The meaning behind Julio Jones' blue bracelet

If you knew where to look last Sunday night, as the confetti fell and the Georgia Dome quaked and the Falcons celebrated a victory in the NFC championship game, you could spot a tiny swatch of blue and yellow amid all the red and black. Julio Jones, who’d just staked a claim to the title of best receiver in the NFL, wore a small blue bracelet on his right wrist, a promise he’s keeping to a family in Alabama, a quiet way of honoring a friend and a fan who died far too young.

_____

Savoy Jones – no relation to Julio, though he surely would have loved to be – was the kind of remarkable kid possessed of both charisma and skill, talented enough to have people asking for his autograph on basketballs at age 5, relatable enough to have inspired an entire community. He grew up in Dothan, Alabama, a town tucked way down in the southeast corner of the state barely 20 minutes from the borders of both Florida and Georgia.

Skinny and fast, he specialized in baseball and basketball at Dothan’s Emmanuel Christian School, giving up on football at age 8 after a single season in which he wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid getting pummeled on nearly every reception. Auburn and Florida State were far closer to Dothan, but as a fan, Savoy rolled with the Crimson Tide. His sister Christina, a decade his senior, attended Alabama and took pride in her role as one of the “A Team,” hostesses tasked with shepherding Tide recruits around campus. One of Christina’s charges was another skinny, fast kid from southern Alabama, only this one decided to stick with football.

[Ditch the paper and pen – play Squares Pick’em for the Big Game!]

Julio Jones would turn out to be one of Alabama’s greatest receivers, and along the way formed a strong bond with the other Jones family. Christina used to tell Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban it was because of her that Julio was at Alabama, and Savoy became a Falcons fan the moment Atlanta traded a raft of draft picks to snag Julio.

Julio Jones and Savoy Jones. (Courtesy Sophia Jones)
Julio Jones and Savoy Jones. (Courtesy Sophia Jones)

As the Super Bowl extravaganza rolls into Texas, gargantuan images of Julio Jones loom throughout downtown Houston. Come Sunday, he’ll be one of the focal players in the most-watched television moment of the year. The tragedy of it all is, Savoy isn’t here to see it.

_____

February 5, 2013. A Tuesday just like any other Tuesday in Dothan, school and then basketball practice. Ten minutes after his father Chris dropped Savoy off at practice, Chris’ phone rang. Savoy, age 15, had gone weak in the knees and no one could figure out why. Chris turned the car around and headed back to the gym, an ambulance already on its way.

Chris and Savoy’s mother Sophia arrived at the gym to find their son sitting on a gurney, alert but tired and sweating. EMTs loaded Savoy into the back of the ambulance, and Sophia climbed in afterward. Chris followed in his car.

Savoy’s vital signs were stable enough that the ambulance didn’t turn on its sirens. One of the EMTs pointed out that Chris Jones was risking a ticket running red lights behind the ambulance, so he dropped back.

In the emergency room, Sophia looked at her son. “You’re going to be OK,” she said, and he replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

Julio Jones sports a band on his right wrist honoring Savoy Jones. (Getty)
Julio Jones sports a band on his right wrist honoring Savoy Jones. (Getty)

A medical team hooked Savoy up to IV fluids to stave off any dehydration, but doctors couldn’t determine any root cause for his lightheadedness. But after an hour, the team made the determination to place him on life support.

Sophia began shouting, trying to understand what was happening. The doctor on duty had the family ushered into a waiting room. An hour later, a nurse escorted Sophia and Chris back to a room where Savoy had been hooked up to an array of machines. An attempt to draw blood failed. Once again, the Joneses were escorted out of Savoy’s room.

“About another hour later,” Sophia said, “they came in and said, ‘We lost him.’ And that’s it.”

The cause of Savoy’s death remains unknown. An autopsy revealed no issues with his heart. Savoy’s death certificate reads, “Natural Causes – Undetermined.”

The outpouring of sympathy from the community was immense. More than 2,000 people attended his memorial services. The people of Dothan told Chris and Sophia stories they’d never heard about their boy, like the one where he helped a young girl release a butterfly into the wild, or how he’d introduced a new student around school as “New Girl,” welcoming her into the school community.

“We have so many letters from kids who told us how Savoy affected their lives,” Sophia said. “They’re all in his room. I haven’t even read them all. Every time I get in there and start reading them, I just get emotional.”

_____

Chris Jones channeled his grief into action. A volunteer baseball coach at Emmanuel, Chris printed up T-shirts and wristbands honoring Savoy. He sold the merch at baseball tournaments all over the South, telling the story of his son at every stop.

Chris’ endgame was simple: new wheels for Savoy’s team. Even as a kid, Savoy had pledged to buy a new bus to replace Emmanuel’s beat-up, broken-down old one. And as it turned out, “New Girl’s” grandfather was the CEO of AAA Cooper, a regional trucking company. Sales, donations and the efforts of AAA Cooper raised $100,000 in less than a year, and Emmanuel Christian had its bus.

Emmanuel Christian’s new bus. (Courtesy Sophia Jones)
Emmanuel Christian’s new bus. (Courtesy Sophia Jones)

Savoy’s memory lives on in so many other ways. The Jones family donates a $5,000 scholarship in his name. The Savoy Jones Impact Award recognizes an outstanding Dothan athlete each year. The Savoy Jones Welcoming Committee at Emmanuel helps new students acclimate quickly. And this year will mark the third annual Savoy Jones Baseball Tournament at Emmanuel Christian.

“Do we miss Savoy? Most definitely we miss him,” Chris Jones said. “But we go around to the schools and churches, and try to keep his name alive.”

_____

Julio Jones with Chris and Sophia Jones. (Courtesy Sophia Jones)
Julio Jones with Chris and Sophia Jones. (Courtesy Sophia Jones)

Chris and Sophia recently celebrated their 35th anniversary, and as a gift, Julio sent them tickets to a Falcons game earlier this season. After the game, Chris Jones presented him with one of the bracelets. The blue bracelet features Savoy’s name, his numbers (#10 for basketball, #23 in baseball), and the inscription “Nothin’ but His Love.” And Julio Jones wore it on the podium after the Falcons beat the Green Bay Packers before an audience of millions.

“He could have just thrown it in a drawer!” Sophia said. “We’re just so glad he’s wearing it.”

Julio Jones wears a wristband in memory of Savoy Jones. (Getty Images)
Julio Jones wears a wristband in memory of Savoy Jones. (Getty Images)

“It’s a way to honor a young man from Dothan,” Jones said after the game. “He was a very special kid.”

On Sunday, four years to the day after Savoy’s death, Julio Jones will take the field for the biggest game of his career. Win or lose, he’ll be playing with the memory of Savoy in mind, and that brings some small measure of comfort to the Jones family.

Savoy Jones. (Courtesy Sophia Jones)
Savoy Jones. (Courtesy Sophia Jones)

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.