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The Curious And Undetermined Legacy Of Landry Jones

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Landry Jones answers questions from the media at the Cotton Bowl media day. Jones will make his 50th start, against Texas A&M, Friday night. (AP Photo) Landry Jones answers questions from the media at the Cotton Bowl media day. Jones will make his 50th start, against Texas A&M, Friday night. (AP Photo)
NORMAN, Oklahoma -

Landry Jones stood behind the podium, poised to answer yet another question about his legacy at the University of Oklahoma. The Landry Jones that arrived in Norman in January 2008 would have provided a completely different answer than the person who stood in front of local media members on this December morning.

Jones first took the time to explain his legacy had nothing to do with his return to OU for his senior season, and then paused before delivering his hopes on what he would be most remembered for after his departure.

"Like I've always said, I hope my legacy here is bigger off the field than on the field," Jones said. "A guy that always tried to push his teammates toward Christ and always made that very evident that He is the answer in their lives and to our lives and the reason why we're here on the Earth."

No mention of accolades or on-field success. No mention of championships or record-setting numbers. In fact, Jones had to be prompted to give any indication he cared at all about what his legacy as a football player would be.

"On the field, I hope I go out the way I want to go out and go out with a win and play very well," Jones said. "We'll just see on January 4 how that ends up."

Therein lies the conflict between Jones and the OU fan base that has spanned his entire career. Those who have never met the Artesia, New Mexico native take that approach as something of apathy. Those closest to Jones find it ludicrous to ever question his commitment to the game he loves to play.

Jones will be starting his 50th game in the crimson and cream when the Sooners take on Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl Friday night. With such a large sample size, it's hard to believe OU fans haven't made up their minds about Jones' legacy.

Yet, no one has ever been able to definitively say what Jones' legacy at OU is, but Jones isn't required to care what the fans decide. He's been writing his own legacy the entire time.

***

Jones' career didn't begin like he expected it to. His redshirt freshman season in 2008, something he doesn't talk about much, sounds like something out of a nightmare. Jones spoke about that time in a video for the organization I Am Second a few years ago.

In the video, Jones said he expected things to be like high school for him. He expected to come to Oklahoma to make a name for himself and lead the Sooners to all sorts of success. He said he was "naïve" to think he would supplant incumbent starter Sam Bradford to be the quarterback, and when that didn't happen, his world fell apart.

"When I stepped on campus the first day, my identity was stripped away from me," Jones said in the video. "Everything I'd put my faith, my hopes and dreams in was stripped from me. I became sad, lonely and went through a state of depression that first year of college."

Life was tough for Jones, but change came in Dec. 2008, when a conversation with a relative altered the course of Jones' life for good.

"I remember it was me and my cousin Jeremy and we were kind of sitting in a room together just kind of hanging out," Jones recalled. "Then we started talking about life and he had been going through some similar things that I had been going through.

"It wasn't that I didn't believe in God, I knew God was real, it was that I'd never accepted him, I'd never asked Him into my heart. I think just that conversation led me to that point and my life was changed after that."

With that life change came a new sense of identity and purpose. No longer was Jones defining himself as a football player, but he defined himself as a follower of God, who happened to play football. The changes were immediate and well-pronounced.

"That was more of the (change) that was quick, overnight," Jones said. "For me, that was something I had to change immediately and got rid of that old mindset and accepted the new one."

Jones and OU women's basketball star Whitney Hand had begun dating just a short time before Jones' conversation with his cousin. The two were married this past summer. As someone closer to Jones than most, Hand was able to easily recognize the change in his life.

"He came to know the Lord and he became a better boyfriend, a better person, a better friend, and (ultimately) a better husband," Hand said. "I think it allowed him to keep perspective on football more than anything. He doesn't think anything is the end of the world, which if you have faith, it really isn't."

On the field, Jones was preparing for the 2009 season, but nothing could have prepared him for what happened in the season-opener against BYU. Late in the first half, Sam Bradford went down with a shoulder injury and suddenly, Oklahoma was turning to Jones to lead the offense.

While the Sooners were ultimately upset by the Cougars, Jones impressed his coaches with his demeanor following Bradford's injury.

"You can't fool anybody in the locker room," OU coach Bob Stoops said. "I remember, when we got in at halftime, he was genuinely excited to play, and looking forward to it. That's what you love. He was truly excited about going in to play."

Oklahoma struggled through that 2009 season—inconsistency from Jones being a big reason why. He didn't have the same success-driven attitude as when he first came to OU, but the losses and the struggles still ate away at him.

"I remember he would shut down a lot," Hand recalled. "All the time, he was just consumed with it. Can you blame him? He was put in probably the worst situation you can be put in as an athlete."

Despite the struggles and the grumbling of OU fans, Jones never lashed out or outwardly showed he was cracking under the pressure of insurmountable expectations.

"I think if anyone else had been in his situation the past five years, I'm not sure they would have handled it the same way, or as classy," Hand said. "That first year, I just remember thinking, ‘How are you even trying to live up to these expectations or trying to be another Sam Bradford?' It was just really mind-blowing."

***

The growth process for Jones didn't stop there. Jones continued to improve on the football field, leading the Sooners to a Big 12 championship and a Fiesta Bowl win in 2010. All the while, Jones continued to grow as a Christian and a man, helped along the way by his pastor.

Chris Bennett and his wife came to Norman in April 2009 to begin a new church, Antioch Community Church. Bennett felt a calling from God to reach out to athletes at OU, and began to pray for open doors in that area. A few months after the couple arrived in Norman, Bennett met Hand, and in the process, met Jones, just a couple of weeks after Jones became the starting quarterback.

