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Ryan Simpson
Ryan Simpson

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The NFL’s Chosen One

What’s the closest thing the NFL has to LeBron? It’s the Falcons’ Julio Jones — who has surpassed expectations at every level

There’s a lie an old friend of Julio Jones has told about him for 20 years. It’s from when Jones was young, maybe 5 or 6 years old, and playing hide-and-seek near his home in Foley, Alabama. The story starts like this: Robert Lester — who went on to play with Jones at the University of Alabama — had just been spotted. He bolted the other way, eventually reaching a 6-foot wooden fence.

As he scaled it, a push sent Lester hurtling to the ground. The fence was often lined with bottles and cans for slingshot target practice, and Lester landed on a jagged shard of glass. Blood and tears flowed. When Lester finally climbed to his feet, Jones stood alone on the other side of the fence.

"I did not do that," Jones says now. "[Our friend] Freddy ran off. I stayed there, so Robert assumed that I pushed him. To this day, he’s been saying that."

Lester says that it had to have been Jones who pushed him — because Julio was the only one fast enough to catch Lester during the chase — and, more than two decades later, this is the first time anyone has disputed his account. The legend of Julio Jones is full of mythmaking stories that lend to exaggeration and half-truths. Some have persisted from his childhood to a national championship run at Alabama to an All-Pro career with the Atlanta Falcons that has established him as arguably the most talented receiver alive. Jones is everything a pass catcher can be, all at once: smoother than big receivers, more powerful than small ones, a centaur in a helmet.

By the time Jones was 16, tales of his otherworldly feats of strength had made their way across the state. By the time he was 17, ESPN had ranked him as the best high school player in the country. People knew of Julio not only in the South, but everywhere.

"How many people do you know as a high school and college player who go by one name, and you know exactly who he is?" says former Alabama assistant and ace recruiter Lance Thompson. "It’s like Prince."

Or, for that matter, like LeBron.

Similar to LeBron James — who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old prodigy in 2002 — Jones has been saddled with the greatest of expectations since he was a teenager. Nick Saban shaped a program around him. Thomas Dimitroff bet a franchise on him. Neither has regretted it. Last year, on the heels of signing a $71 million contract, Jones, now 27, turned in the best season of his professional career: He made 136 catches for 1,871 yards, the second-highest total in NFL history. Many athletes have crumbled beneath the weight of their potential. Jones has shrugged at it.

In 2005, Shane Jones (no relation) was the offensive coordinator at Alma Bryant High when it played a spring scrimmage at Foley, which sits about 65 miles east on Interstate 10. On a fourth down in the first half, Foley’s quarterback uncorked a pass down the right sideline. What followed was the greatest catch that Shane Jones had ever seen at the high school level — a leaping, twisting display of magic. The magician was a skinny 6-foot-3 receiver named Julio, barely three months removed from his 16th birthday. Shane Jones had a longstanding relationship with Foley head coach Todd Watson, and when Watson called that summer to offer him a job coaching the Lions receivers, he accepted without hesitation, visions of Julio’s highlight replaying in his head.

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As a sophomore at Foley, Julio caught 51 passes for 805 yards with eight touchdowns, and college programs quickly came calling. "That year," he says, "is when recruiting got huge and crazy for me." Following a junior campaign in which he made 75 grabs for 1,306 yards with 16 scores, he was coveted by the best programs in the country. Urban Meyer, Tommy Tuberville, and Nick Saban all attended Jones’s spring game his senior season in 2007, and as ESPN’s top-ranked recruit, Jones managed to draw the network for Foley’s rivalry game against nearby Daphne High. "It was exciting for the city, but as far as me and the mind-set that I had going into it, it was just another game," Jones says.

Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director, provided color commentary for that showcase, and what he saw in Jones was someone totally unimpressed by the fanfare following him. "He was one of those guys that was every bit as advertised, and I think part of the reason why is because he didn’t get caught up in the recruiting hoopla," Luginbill says. "He didn’t get caught up in hype. I don’t think he ever went into the game thinking he had to perform at his best because this huge persona had been developed."

Jones finished that game with six catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns, including one early in the fourth quarter that clinched a 16–14 victory. The second score was a work of art, an acrobatic reception over two defenders, but it still runs second to Shane Jones’s favorite play from that night. With about 2:30 remaining in regulation, Foley’s punter sent a ball sailing toward the end zone. Before it got there, Julio Jones snatched it at the 1-yard line. The best high school player in the country had asked to play on the punt team.

