NOTRE DAME — TJ Jones was wearing a Notre Dame No. 7 jersey a decade before he’d even run out of the tunnel at the stadium.
Undoubtedly, it was a little baggy then. But Jones wore it with pride on “favorite college day” at his elementary school in Gainesville, Ga., the heart of SEC country. Not only had that jersey been worn by his father, Andre Jones, during his four years at Notre Dame (1987-1990), but it was also a jersey that had seen a national championship in 1988.
At home, Jones would often wear his father’s watch and ring from the 1990 Orange Bowl. His father loved reflecting on the 1988 championship season, telling his son the story of the infamous Miami tunnel fight time and time again.
“I used to hear it all the time,” TJ Jones said. “Just how it went down. Then they get in the locker room and everyone is crying and Lou Holtz had his little speech and then they get on the field. He said that was one of the best games he’d ever been apart of.”
Though Andre Jones died last year of a brain aneurism at age 42, his son is faced with getting a championship ring of his own in a few weeks when No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) meets No. 2 Alabama (11-1) in the BCS title game.
This time, the No. 7 jersey fits little better.
Jones has helped fill in the gaping hole left by All-American receiver Michael Floyd this season. The junior trails team leader Tyler Eifert in receptions per game by only one catch (44 to 43) for 559 receiving yards and tied with Eifert for a team-high four touchdowns.
Jones will be returning to SEC country in January for the championship game in Miami. He said his decision to come to Notre Dame three years ago raised a lot of eyebrows back in high school.
“You get a lot of funny looks, a lot of ridicule, a lot of people ripping you for leaving the SEC,” he said. “But there were people who understand where I’m coming from and what I was looking for in a school and the success my dad had after football after graduating here.”
Jones said most of the ire came from people who couldn’t see the bigger picture beyond football, and in the south, it’s “football all year round, all the time.”
“They believe they’re the best conference in the nation,” Jones said of SEC fans. “A lot of fans there are grown up Georgia fans or Alabama fans. There’s a lot of deep-rooted hate for other schools but also deep-rooted love for their own school.”