After a year of loss, tragedy brings Lumberton football community together

By ANDREW ABADIE,

Lumberton coach Zach Jones was forced to learn a harsh lesson this past year.

“Hug your mama, daddy, grandma, grandpa, brothers, sisters and tell them you love them every time you get the chance because you never know when it’s the last time.”

At the start of last summer, just weeks before the start of Lumberton’s football season, Jones started the beginning of what would be an emotionally exhausting year.

“Starting July 16 last year, my world turned upside down,” Jones said. “I remember driving home and thinking about how lucky I was to have both my parents and both my brothers are alive. My wife was healthy. [I just thought] something bad is going to happen at some point.”

That tragedy was the death of his father, Jeff Jones, who was killed in a car accident. Jones got the news first at the start of a normal day during his football program’s summer workouts.

“I was here in the weight room and I get a text from one of my players that said, ‘Coach, sorry about your daddy,’” Jones said. “I texted him back and said ‘what do you mean?’ I started getting fidgety and at that point. I called him and he asked, ‘Coach you haven’t heard? Your dad was in a wreck and he got ejected out of the car.’ I said I haven’t heard. Let me call and find out. I asked if he OK and he didn’t really want to say anything. I knew then it was bad.”

From there, Jones left practice that day to learn the news of his father. 

“I called my brothers and I called my aunt to see if anybody had heard anything from him,” Jones said. “Finally my brother calls me back a couple of minutes later and said ‘He’s had a wreck. It’s bad.” I asked if he was OK and he said he didn’t know. I went to my house to tell my wife, but my brother called me back. I said go ahead and tell me how bad it is. I know it’s bad. And he said he didn’t make it.”

That same day, just minutes before getting the news about his dad’s wreck, Jones had also learned his wife was pregnant.

“I tried to call him when my wife confirmed me to that she was pregnant,” Jones said. “That was the first phone call that I tried to make. I didn’t know the wreck had happened about 15 minutes before. He was the first person I wanted to tell. That was hard.”

The father/son duo shared a love for football. Part of Jones’ Friday night routine was receiving the praises and critiques from his dad in a postgame phone call. For Jones, the biggest perk of coaching in his hometown of Lumberton was being able to see his parents at every game.

“Coming back home and coming back to Lumberton, I can say has been a lot of fun and we’ve had a lot of success,” Jones said. “Probably the most enjoyable thing about that was I was able to look and see both my parents at the game on Friday night. My dad was at most practices, and that was just our common bond. Every conversation we had at some point came back to football.”

Part of the routine for Jones was seeing his dad waiting by the entrance of the locker room every Friday night. After the Panthers’ season-opening win against North Forrest, his father wasn’t there and it hit Jones hard.

“It’s kind of hard to look down there now and not see him standing there,” Jones said. “I remember walking out to North Forrest when we played them last year and when we won, I kind of broke down a bit because it was the first one without him.”

Jeff Jones, a watermelon farmer, shared a love for his small town of Lumberton. Jeff found ways to help at almost every Lumberton football practice; he never missed a game and even employed Lumberton football, baseball and basketball players in his watermelon fields. However, most importantly, Jeff always tried to help anyone in need, even if he didn’t have much. His love for Lumberton and selflessness was something his community never forgot, which fittingly enough was shown at the funeral home right next to the Panthers’ football field.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that’s the most people they’ve seen come through that funeral home,” Jones said. “We were supposed to have family time from 5 to 6 p.m. that night. When I got there at 5 p.m., there were people already waiting there in line and I said ‘give us 10 minutes in here and let’s open the doors.’ I put my phone in my pocket at 5:10 p.m. I shook the last person’s hand in that line at 9:52. It was nonstop. That was a huge honor and it made me realize how much my dad meant to the community.”

Despite missing his dad for the football season, Jones believes his dad somehow played a role in Lumberton gaining a kicker, something that Panther history has rarely ever seen. On the first week of school, kicker Jake Robinson made the move from Houston, Texas, to Lumberton.

“My dad had been on me since I’ve been here on developing a kicker,” Jones said. “I think Lumberton has had two years in the history of the football program where they had somebody who could kick extra points. They called me into the office and said, ‘Hey, we have a guy who moved in from Texas and wants to kick.’”

Up until last season, Jones had only successfully recorded one PAT in his tenure.

“We were going to Franklin County to play our third game and Jake is in the back of the bus and we’re talking about [him moving],” Jones said. “I said the only way I can describe [him moving] is that my dad got to heaven and he told God I needed one favor. Lumberton needs a kicker and that’s how we got a kicker. Jake didn’t even know my dad passed so he got a kick out of it.”

After one season, Robinson was 39-for-53 on PATs while hitting a season-long 40-yard field goal. Even with a kicker, Jones still deals with the void of the loss of his dad.

“I’ve probably done it 25 or 30 times where I picked up my phone and think, ‘hey I need to tell Daddy this,’” Jones said “I’ll scroll through my phone and go to his name and then think, ‘dang, I can’t do that anymore.’ I still have all of our old text messages.”

Yet the tragedy of losing his father did not stop there. Within the past year, a member of Lumberton’s chain gang and his father’s best friend, James Slay, passed away, defensive line coach Charlie Brown lost his father, former player Dakota Walters died last spring and his wife, due to complications, had a failed pregnancy.

The group of tragedies has changed the scope as to how Jones views football, the value of everyday life as well as the importance of having a meaningful impact on his players.

“It helps you realize that it’s just a game,” Jones said. “I want to win as much as the next person. My daddy wanted to win as much as the next person, but in the end, it’s a game. Ultimately our goal is to make sure these kids are successful in life. That they are better people when they leave this football program. That they have a good work ethic, are a good person and know how to treat others. I’ll trade every win, every division championship, in 10 years [to see] these guys are working hard and doing things the right way, treating their family and others the way they should be treated and being good people.”

Despite the difficulties of this past year, Jones has managed to deal with it all with the support of his wife, assistant coaches and, from now on, what he considers as his entire Lumberton family.

“We break everything around here down to family and that’s the whole meaning of our program,” Jones said. “Ole Miss says it now, but we said it before them, ‘You don’t have to be blood to be family.’ That’s our mentality around here.”

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