South Bend, Ind. • Before each game, the Notre Dame receiver talks to the father he lost 18 months ago. Then he says a prayer. Then he goes back to chasing the dream he had shared so often with his dad, always assuming they would be together when it came true.
The father, Andre Jones, was a national champion for Notre Dame in 1988. The son, TJ Jones, wants to be one now. He has worn his father's uniform and put on his father's ring. He can still see his father's smile and hear his father's stories. When he needs an adult male voice for guidance, his father's teammates are on the line.
Jan. 7 means a great deal to all the guys in gold Notre Dame helmets. But nothing quite like it means to TJ Jones.
"It's more personal with me," he said. "Winning a national championship at Notre Dame was something my dad talked about since I could remember. We talked about us both winning, both wearing No. 7, being one of the few father-son duos to do that.
"It's more sentimental to me than the other guys."
TJ Jones was working out at the Notre Dame athletic center on June 21, 2011, when an assistant pulled him aside. His father had taken ill. It was time to fly home to Georgia.
The next day, Andre Jones, a defensive end for the last Irish team to win a national championship, was gone at 42 from a brain aneurysm, leaving behind a wife and six children.
One of them was a receiver for Notre Dame.
"There were times I wanted to quit," TJ Jones said. "Times I wanted to go home. My mother told me no. There were times where it didn't seem like there was a reason to do a lot of the things that I've done.
"But at the end of the day, I've got five siblings, four of which are younger than me, and my mother, who all are counting on me."
Jones had his mother for support. His teammates. Notre Dame officials, notably Keith Embray, who was associate director of student welfare in 2011 and now holds a similar position at the University of Central Florida.
"He had a relationship with his father that many people would envy, in that his father was truly his best friend in a lot of ways," Embray said over the phone. "How do you try to replace that when it's gone?"
When Andre Jones died, Embray's thoughts went back to TJ's first spring game at Notre Dame, and his first pass caught. "To see his father crying and smiling at the same time, I knew it was going to be hard on TJ. I always said to him before every game, 'Your dad's always going to be with you.' "
And TJ, who caught 43 passes this junior season, has one other vital support system: the 1988 Irish. Temmates of his father who aren't about to let him go at this alone. Raghib "Rocket" Ismail is even his godfather.
"Those guys have known me my entire life, when I really didn't need to call them because I had my dad," Jones said. "Now I can lean on them to ask advice on anything."
Anything, said Pat Terrell, who famously knocked down the last pass to clinch Notre Dame's win over Miami in 1988.
"We just keep a special place in our hearts for him," Terrell said. "Nobody could ever replace his dad, but I just stay close to him to keep those stories in his head. There's nothing like losing a father in college."
True. Yet Andre Jones has been alive whenever TJ Jones plays. He'll certainly be Jan. 7.