*Darryl Smith’s No. 7 football jersey still hangs in the garage of Dante Jones’ home in Dover, Delaware, just as it did over his desk as the head coach of Baltimore Edmondson High, a memorial to a star athlete.
By the end of his high school career in 2003, Smith, a 6-foot, 185-pound quarterback, knew the offense better than Jones, then an Edmondson assistant to the legendary Pete Pompey. But in early 2005, Smith was dead, gunned down in a Baltimore neighborhood street.
“The loss of Daryl really made me see, understand and focus more on trying to save the lives of inner-city kids,” said Jones, 45, a state title-winning gridiron coach and former Baltimore football and basketball state champion player. “Not just those in Baltimore. It has really become embedded in my coaching philosophy.”
In 2013, Jones moved with his wife, Tyra, and seven children to Dover, Delaware, after accepting the head coaching position at Dover High. And earlier this summer, Jones established a community movement, Turn Around Dover, meant to support and uplift communities following the recent murders of two promising young men in a city plagued with a high crime rate.
“There have been two kids who graduated from Dover [High] who were murdered in the past two months. One was home from college, and the other one ran track with my son and was a great kid,” said Jones, who on July 28 moved to the post of athletic director and football coach at Early College High School on the campus of his collegiate alma mater, Delaware State University.
“The goal of ‘Turn Around Dover’ is to bring all the resources together. Not just the churches, the schools and the police, but the people in the community needed to make an impact. God spoke to me and said ‘Something needs to be done.’ I didn’t want to take what I learned in Baltimore and say, ‘This is how you turn around Dover.’ I wanted to attract people who really wanted to be a part of a change.”
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It all goes back to Smith, who thrived while calling audibles and engineering fourth-quarter comebacks under pressure. Smith had signed a national letter of intent to Morgan State and play football. But Smith never attended Morgan, instead spending a semester at Catonsville Community College.
In November 2004, Smith survived being shot three times in the chest and once in the right arm. He was operated on several times, undergoing intensive rehabilitation before being released from a hospital in early January 2005.
During a phone conversation with Jones on March 2, 2005, Smith, 19, told his mentor he wanted to visit his girlfriend in the city, assuring him that all would be well. But hours later, Smith was dead, shot multiple times a block from where he nearly died the first time.
“It’s a tough situation when you see someone with that much heart, talent, and with all the great things he could have accomplished, and yet, his life gets cut short,” said Jones. “I’ve always said that courage, determination and love of sports will be his legacy. He’s inspired me, and that’s taken my dedication to an entirely different level of commitment.”
Since then, Jones has tirelessly gone above and beyond in his quest to mentor, advocate for and generally save the lives of inner-city young men and women.
In April 2015, Jones drove to his birthplace from Dover in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death and amidst unrest in the Baltimore streets. Jones rallied local high school football, basketball and youth coaches to discourage animosity and encourage peaceful protests.
“My wife and I were watching it on TV. They made it seem as though the kids were being aggressive toward the police. I told my wife, ‘I can’t just sit here and just watch this,’” said Jones.
“I drove down with my brother and my nephew, put a post on Facebook, and several coaches and players showed up. The more you listen, the more you discover people just wanted something done in the name of peace and justice. We were able to calm some potentially explosive situations.”
Jones also made a Facebook post to begin “Turn Around Dover,” challenging people to attend the first meeting on July 3 at 7 a.m. at Schutte Park, which features wooded trails, softball fields, a playground and a picnic pavilion.
“I arrived at the park at about 6:45 a.m. Cars were slowly pulling in. About 40 or 50 people showed up. You had community leaders, teachers, coaches, librarians and folks who were white, black, young and old, all coming together as part of the movement. We started to brainstorm about how to get back into the communities,” said Jones.
“Our first event was to walk in a neighborhood where a young man was murdered, and our next event is a kickball game on Aug. 29 at Schutte Park where we’ll collect school supplies and dispense them in the neighborhoods. But we don’t want to just go in and say, ‘This is what we’re going to give you,’ but rather ‘Hey, what do you think you need?’”
