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Tackling a deeper task

Lincoln head coach Mike Jones praises his team’s effort following the Blue Tigers’ season-ending victory over visiting Southwest Baptist at Dwight T. Reed Stadium last November.

Lincoln head coach Mike Jones praises his team’s effort following the Blue Tigers’ season-ending victory over visiting Southwest Baptist at Dwight T. Reed Stadium last November.

Victorian poetry and Division II football rarely inhabit the same sphere.

But they do this year on the Lincoln University campus, ever since head football coach Mike Jones requested all of his student-athletes memorize William Ernest Henley’s rousing poem, “Invictus.” And, perhaps more importantly, the coach has told people to ask his players to recite the poem upon demand.

Written in 1875, Henley’s poem expresses man’s unconquerable thirst for freedom. The poem concludes with the couplet: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Only four stanzas long, the work has inspired millions of people, including Nelson Mandela, who quoted it to fellow prisoners while they were incarcerated on Robben Island.

The idea came to Jones after he heard a Notre Dame coach describe a similar scenario on ESPN.

“I thought it was a great concept,” Jones said. “It gets everybody involved in what you are doing.”

Jones feels any person can relate to the poem’s message.

“We all have adversity in life. We all have challenges in life. We all are going to have times when we get our nose bloodied. But these experiences, if you use them correctly, they are learning experiences,” he said.

Jones said the exercise is only one part of his effort to instill a foundation for his players, with more to come as the season unfolds.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Jones wants his players to contemplate: “What do we really want to accomplish? What are our core values?”

A former St. Louis Rams linebacker, Jones is known for the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV, known as “The Tackle,” when he brought down Titans receiver Kevin Dyson at the 1-yard line to preserve the Rams’ 23-16 victory.

The former Missouri Tiger also played for the Oakland Raiders before coaching at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, where he led the team to a state title in 2008.

After being on both sides of the equation, he believes in a leadership style that is somewhat paradoxical.

“Every great leader is consistent in what they do,” he said. “But they have to be flexible enough to adjust to different things. A leader possesses the quality to get the goals you are trying to achieve, done.”

But he said it’s important not be “wishy-washy.”

“You can’t say one thing at one time and a different thing at another time,” he said. “My players need to know what to expect from the guy in charge.”

And yet he also sees his players as individuals, with different life experiences and different coaching needs. Some team members were raised in stable two-parent homes. Others grew up in foster care.

“You’ve got to know who your people are. Every kid is different,” he said. “So I’m not going to treat them all the same. Some have far to go — and I’m going to go a lot further to get them where I want them to be. And some take a little nudge to get them over the top.”

His high school football coach, Keith Hannaman, taught him the value of working differently with different people. Richard Samuel, his high school track coach, was hard-nosed and competitive.

“They coached differently, but they cared about their players and they would make you the best you could possibly be,” he said.

Clarence Stephenson is a coach who has been especially close to Jones since the age of 10. When he signed with the Rams, Stephenson stood in for his parents. A former player in the Negro Leagues, Stephenson had a love of all sports.

As a teenager, Jones was considering dropping baseball, to Stephenson’s concern. Without a word said, suddenly access to the family car dried up.

“He had a way of letting you know … he didn’t want me to limit myself,” Jones said. “He was one of those guys when I played well, he kept my feet on the ground. And when I got knocked down, he picked me back up.”

Jones believes a coach must be tough on his players.

“But they have to understand it’s because you want them to excel,” he added. “If they don’t understand why you are trying to motivate them, then what you are saying won’t work. You have to know how far to push to get the best out of that person.”

Jones’ biggest setback in life happened when he didn’t get drafted by an NFL team.

“I was a little demoralized,” he said.

He entered the NFL as a rookie free agent. Although it was a blessing because he earned more money, it came with a catch — his new team didn’t need running backs. They wanted a linebacker.

“I had to learn a totally new position,” he said. “Everybody raised their eyebrows and thought: ‘How is he going to do that?’”

Changing positions was the biggest challenge of his life and Jones was working with coach who didn’t think he was right for the job.

“We didn’t have a great relationship. I wasn’t his physical type,” Jones said. “I was 220 pounds and he needed 250. Whatever I did, it wasn’t going to be good enough. But it motivated me.”

A different coach, Jim Haslett, now the defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins, showed Jones how to play linebacker while the two were in the World League.

“He was a brutally honest guy. When I didn’t do well, he told me I didn’t do well,” Jones said.

Haslett’s coaching style taught Jones a critical lesson. After a knee injury had sidelined him for three weeks, he came back to play even though it still hurt. And he didn’t know he’d soon be asked to stay on the field through a long series.

“I’m the signal-caller, so I can’t leave. But my leg is bothering me. I’m waving like I’m trying to get off the field,” Jones recalled. “(Hazlett is) like ‘No, no, no. You can’t leave.’”

Finally a break arrived.

“I’m upset. I walk by him. He knows I’m upset,” Jones said.

Haslett stood in front of Jones and told him: “I know you’re hurting. But you’ll never be a professional if you can’t play hurt.”

The experience was harsh, but valuable.

“That was the truth,” Jones said. “You’re going to have a little pain and you have to deal with it. It was something I needed to learn. Because of that, I only missed two games in 12 years. Some of the best lessons are hard lessons.”

Jones agreed the Lincoln players are underdogs.

“We grasp that,” he said. “That’s something we can use to our advantage. You can use it as a motivational tool. I spent most of my career trying to prove somebody wrong.”

Most players who play Division I football are well-vetted.

“In Division II, you may have a kid with Division I talent, but they don’t do well in class. Or you might have a great kid who is just a step slower, an inch shorter or 10 pounds lighter,” Jones said. “Our challenge is … how can we make his strengths better and work on his weaknesses?”

His goal is not to turn his players into professional players, but into men of integrity who will excel in their chosen field and support their families.

“Less than 1 percent of all Division I players go on to play professionally,” he said. “What I hope to accomplish … is to make you a better person all around than you were when you arrived.”

His program recruits students other schools usually don’t. He’s excited because more in-state students have agreed to play for Lincoln this year. When he arrived, only 12 players came from Missouri. Today, the Blue Tigers’ roster boasts 43

Although it’s only March, Jones is looking forward to the fall.

“It’s going to be an interesting year … in the sense that we have guys in the program who have been here four years,” he said. “I hope people will come out and support the Blue Tigers.”

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