NEW BRITAIN - When NFL All-Pro cornerback Byron Jones roams the sidelines at Jerry World in Arlington, Texas, he’s typically on the receiving end of water being poured into his mouth from the Dallas Cowboys training staff during timeouts and his team’s offensive possessions.
On a stunningly gorgeous Saturday at New Britain’s PAL Raider Facility, however, roles were reversed for the 2010 St. Paul Catholic grad.
At the “Byron Jones Football Camp” he runs in conjunction with New Britain’s Police Athletic League, the second straight summer he’s held the event after a successful 2018 camp, Jones was seen hopping all over the field to instruct and encourage the 178 kids who crowded the complex.
That’s before he took some time to be the waterboy for more than a dozen of the young athletes in the 7-9-year-old range of the camp that hosted kids from 7 to 16 years old.
It’s just one example of the philanthropic, charitable nature people have come to respect about Jones. Even after coming off a breakout career year in which he was named a second-team All-Pro and selected to his first career Pro Bowl, the New Britain native still remembers his roots.
“Coming from Byron, I wouldn’t expect anything different,” says his old high school football coach Jude Kelly, who has known Jones since he first stepped on St. Paul’s campus as a freshman. “He’s just a class act. … Byron does things for the right reasons. In today’s society, it seems like there has to be a reason for doing things, including money and things of that nature.
“He’s not playing in the NFL for the money, I’m sure. It’s because he loves the game and has an opportunity to do the right thing and to be a good role model. For him to put on a camp like this is tremendous. He gives back and has a tremendous, tremendous responsibility, but one that he really believes in, and he can really make a difference in young people.”
One of those young people is Alistair Campbell, 8, a football novice who had only played the sport a couple times before at a camp in Manchester. Alistair was on the field along with his older brother, Alex, who was busy in the 10-12-year-old range, and his mother Treese watched from a few yards away as Alistair experienced the coaching of one of the camp’s 12 volunteers from the CCSU football team and a handful from UConn’s team.
“He was excited to come today to see some NFL players and learn some football skills,” said Treese, a Hartford resident. “It’s great to get him interested in playing a sport, a team sport. It doesn’t matter what your ability is. It’s just good to get out with other kids and some coaches and learn some skills.”
At the other end of the field, donning a pair of stars-and-stripes receiver gloves, Raiden McDade, 13, of Hartford burned a pair of fellow campers in a one-on-one receiver vs. cornerback drill at the camp.
“It’s a good experience to be out here playing against different competition and different ages,” McDade said. “I’m playing with older kids right now because I like to play against the better competition, but it’s a good experience. People are nice out here. It’s good for the community. … [My main goal out here] is to become more competitive and learn more, and hopefully it’s useful as I go on and progress.”
Julian Przecioska, 12, of New Britain is another who found the camp fun and competitive, coming back for the second year in a row: “It’s pretty cool because you get to meet an NFL player, and not a lot of people get to do that.”
Kids like Alistair, Alex, Raiden, Julian and 11-year-old Parker Spencer - who came all the way from Indiana to attend the camp for the second consecutive summer and was given a reward for his travels, a signed bat from New Britain native and World Series MVP George Springer - are the reason Jones runs this camp.
Kids like them are why he started planning the event more than two months ago with New Britain police officers/camp coordinators Matt Marino and Barry Hertzler, flew back from his Texas home early Thursday morning to arrive in time for Friday night’s dinner that served as a meet-and-greet precursor to the camp, signed the blue-and-white “Byron Jones Football Camp” t-shirts for more than 100 kids afterward, self-coordinated photos with dozens more, handed out prizes to campers for performance and answering trivia questions, and dropped a bombshell at the end of the camp that nobody saw coming … a $25,000 check donated to the New Britain PAL program.
“That’s the beautiful part about this. A lot of people think that just because my name is on the shirt, that it’s all me,” Jones said. “The New Britain Police Department came out, and they’ve been supporting me the entire way. They set up security, they set up the boundaries, and they set up a lot of the drills. It’s really a community effort. I think that’s what makes it the most special because it’s not just me doing everything. It’s the community coming together and trying to uplift the young kids.”
Before Saturday’s camp began, says Marino, Jones was already thinking about next year and how he can make the camp even bigger, accommodate more people and get more community members involved.
After 240 kids showed up last year, 275 were registered this year by the morning of the camp. When Marino opened registration for the camp last year, it took about two weeks for the numbers to get bigger, and it didn’t fill up until the morning of the event. This year, when registration opened, it took less than 12 hours for it to be fully booked. Don’t be surprised if that dwindles down to less than 10 hours next summer.
“It’s exhausting, in a good way,” Jones said with a smile at the conclusion of the camp that wound up lasting more than six hours. “It’s fun. This is why I come here. I love the kids. I love to give back. This is the fun part for me. I never thought I would be in this position so just to give back and see the awe in peoples’ faces makes it worth it.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org