Since that initial meeting, Jones and Bennett have become very close, meeting together each week for Bible study and prayer. Bennett has had a front row seat to watch Jones' transformation and understands how difficult it can be for a high-profile athlete to shift the focus of an identity.

"I think that's especially significant in a town like Norman because your identity for a lot of these players is as a football player," Bennett said. "Depending on how you play, your identity can fluctuate in how people view you, what people think about you."

Jones has taken what he has learned from Bennett and used it to teach his teammates more about God and his faith. He meets with several of them and has helped others find a relationship with God of their own. A football team, filled with many athletes and egos, isn't always the easiest place to talk with others about God, but Jones has always found someone eager to grow.

"You just have to find the guys who want it," Jones said. "You have to find the people who are hungry about God. You have opportunities to share your faith with someone and if they accept it, then you have the opportunity to start walking with them.

"The opportunity you get to have with men on this team that other people don't get to have, I think that's one of the big things as being a quarterback and being a leader of this team that you have the opportunity to do."

Jones ministering to his teammates is just a small part of the manifestation of his desire to go into ministry in some facet once his football days are done. Jones first felt the calling two years ago, but doesn't know where that calling will lead him.

"At first I didn't know what that looked like, maybe be a pastor and then the more and more I get involved in sports, the more and more maybe it's something to do with sports," Jones said. "You never know what's going to happen. I might still be on this path with another team in the NFL. You never know what he (God) has for you and what he wants you to do."

***

Despite Jones' transformation as a person and continued success on the football field, he could never gain much ground with the fan base. Jones has never concerned himself with the criticism aimed at him, but he's well aware of the winning tradition at Oklahoma and the expectations for the football team.

"We have won so many games around this place and this community expects a lot out of their players, which is great, but you sometimes feel the pressure of that," Jones said. "At the end of the day you have to live up those expectations and you have to play well."

What the spectators in the stands have to say doesn't bother Jones, but it has had an effect on those closest to him.

"I think it is harder on us (Hand and Jones' parents) because we hear it all the time and get the rude tweets and rude Facebook messages from people who don't understand and non-supporting fans," Hand said. "There are so many supporting fans. The sad thing is those usually get drowned out by the mean ones because those are obviously the ones you remember."

Hand clarified that there had only been rude messages from fans and that neither she nor Jones had ever received any threats from disgruntled fans.

Jones didn't win a national championship at OU, one of the few missing items from his resume. Unfortunately, that's one of the main things OU fans look at to determine the greatness of a particular player.

"You can't win," Hand admitted. "You truly can't win unless you're a national champion. That's unfortunate because (the players) are kids. You're putting your life investment in kids, a bunch of 18 to 22-year-old kids. That's sad.

I love the sport, the atmosphere, the tradition, but when it changes your mood and dictates how you feel, that's a little much."

Whenever the critics grow particularly loud, such after the Sooners' loss to Kansas State this season, when Jones' two turnovers were arguably the difference in the game, that change in identity three years ago pushes Jones through the chorus of frustration, disappointment, and even hatred.

"Landry doesn't read or follow what people say, the good or the bad," Bennett said. "There was never a sense of being concerned with what people thought or about his role. Is he aware of criticism? Absolutely. For Landry, it was always the expectations he put on himself because he wants to be the best, he wants to be excellent, he wants to honor God."

Jones isn't naive. He knows he's been placed on a pedestal as a member of the football team, and he's done his best to make the most of that platform.

"You do realize that people look up to you," Jones admitted. "You do realize OU football is a big deal here so you are a role model. You know that kids look up to you. You know people are looking to you as an example of faith.

"There isn't any pressure in that. I just think it's cool that you have the opportunity to do that."

Jones has come full circle with his career, ending his record-setting time at Oklahoma on the very same field that saw Jones' career begin at least a whole season before anyone expected it to. The teammates who spent their entire careers with Jones have seen evidence of his change first-hand.

"Freshman year, Landry was kind of goofy and going out a lot and things like that like most freshmen are, kinda wild and looking around seeing what everybody else was doing," OU defensive end RJ Washington said. "Then he started to calm down and come into his own and started gaining more and more confidence about his play on the field, but also in himself as a person. He kind of cut off all the distractions, settled down, started dating Whitney, and just it was on from there."

Punter Tress Way also made his college football debut in the fateful BYU game in 2009, and has been able to experience everything right alongside Jones, including being a co-captain with him this season. Way said the confidence the team gains from Jones' leadership is something that is often not understood in the general public, or at least, not believed.

"It's really been incredible because Landry may come off as the quiet guy that keeps to himself, but he's really not," Way said. "He's just an incredible team leader. The reason we're as successful as we are is because we've got Landry leading us and we know that we can lean on him. He's always going to give his 100 percent for us."

***

Jones will finish his career as the winningest quarterback in OU history and holds virtually every single major passing record in school history. Yet, despite the success Jones has brought to Oklahoma—three straight bowl wins and a 3-1 record against both rivals Oklahoma State and Texas—the fans have still not decided how Jones will be remembered.

Despite never gaining the adoration of the OU fan base, Jones persevered, working his hardest to be the best quarterback he could be. He never complained about the unfair treatment from fans, or the way his career began. He put his head down and wrote his legacy just the way he wanted it, not on the field of play, but in the hearts and minds of his teammates, friends, and the fans.

"If people only knew the life that he lived outside of the field," Bennett said. "He's a hero. He's a hero because he doesn't see himself as the hero. We need more people like him, that love Jesus, that love people unconditionally and that are consistent in what they say."

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