On what promised to be the biggest night of his life, Daniel Jones was surrounded by those who know him best.
Seated backstage at the NFL Draft in Nashville last Thursday, the quarterback who would be selected by the New York Giants held his cellphone, stealing a glance every few minutes or so as the anticipation grew, no one truly certain of when his future team would call.
This was about an hour before the Giants broke the news to Jones, with the Arizona Cardinals on the clock with the first overall selection, and Jones' three siblings decided they were going to break the ice.
"They were faking calls to him before the sixth pick, picking on him, just making his phone ring," recalled Steve Jones, Daniel's father.
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First it was Rebecca, his older sister by 22 months.
Then younger brother Bates took a turn.
With every buzz of the cellphone, in advance of the actual call that would change his football life, Daniel Jones was a playful target of his own family, not yet the next franchise quarterback of the Giants.
“Bates and Rebecca were taking turns calling him, and Daniel was like, ‘Come on guys,’” youngest sister Ruthie, 18, recalled for NorthJersey.com and USA TODAY Network with a laugh. “And it was all fun and games, it was very funny for him, too, until Daniel looked at his phone and immediately got really serious, and we were like, ‘OK, this might be happening right now.’”
The Giants selected Duke quarterback Daniel Jones with the No. 6 overall pick in the NFL draft. (Photo: Joshua S. Kelly, Joshua USA TODAY Sports)
The surprise would sweep through the green room and everywhere else shortly thereafter.
A former walk-on at Duke University was suddenly thrust into the spotlight that comes with the expectation of following in the footsteps of a two-time Super Bowl MVP in Eli Manning.
The Giants believe Jones can be the guy who can carry the franchise and handle everything that comes with the position, especially in this market. They would not have selected him No. 6 overall otherwise.
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And this was indeed a moment worth cherishing for Jones and his family.
"Everything he’s done in his first 21 years led to this: the moment as he was taking the call, and we realized that was it, just the expression on his face of just total concentration, and then that quick moment of elation, and then the moment when he hung up, looked at all of us and we just embraced," said Becca Jones, his mother. "We all sort of felt the collective joy that he felt, and that was really electric, really a moment I’ll never forget."
The behind-the-scenes reaction from Jones and his family was in stark contrast to the one that played out inside MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford during the Giants' draft party. The pick of Jones was met with disbelief and a smattering of boos, an angst-ridden fan base voicing its displeasure to ownership and team brass, including general manager Dave Gettleman, the newest Giant caught up in the chaos.
The Giants love the physical gifts and the mental makeup of Jones, who turns 22 on May 27.
NY Giants draft pick Daniel Jones (left), with friends, sporting an Eli Manning jersey at the age of 10. (Photo: Photo courtesy Becca Jones)
Those who know Jones best believe the Giants are getting a quarterback who can handle everything that comes with the position for which he was seemingly destined to play.
"There's no way to overplay this right now: this is a career opportunity," Steve Jones said. "I think Daniel understands ‘never too up, never too down,’ and he understands nothing’s ever as good or as bad as it seems. Don’t let people who mean well — or don’t — take you off your game. That’s part of it. That’s a big part of the job, it’s a big part of that endeavor, and many others, it’s not unique to football. You’ve got to have the gumption and the headset to stay on point. If there’s noise, process the fact that it’s noise and move on, and I think Daniel gets that’s one of the reasons the Giants were attracted to him and he was attractive to them.
“Because he feels like, ‘Yeah, I can handle that,’ and he knows there are going to be great days and there are going to be awful days, and that’s a big part of success and failure. The downs are part of the ups, and you’ve got to understand that."
Burning desire to compete
Competition was a way of life in the Jones' home.
Becca, the oldest at 23, played field hockey for four years at Davidson, just as their mother did.
Bates, 20, is on the men’s basketball team at Davidson.
Ruthie, the youngest, might just be the best athlete of them all. She's headed to Duke in the fall as a decorated soccer player.