Neither Julio nor LeBron have relinquished the status they earned in youth, but whereas James has always appeared at home in the spotlight — often to the point of relishing it — Jones has long been uneasy with attention. He is quiet when he meets people, shy even. In the heat of his recruiting process, former Florida assistant Billy Gonzales worriedly called Shane Jones one evening and, with the timidity of an eighth-grader, asked if Julio liked him.

"It’s hard to be a young person in today’s climate, have that type of ability that affords you a very unique lifestyle and not get caught up in it," Luginbill says. The word humble is brought up in almost every conversation about Julio’s recruitment, but he says that isn’t quite right. Humility connotes a virtue. He sees no reason he should be commended. "It wasn’t about being humble," Jones says. "It’s just how I am."

College coaches from across the Southeast relentlessly pitched Jones in the months leading up to National Signing Day 2008, but he soon realized that most didn’t understand what he sought. A common tactic among recruiters was to promise Jones a starting spot while pointing out the roadblocks on competitors’ depth charts. "Everybody telling me, ‘You’re going to come in and you’re going to start,’ didn’t know they were telling me the wrong thing," Jones says. "Young kids want to hear that: ‘You’re going to come here, and you’re going to play.’ I didn’t want that. I want to come and earn my spot." When Saban famously told Jones, in his Foley living room, that the Crimson Tide would win "with or without him," the wideout knew. He belonged in Tuscaloosa.

For all of his stone-faced posturing, though, Saban — then entering his second season with the Tide after a stint with the Miami Dolphins — was frantic behind closed doors. "I bet from the Sunday dead period to Wednesday’s signing day, Nick Saban walked into my office 100 times asking, ‘Did you talk to Julio?’ Did you talk to [his mom]?’" says Thompson, the former Bama assistant. "We didn’t know for sure until he put on that hat."

Jones became the face of the first class that Saban had an entire season to recruit, and he proved instrumental in sparking a program that had lost games to Georgia, Mississippi State, and even Louisiana-Monroe the year before. The night he made his commitment official, picking Bama over Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech, the Crimson Tide staff had what Thompson describes as "a hell of a party" at a restaurant in town. "You have to understand the circumstances with Alabama football," he says. "We’d just gone 7–6, lost to Auburn for I think the sixth time in a row."

Thompson claims the staff knew that day: Julio was the one who would turn the Tide.

I’is a bold claim, that a single receiver could alter the trajectory of college football’s most storied program. But others saw it, too, and not just because Jones had LeBron–caliber hype coming in. After spring practice in 2008, then–Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, now the head coach at Florida, felt down about his unit; following the arrival of Jones and running back Mark Ingram over the summer, his spirits quickly lifted. "I remember going into that offensive staff meeting saying, ‘You know what, we’re gonna be all right,’" McElwain says. "The influx of that, and then for other people to see how hard he worked …"

That approach is what struck John Parker Wilson. Jones was the most talented player on the roster from the moment he set foot in Tuscaloosa, but the senior quarterback was stunned by the way the freshman’s presence rippled through the program. "He changed the way everybody on the team felt about Alabama football," Wilson says. "He’s the no. 1 recruit in the nation, and he comes and works harder than everybody else. Now we’ve got senior guys looking at this true freshman, 18 years old, and thinking, ‘Damn, I better get my shit together quick.’"

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The Crimson Tide, who entered the fall of 2008 ranked no. 24 in the AP poll, opened that season against ninth-ranked Clemson in the Georgia Dome. The matchup was billed as a clash between one school looking to return to relevance and another hoping to cement its status as a national title contender. Throughout his entire career, McElwain’s play sheet has featured a "get it to" column — a space reserved for plays designed to get the ball to his stars. On Alabama’s first pass attempt of the season, McElwain dialed up a screen for Jones, who took the short throw, barreled into a tackler, and gained 8 yards. Jones would make three more catches that night, including a 4-yard touchdown, in a 34–10 win. "Looking at everybody in the locker room after the game, we just said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a shot to be pretty good,’" Wilson says.

Alabama steamrolled through the rest of that season, and Saban’s freshman phenom made an impact in every marquee game. Jones had five catches for 94 yards with a touchdown in a road upset of Georgia in September; he torched Tennessee for his first 100-yard outing a month later. "The higher the stakes, the more the juices got going," says Curt Cignetti, Alabama’s receivers coach at the time. "I saw that early."

