In fall 2004, Datone Jones was a freshman at Compton High, dreaming of becoming a basketball standout. He ignored the repeated pleas of his P.E. teacher, Calvin Bryant, to try football.
"I begged him all year, and he wouldn't come out," Bryant said.
Jones, at 6 feet 1, had played basketball in middle school and knew nothing about football.
But all Bryant's lobbying got Jones to do some thinking.
"People were telling me I couldn't do it," he said. "I wanted to prove people wrong."
He joined the junior varsity football team as a sophomore, not knowing how to put on pads or get into a defensive lineman's three-point stance.
"I did a basketball stance like I was defending someone," he said. "One time I put my hip pad as my butt pad."
Jones, who has grown into a sturdy, powerful 6-4, 245-pound senior, has become a key figure in the resurgence of Compton (8-0), which plays host to Long Beach Poly (7-1) on Friday night in a game that will decide the Moore League championship.
"I love it," he said of football.
With bulging biceps from being able to bench press 315 pounds and squat 405, Jones has used his football success to open a path to college. He has committed to UCLA.
"No one ever thinks a kid from Compton will make it," he said. "I never thought I'd make it. I knew I would graduate, but I never knew I'd be the first from my family to go to college."
With encouragement from Bryant, Jones has learned the game of football and kept his focus on trying to fulfill the academic requirements needed to give him the option of attending college.
"It's a big challenge," he said. "I'm a humble kid. I'm like a mirror. All the bad things reflect off me. I never let anything distract me. I don't just go home and play Madden. I go home and do my homework and make sure my reports are done."
Bryant, in his fourth year as Compton's varsity coach, has worked a minor miracle of sorts. His first season, which began right after he got off a plane from his honeymoon in the Cayman Islands, resulted in an 0-10 record, not only for the varsity but the JV and freshman teams too. But the Tarbabes stuck with him, and improvement has come each season, from 7-4 in his second year to 8-4 last season. He has players attending study hall and starting to believe college scholarships are possible.
Bryant's pursuit of Jones has proven to be well worth the effort, based on his development over the last three seasons.
"If I showed you the game film from his sophomore year, you wouldn't even know it was him," Bryant said. "He was a guy with raw ability and untapped skills."
Jones has come to enjoy the hand-to-hand duels with offensive tackles as he tries to reach the quarterback from his defensive end position. He does lots of talking on the field and isn't afraid to offer advice to his opponent.
"I'm an intimidator," he said.
Long gone are his basketball aspirations, though he jokes about "dunking on DeMar," as in USC-bound DeMar DeRozan, Compton's star basketball player.
"I don't know how it would feel to come straight home from school," he said. "It doesn't feel right without football practice."
There's no denying the importance of Compton's showdown game with Long Beach Poly. The Jackrabbits have won 71 consecutive league games, a state record. Compton lost to Poly, 20-3, last season.
"It's like a final exam," Jones said.
But victory or defeat in a football game won't validate whether Jones has succeeded or failed in high school. A more telling moment will come Saturday, when he takes the SAT and discovers whether his focus in the classroom has paid off. A qualifying test score is the final piece to being able to accept a college scholarship.
It's an opportunity he won't let slip away.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times