Now, after playing in college at Delaware State, Jones had returned to Baltimore as a physical education teacher at Edmondson. He was determined not to abandon his city, to run from its troubles. Pompey had helped mold him, and now Jones felt that it was his turn to give back. Some players,he understood,just needed a hug, especially from a father figure. Already, he had big ideas of what he would do if he got the job.
Edmondson, he felt, was where he was supposed to be. He was a religious man, believed that every action had a purpose behind it. And in his mind, God had a plan for him. This was where he would make a difference. He could save kids. People told him often he couldn't save them all, and he knew it was true. But it would not stop him from trying. He had buried a player once. He vowed to never let it happen again.
Mandatory study hall
Before each game, Jones -- Coach 'Te to most of his players -- utters those two words, and, in an instant, rambunctious teenagers, some of them angry and defiant, become statues. Jones can be quick to laugh and tease, but there is a time when he makes it clear he is all business.
Lee recognized the dynamism in Jones right away, well before she took a chance, passing over older, more experienced applicants, and named him Edmondson's head coach at age 28. A veteran of the Baltimore school system for close to 30 years, Lee had spent the past seven as Edmondson's principal and had seen her share of idealistic coaches and teachers leave discouraged and disgruntled. Few educators impressed her as quickly as Jones did.
His first year at Edmondson, the school got itself into a scheduling and budget pinch and had to cram 50 kids into one period of physical education. Lee told Jones she'd try to find a way to break the class in half as soon as she could, but Jones wouldn't hear of it.
"I'll handle them, Mrs. Lee," he told her. "I'll take all 50. Don't worry about it anymore. I'll be fine."
His first day, all 50 of his students were present and dressed, and soon he had them rotating around the gym, playing basketball, doing Tai Bo, performing calisthenics. Lee, watching from outside the gym doors, was stunned.
She recalled telling her husband that night, "You've got to come see this."
Plenty of high school coaches are screamers, using fear and the threat of discipline to maintain order. Sometimes it's effective. But it was not Jones' style. Instead, he became skilled at getting his point across in other ways. Raising his eyebrows. Maintaining eye contact for an extra second. Gently shaking his head. Instinctively, he understood the power of nonverbal communication.
He is handsome and graceful, and when he first roamed the hallways between classes he was hard to miss. He twirled his keys, bobbed his head and ducked into rooms every few minutes, checking to see not only that his players were on time and had their homework ready, but also that they were sitting up front, setting an example for other students. His father had been a coach throughout his childhood -- baseball was his sport -- and so for Dante Jones, the coach's aura of authority appeared to come naturally.
He was the first to say that Pompey had left a structure in place, one built over decades. Players on the team were admired by younger students,and teachers knew if they had a problem with a member of the football team, the football coach would deal with it. Right away.
But Jones wanted to take it further, wanted to start making progress in kids' lives from the moment they showed up at Edmondson, even before he began coaching them on varsity. Too many of them began faltering academically right from their freshman year. They fell behind, failed to get help from tutors and dropped out of college prep courses. Before they ever reached varsity, their transcripts were beyond repair and college was no longer a possibility.
Jones started simple. He needed to find a way to force kids to do their homework, and doing it at home simply wasn't working. By the time practice was over, by the time they got dinner, then finished talking on the phone, homework was little more than an afterthought. So Jones reversed the traditional order of things. Instead of practice right after school, his players -- whether they were freshmen, junior varsity or varsity -- would attend mandatory study hall three days a week. Any player not attending could not be a member of the football team.
In study hall, Jones turned things over to Joyce Jenkins, an academic coach who had been assigned to Edmondson as part of Play It Smart, a program funded by the National Football Foundation to help inner-city high schools with training and academic support. Jones considered Jenkins a part of his staff and directed his players to call her Coach Jenkins. She tutored them, taught them life skills, manners, time management and study habits. His players began to pass physics, not run from it.