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PATASKALA, Ohio – The viral moment arrived soon after Cardale Jones did. In February of 2015, nearly a month after Jones led Ohio State to three postseason victories and a national title in his first three starts, he sent a tweet clarifying the final score of a video game.
Jones had visited Jared Foley, a 15-year-old heart patient, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and played him in EA’s “NCAA Football 14.” The lopsided final score from the video game drew national attention, and Jones added to it when he tweeted: “Man, I wish everyone stop saying I beat a kid in the hospital 91-35.... It was 98-35, had 91 with 1:26 left in the 4th.”
The tweet got more than 72,000 retweets, 68,000 likes and encapsulated Jones’ reputation as an endearing and unfiltered goofball. He’d famously summed up his academic frustrations at Ohio State – “We ain’t come to play school” – and hilariously once remarked upon arriving at his all-boys prep school: “Like, we don’t have cheerleaders?”
But what few people realized is how a fleeting moment can reverberate for a lifetime. While the story of Cardale and Jared cycled through cyberspace as Cardale just being Cardale, no one expected the lopsided final score to kickstart a lasting friendship. “No, guys, the game wasn’t over,” Jones told Yahoo Sports recently.
Nearly five years later, Jones is winding his way through a professional career. He’s bounced around the NFL, more than three years removed from his last NFL regular season appearance, and is on the verge of beginning his XFL career in Washington D.C. come February.
Jared, who is recovering from his ninth heart surgery, will be following closely from his family’s home outside Columbus. Their story continues, long after the likes, retweets and GIFs disappeared.
A viral moment consumed by millions sparked a bond between a kid from a small farm town and a quarterback from inner-city Cleveland. They still argue over the final score from their famous game, as Jared claims he scored 42 and has a standing challenge for Jones to play him in any hockey video game. (Jones famously tweeted: “Bro, I’m black. I don’t play NHL.”)
If those arguments sound brotherly, that’s how Cardale and Jared have come to treat each other.
“I think me and Jared’s relationship is unique,” Jones said. “It was built, it wasn’t expected. It’s a great and genuine family that I look at as family of my own now. They’re good people.”
About 20 miles outside Columbus, where the sprawl of suburban chains give way into vast cornfields, Jared Foley is recovering from his recent heart transplant on a sleepy recent afternoon. Jared’s cat, named Zeke after former Buckeye Ezekiel Elliott, nuzzles up against him on the couch in the family’s living room.
Jared was 15 when he met Jones in the hospital, amid Jones’ unprecedented ascent from third-string to national championship starter stint. Jared is 20 now, fresh from a 13-hour heart-transplant surgery two weeks ago, which makes it difficult to raise his voice above a whisper.
Jared was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare congenital heart defect where the left ventricle did not form completely. That left him with a single-ventricle heart, leading to the first eight surgeries and meaning his heart wasn’t sustainable long-term without the transplant. The transplant has been a success, evident when his family members immediately noticed in the hours after the surgery that the blue hue he’d long had in his eyelids, veins and nail beds had disappeared with the increased blood flow from the new heart.
A smile creases Jared’s face when the topic turns to Cardale, 27, who he texts, snapchats and interacts with him so often that the exchanges have become routine. “He’s funny and friendly,” Jared says. “Like an older brother.”
Jared excitedly tells the story of Cardale inviting his family to a Steelers-Bills game for his birthday, when Jones played in Buffalo back in 2016. The Foley family braved a snowstorm to watch, and Cardale visited them in the hotel the night before, lavishing them with field passes, access to free food and an overwhelming feeling of VIP treatment. There was the time Cardale came and picked Jared up to attend the opening of a paintball venue. The time Jared got to sing “Carmen Ohio” with the Buckeyes after the final start of Cardale’s career, a win over Minnesota in 2015. And the time Cardale brought his daughter, who is now 6, to the hospital to visit Jared. While Cardale and Jared played video games, Jared’s dad, Joe, walked little Chloe through the hallways. “He tries to do something with me,” Jared says, “every time he's in town.”
As Jones bounced around the NFL from fourth-round pick in Buffalo in 2016 to the Chargers and then Seahawks this season, he’s stayed in touch with Jared. As he’s endured professional struggles, Cardale knows he can rely on texts from Jared and his family for support.
Jared’s mom, Stacey, glows when talking about how her son has found a friend who allows him to be himself. They laugh about the time that Jared began dancing to Migos in the shotgun of Jones’ car after sneering at him for attempting to change it to something else. “I was like, what the hell is he doing?” Jones laughed. “It was really sweet. He’s a really good kid.”
Jones was cut from the Seahawks in September, which means he’s been around more this season. Jones lives in Columbus when he’s not playing and is the co-owner of a local workout facility, Plus 2 University. That’s allowed him to be present for Jared’s recent transplant. Jones was there with Foley’s family when they waved goodbye and doctors pushed Jared down the hall for surgery, the 6-foot-5 Jones towering over everyone in Jared’s family. The surgery lasted nearly 13 hours, and Jones came back nine hours in to check on the Foley family.
Jones has never posted or boasted about his relationship with Jared since their video game battle went viral. This story emerged much on accident, as a reporter called Jones about his old teammate, Joe Burrow, and Jones apologized for calling back a few minutes late. He’d been in the hospital with Jared, which led to the reporter asking if he could write the story. Clearly, the game wasn’t over when the “NCAA Football 14” game ended. It had just begun.
Prior to Ohio State’s game with Penn State on Saturday, Jones met up with the reporter at midfield to catch up for a few minutes. He’s done plenty of other hospital visits and charitable things over the years, but always makes it a point to not draw any attention to them. “I’m not going to post every time I do stuff like that,” Jones said. “And say, ‘Oh media, look what I’m doing.’ ”
Jones acknowledged that his own background helped him relate to Jared’s story. Jones grew up the youngest of six kids, bouncing from home to home in Cleveland’s Glenville section. At age 15, he moved in with Michelle Nash, who raised him through much of high school.
“She didn’t have to do the things that she did for me to take me in,” Jones said. “There’s no telling where my life would be at without her right now. So it’s good that I can have that positive impact on someone else.”
That impact will help Jared transition to his next chapter. He’s graduated from Licking Heights High School and will start looking for a job in the food industry. His Instagram – @Bear_cookin – shows off his garlic butter steak bites with lemon zucchini noodles and passion for food.
Long beyond their viral moment, Jared and Cardale have turned a fleeting encounter into an enduring one. A video game mismatch turned into a match that everyone is thankful for.
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