In November, the Crimson Tide traveled to LSU as the no. 1 team in the nation. After four quarters, with the score locked at 21, the game headed to overtime. At that point, Jones had six grabs for 105 yards, and, after Bama intercepted a Jarrett Lee pass on the Tigers’ possession, Saban, McElwain, and Wilson planned their approach.

"All we have to do is drive down the ball a little bit down the field and then have a chip-shot field goal to win. But instead, we dial up a sluggo — a slant and go," Wilson says. With Patrick Peterson tugging at his jersey, Jones corralled a pass inside the 5.

"Biggest game of the year, on the road, Death Valley, Nick against LSU and all that," Thompson says. "Who’s the kid you go to? You go to the alpha dog. The guy chose to believe in you, so believe in him."

The Tide finished the regular season 12–0 before falling to Tim Tebow and Florida in the SEC Championship Game. The next season, they would bring the first of Saban’s four national titles back to Tuscaloosa.

While Jones led Alabama to the top of the college football universe in 2009 and ’10 (the Tide went a combined 24–3 in those seasons), Wilson, then in his second year as the Falcons third-string quarterback, gushed to his teammates about his alma mater. He spoke most glowingly of their monster wideout, who closed out his college career with 2,653 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns. "I’m sure I was bad," Wilson says. "Matt [Ryan] was like, ‘Enough, we know Alabama is good.’"

Thomas Dimitroff heard his share of that never-ending praise, too, although he was fine without the tip. The Falcons general manager knew his team was "in desperate need" of a second receiver to pair with Roddy White, but with Atlanta picking at the no. 27 spot in the 2011 draft, he also knew his chances of selecting Jones or Georgia’s A.J. Green were slim. Then Dimitroff watched Jones at the NFL combine. Jones, like he had at every other stop in his football career, emerged as a generational prospect: He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds and posted a 135-inch broad jump. Only later did everyone in the league find out that he did it all with a stress fracture in his right foot.

"He went through the combine, kicked its ass, and was one of the best showings we’ve ever seen at that position," Dimitroff says. "And he did it with a broken fifth metatarsal."

Soon after, the plan for Atlanta’s Julio Jones heist began to take shape.

The Browns, who owned the sixth overall pick that year, were logical trade partners. Dimitroff had a good relationship with Cleveland GM Tom Heckert, and about a month before the draft, the parameters of a deal came into focus. The Falcons felt they were far enough along to schedule a meeting with Jones in Tuscaloosa.

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The contingent of Dimitroff, head coach Mike Smith, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, and receivers coach Terry Robiskie met with Jones and his agent at a hotel. Within a few minutes, Dimitroff sensed something was off. "He was trying to feel it out," Dimitroff says. "We were picking 27th at that time, so in his mind, he’s thinking, ‘Wait a minute.’"

Jones admits to being reserved in that meeting, but just like during his recruiting days, maintains it had nothing to do with the suitor. "When I meet new people, I’m just trying to see what they’re about, decipher the B.S.," he says. "I’m not standoffish or anything. I just don’t say a lot. I listen to hear where people are going before I jump in with, ‘Oh, hey, what’s up, nice to meet you, what’s goin’ on, whatever.’ That’s just how I am."

Dimitroff assured Jones he was serious about making a trade to get him, but in a way, he needed to convince himself, too. "I remember the very first discussions we had about the compensation package, and it had me taking a breath like, ‘Wow, this is significant,’" Dimitroff says. "Like anything in this life, when you look at something for the first time, your eyes are wide open and you’re making sure this is the right thing you’re doing."

Over time, the enormity of the deal lessened. The Falcons examined the percentage of players picked in the later rounds who go on to become starters, and eventually decided they were in a position to make a deal of this magnitude.

For a few days before the draft, the 2011 NFL players’ lockout, which lasted from March through July, was lifted, and Dimitroff called Ryan to float the idea of trading for Jones. A season spent listening to Wilson was enough to leave the quarterback convinced. "[Dimitroff] asked, ‘Well, what do you think about this?’ And I said, ‘Well, I think it’s a pretty good idea,’" Ryan says now, laughing.

On April 28, 2011, Atlanta dealt the no. 27 pick, its second- and fourth-round picks, and its first- and fourth-round picks the following year to move up 21 spots for Jones. Since 2000, only two teams have moved up more spots on draft day to make a pick, and both of those moves involved that franchise trading back into the first round. In a way, it was the largest leap a team has made to acquire a single player this century.

Jones, once again, had been pegged as a savior.

The Falcons had bet their future on Jones, much like the Cleveland Cavaliers had bet theirs on James in 2003. Dimitroff knew that both the media and fan base would see the magnitude of the deal and immediately expect the world.