NY Giants draft pick Daniel Jones, left, poses backstage at the NFL Draft last Thursday night with siblings (from l to r) Rebecca, Bates and Ruthie. (Photo: Courtesy Becca Jones)
So of Steve and Becca's four children, who is the most competitive?
"That’s a really good question," Ruthie said. "We all have our little claim to how good we are, but I think, the four of us growing up, anything we ever did or played, from video games to hanging out at the pool, playing ping pong or 2-on-2 basketball in the backyard, I mean we’re not going to finish playing until everybody’s won, or everyone has shown the rest of us how good they are. I think especially Daniel, though, playing in the backyard, playing football, shooting on me in soccer, he’s not going to go inside and eat dinner until he gets the last say on who won."
As a sophomore at Charlotte (N.C.) Latin High School, Jones was given the nickname “Swag” – in part because of his nonchalance through perseverance. There was one game in particular, his high school coach Larry McNulty recalled, that served as his varsity awakening.
"He kept getting knocked down, and we’re all looking at each other as coaches like, ‘Is this kid gonna get up?’ And damn, he just bounced right up and we were like, ‘Man, this kid’s got swag,’" McNulty said. "And all of a sudden, we all started calling him Swag, the whole school starting calling him Swag. He got pulverized, and he just got up and kept playing, he’s tough as nails. Don’t be fooled, he is a very fierce competitor, he hates losing, he hates looking bad. My thinking at this point is that he will do whatever he needs to do to get to wherever he needs to go. He’s going to make believers out of people, and that’s going to fuel him.”
Destined to be here
A page from Daniel Jones' third-grade school journal in which he first expressed his desire to play quarterback in the NFL. Jones was drafted No. 6 overall by the NY Giants. (Photo: Courtesy Becca Jones)
Becca Jones kept journals from when each of her four children were born, and she continued to write in them as a practice throughout their athletic journeys. The most extensive entries were about logistics, and whether the family would be able to make every practice or game for that weekend.
“I will admit that some entries were, ‘Rebecca did not play well this weekend,’ or, ‘Boy, that was a tough game for Daniel,’ or, ‘Bates threw two interceptions that game,’” Becca said with a laugh. “But most of all, at the end of the day, some of them were a collective breath in the middle of the chaos with four kids and they’re all 22 months apart. I just finished one right before the draft, and I'm starting another one with what happened on draft night and moving forward."
In the lead-up to the NFL Draft, Becca also found a journal that belonged to Daniel from the third grade.
On one particular page, he drew a picture of himself in a football uniform — No. 11 — with uprights in the background. With it, there was this caption: "I'd like to win a prize for good sportsmanship in football. I hope to be a quarterback in the NFL."
Ready for the next step
Daniel owned football jerseys of Michael Vick and — yes — Eli Manning growing up. His relationship with the Mannings (Eli and Peyton) was born from his attendance at the Manning Football Academy in Louisiana, and flourished because all three consider Duke coach David Cutcliffe one of their most influential mentors.
Now Daniel and Eli will be teammates with the Giants.
NY Giants draft pick Daniel Jones, second from left, was a fan of numerous quarterbacks growing up in addition to soon-to-be-teammate Eli Manning. Here is Jones wearing Michael Vick's Atlanta Falcons jersey. (Photo: Photo courtesy Becca Jones)
"I think back to 10-year-old Y basketball and 10-year-old Pop Warner football, and it’s hard to explain, but every single game was like Carolina-Duke. We took every game at every level like it was the Super Bowl, so I guess we were practicing for this moment," Becca Jones said. "But it’s also a testament to Daniel and really each of our children, he took each opportunity pretty seriously, down to the gear, what socks to wear — all of that mattered, and for Daniel, it’s just been a series of little decisions he’s made all along that have mattered, and they’ve added up, all the right decisions, along the ways he’s approached the sport seriously and conscientiously, and here we are."
Daniel Jones begins a new chapter in his football journey later this week when he reports for Giants' rookie minicamp beginning Thursday night in East Rutherford. Those closest to Jones not only believe he is exactly where he is supposed to be, but that he is ready to prove he will ultimately be the right man for the job.
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