“’Turn Around Dover’ also produced ‘’No Speeding’ signs, access to a Boys and Girls club and the organizing of block cleanups,” said Jones, who took neighborhood concerns to the mayor and city council.
But before kicking off ‘Turn Around Dover’ and a long football career, Jones made a pivotal early impression. Tyra and Dante met as sixth-graders, first, at a volleyball tournament, and then, at a track and field event.
“Even at such a young age, he was a natural leader and an athlete,” said Tyra Jones. “Dante has such a strong positive presence, it comes out in everything he does. So it was no surprise that he became such a great coach and father. I am 100 percent certain he was born to be both.”
“Dante was blessed with a great role model for both in his father. He has never had a problem with transitioning his role as fun-loving father-coach into an authoritative disciplinarian who demands the best. Coupled with his experiences not only as an athlete but a scholar, that makes him the ultimate coach and dad.”
A 6-foot-2 and 215-pound alumnus of Dunbar High in Baltimore, Jones was raised with three older brothers by his parents, John and Kim, and birth mother, Denise Jones, 69.
“My parents were invested in everything we did,” said Jones. “Whether it was academics, sports, the booster clubs or high school or college events, they were always there.”
Jones has two sons and five daughters, with the boys being the eldest. Chae, 24, is a master barber living in Atlanta, and Dante Jr., 20, is a junior track competitor at Delaware State who recalls the aforementioned murdered young man as a friend and promising athlete.
“He was on my 4-by-4 relay team. I saw him that summer. He said he was coming to Delaware State to run. I was like, ‘You should.’ But the next thing you know, he’s dead. It’s shocking how you can be here one minute and gone the next,” said Dante Jr., an aspiring athletic trainer.
“My dad is into helping kids and doesn’t want to see those things happen, so he uses football to emphasize good grades and judgment in order to make it in this world. My dad’s influenced me. I like to help people, too, so being an athletic trainer can be a means of inspiring people to change.”
Jones’ daughters are straight-A students. Chloe, 17, is a senior lacrosse defender at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Delaware who will play for Syracuse University. Corie, 14, is a ninth-grader, Clarke, 13, is in eighth, Chandler, 8, is in third, and Charlee, 7, is in second.
“The knowledge my dad gained from being a student-athlete allowed him to better relate to, guide and push me daily to be the best student-athlete I can be. His experience played a major role in him being an awesome coach, mentor, and father. Even though he’s a football coach and I play lacrosse, his drills and training kept me at the top of my game,” said Chloe.
“Generally his experience as a coach and former student-athlete have had a tremendous impact on me. I am blessed to have such an awesome dad. I would not be where I am today without the wisdom of my father. His love, support, and knowledge of sports has helped me become the student-athlete I am.”
As a Dunbar senior linebacker in 1994 playing for coach Stanley Mitchell and the late assistant Ben Eaton, Jones helped the Poets (12-0) to become Baltimore’s first state champion, recovering a fumble during a 15-point Class 2A rout of Cumberland’s Fort Hill High.
Also a forward on two state title-winning basketball teams at Dunbar, Jones became Edmonson’s football coach after the previous year assisting Pompey, whose Red Storm was a 2A state runner-up to Urbana in 1999.
As Edmondson’s football coach, Jones went 64-30 in eight seasons, earning a Class 2A state title among five playoff appearances. Jones guided Edmondson (13-1) to its first and only Class 2A crown and 11th straight win, 37-9, over McDonough-Charles County, becoming the first man to have coached and played for state title-winning football teams from Baltimore.
Jones guided the Dover Senators to one semifinal berth in three seasons before coaching the defensive backs for three more years at Division III Wesley College and then taking over at Early High.
The gridiron season is getting underway, but that doesn’t mean Jones will forget about those in the streets who are not in football uniforms.
“Some folks in one neighborhood were standoffish at first, but a listening ear can make people think differently. One day I came across a 15-year-old young man who asked me what we were doing. Once he found out, he asked, ‘Can I help?’” said Jones.
“Another young man got off his bike and helped to clean up the block. ‘Turn Around Dover’ is not just a group, but a movement. We’re combining resources, which is really making a difference. The youth just want to know you care.”
Edited by Stan Chrapowicki and Matthew B. Hall
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