesn’t mind telling them that. You never know because that might be one of the few times that they ever get to hear that. Our society tends to be more detached from the family until than it has in the history of our country. Having Zach there as a father figure, counselor, uncle, big brother to a point and to have another man tell them I love you melts those hard edges in those kids.
“When they realized that he cared about them more as a person rather than a football player that even excelled things on the program and in the field. He got them to understand that he loved the person, not the player. The player is only part of who you are, and he loved all of them.”
Both Lee and Ladner, as well as many others, agree that Jones’s impact in Lumberton will be remembered for years to come.
“I would trade every win that we have ever had if in 10 years that everyone who played for us was successful, good citizens, good daddies, and good husbands because they are the future,” Jones said. “I hope the lessons that we taught them about perseverance, toughness and hard work, having to get back up when things fall stay with them for the rest of their lives because it will make them successful people.”