With the lockout still lingering, Atlanta’s players held their post-draft workouts at Buford High, near the team facility in Flowery Branch. Early on, Jones was coming off foot surgery and unable to run, but in May he was cleared to open the throttle. "I’d never seen anybody move the way that he did," Ryan says. "He’s so explosive. He’s so physically gifted. Right away, I knew that we had a game-changer on our team."

As he surveyed the field, mouths agape, Wilson recognized the reaction. It was the same one an entire team had following Jones’s first practice in Tuscaloosa.

From that point forward, Jones barely missed a beat. He racked up 54 catches for 959 yards with eight touchdowns as a rookie, helping the franchise to a 10–6 record. By the end of his second season, the Falcons were 13–3 and Jones was a Pro Bowler. When he almost single-handedly took down the 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship Game, making 11 catches for 182 yards with two scores in a 28–24 loss, it felt like the dawn of Julio was imminent. But an old ailment lingered.

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Jones had never truly slowed down since having surgery before his rookie year. Five games into the 2013 campaign, his right foot gave out. Jones broke the same fifth metatarsal bone he did in college, an injury that kept him out of the final 11 games of that season.

This time, though, both the procedure and how Jones viewed it were different. Doctors took a bone graft from his heel, wrapping it around the screws to provide additional protection. The goal wasn’t just to make Jones healthy for 2014; it was to make sure this problem never returned. "Just to make sure it doesn’t happen again," Jones says. "[Since coming back], I don’t even feel it."

Jones didn’t just come all the way back. He went two steps beyond that, finishing the 2014 season with 1,593 receiving yards and six touchdowns. During one memorable Monday Night Football loss to the Packers, he reeled in 11 catches for 259 yards. The only thing that could stop him was a bum hip.

After Atlanta finished 6–10 that year, the franchise fired Smith, and when the new staff came in, Jones got attention not only from his offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, but also from his defensive-minded head coach. On the way home from his first practice, Dan Quinn called his wife, who had yet to move to Georgia, and told her, "Julio Jones is a beast." Quinn recalls: "She laughed and said, ‘That’s good.’ But I was like, ‘Seriously.’"

During OTAs, Shanahan threw every route he could at Jones, whose skills seemed to grow with every practice. He soon realized that Jones is a contradiction, a receiver who transcends the rules for a player his size. "There are some things like, ‘Julio never ran that route. That’s for a quick little slot guy,’" Shanahan says. "Yeah, maybe you’re right, but screw it, let’s try it anyway. Then he goes out to practice and does it just as well as those guys, and it’s like, ‘Welp, I guess he can do that.’ There’s not much he can’t do."

Over the course of last season, Jones ping-ponged along the route tree, catching balls in every fashion imaginable. He made 136 catches in all — tied with the Steelers’ Antonio Brown for the second-most in a single season. Julio was Atlanta’s passing game. He caught less than five passes only once, in a 48–21 rout of the Texans, a contest in which he was barely even needed.

Jones wasn’t the player Dimitroff imagined when he mortgaged his job and the Falcons’ future five years ago. He was better.

"I see this entire arc and evolution of Julio Jones, and it makes you realize, you would never do it any other way," Dimitroff says. "What we did was right for us at the time and right for us now."

At Jones blossomed into a transcendent talent at Foley, the type of player known far and wide, he found normalcy in card games with friends. They favored Spades and Pluck, and at Alabama, Jones often passed the time by shuffling a deck and dealing. In Atlanta, the game of choice is dominoes. Whenever there is time to kill before a team meeting, Jones — whose promise and potential still precede him — is usually the ringleader in getting a game started.

He favors games like dominoes over golf. Jones will tell anyone who asks that he refuses to pick up the sport. He has never played because it would consume him if he did. There would be lessons, endless hours on the course, anything necessary to not only become comfortable, but to become better than anyone who has ever picked up a club. Football has spoiled him in that way. He says the game has never been hard. And he says it with the assurance of someone telling a simple truth: His is a gift that comes along only so often. He and others know it.

Dominoes was a family game for Julio growing up. He enjoys the strategy but also likes "whooping these fools," as he puts it. He says this as he takes on fellow Falcons Devin Hester and Aldrick Robinson in the locker room, and someone jokes that Jones isn’t quite the dominoes player that he is the receiver. For Jones, it isn’t a matter of whether he’ll be better than anyone expects; it’s a matter of when.

"C’mon, now," Jones says. "I’ve been playing receiver forever."

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