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Friday, January 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seahawks

Being Walter Jones

Seattle Times staff reporter

ALICEVILLE, Ala. — Billboards serve as guides on the rural roads that lead here. They tell you who to vote for (Republicans unite!), who to buy from (Fresh fruit 5 miles ahead) and who to worship (Jesus is the reason for the season!).

Then there is the case of a billboard at the edge of Aliceville filled out by the picture of a man so massive he is quite literally larger than life. There's Walter Jones in his familiar crouch, same Seahawks jersey, same arms that look like thighs, same blank stare.

"He grew up in Aliceville," the billboard reads, "and boy, did he grow up!"

Jones has long since left the town that never left his heart. But he did grow up here, in houses and trailers and apartments that often lacked running water or inside toilets or telephones. Grew up with cars that barely ran and shoes that rarely fit. Grew up without a father.

The man who now has everything grew up with almost nothing.

It should also be noted, though, that Jones grew up with everything he ever needed. Grew up with a mom that made $3.75 an hour and still managed to feed and clothe and house eight children. Grew up so happy he still wants anyone who calls that life poor to define what that word means.

"That's the beauty about Walt," fellow Seahawks lineman Robbie Tobeck says. "All the contract stuff, all the accolades, that stuff does not define him. Walt's still Walt. It's the simple things that make him laugh and the simple things that make him happy."

From hand-me-downs to handmade suits. From one football field in his town to the one he built in the backyard of his Alabama home. From little money to his latest contract worth $52.5 million.

Everything changed, except for one.

The man himself.

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Growing up a Jones

Size always defined Walter Jones. Before he became a 6-foot-5, 315-pound, all-world offensive tackle, he weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces as a newborn. A boy so heavy that his family jokes about having to prop him up for pictures.

"Big and beautiful," says Beverly Jones, the family's oldest child. "He had the prettiest round face. Oh, my Lord, he was just so pretty. When he came out of the hospital, everybody loved him."

That's all a family had and all a family needed — love and each other and enough money for necessities. They made up the rest of life as they went along.

Games consisted of finding a nearby creek or pond or lake, splashing in the water, swinging on vines — guess who always broke them? — and tracking mud back into the house.

"We didn't miss the swimming pool," says older sister Gwendolyn Buckhalter, "because that was our swimming pool."

Cars were only used when the family could afford them, at $200 to $300 a pop. Like the lime-green station wagon that didn't work in reverse, requiring Jones to move it backward himself long before pushing cars became a staple of his training regimen.

There were no phones, so the family used vocal chords to yell from the front porch to the nearest neighbor. And cameras captured none of this because the Jones family couldn't afford to buy one.

Vacations were weekend visits to grandma's house about 15 miles away in nearby Carrollton. His sister Beverly still lives there on land her grandmother bought in 1960. The lot looks nearly the same now as it did then — trailers nestled off a gravel road, a car missing wheels out front, children playing basketball outside.

Earline Jones would feed her children before they went to grandma's, then instruct them not to act hungry. They would always disobey her in order to feast on grandma's caramel and tea cakes.

"My children didn't realize that they were poor," Earline says. "They didn't know anything about poor. They kept their own selves happy. That's what kept me going. Because my kids were so lively, they were so happy, they were so full of life."

And also full of food. There was always cornbread and collared greens and pinto beans. Along with cabbage and biscuits and — Walter's favorite — honey buns with cheese melted on top. His mother says every day back then was a potluck.

At the first of the month, each child received a bag of potato chips. That would be their junk food for the month and also their lesson in making due with what they have and appreciating what they were given. That's why Earline remains friends with the family that adopted her family every Christmas, bought them presents, threw a party and never left her children wanting more.

"I done been through the tough times," says Walter, who turns 32 Thursday. "But they didn't seem that tough. We had each other, which was enough."

Walter finds his calling

The eight Jones siblings veered into so many professions that they could easily form a southern version of The Village People. Beverly, 43, is a nurse; Cornelius, 40, works at a car dealership; Gwendolyn, 39, is a real-estate agent; Danny, 38, is in the Army; Valerie, 36, works at a restaurant; Tony, 34, is a sheriff's deputy; Tanya, 29, is a homemaker; and Walter, well, he plays a little football.

Sitting in a conference room at daughter Gwendolyn's real-estate office in Tuscaloosa in mid-December, Earline marvels at her unblemished success rate. Her children grew up fatherless and poor and none turned to drugs or alcohol or turned into statistics.

"She did it all by herself," Walter says. "Food, clothes, anything we needed she could get. That's amazing how she made ends meet."

One man saw how the boy with nothing could become the man with everything. And that's how Pierce McIntosh became the second influence in Jones' life.

Coach Mac taught young men more about life than about football. But Walter wasn't even going to play. He was scared to because an older brother hurt his leg playing football.

Only Coach Mac kept hearing about the big boy from the big family. And he took one look at Walter and told him this: "Son, you're a millionaire walking around broke." Coach Mac told Earline that in five years, if her youngest son applied himself, he would be rich and famous.

"He saw the potential in him," close friend Juan Dancy says. "Coach Mac took Walter under his wing like a father would do a son."

He instilled discipline. Taught Jones how to make a highlight film to send to colleges. Took him to colleges for visits. Had his wife tutor him to try to make up for the grade Walter repeated in junior high.

Coach Mac was also tough. So tough that Gwendolyn had to bite her tongue watching practice from the sideline. So tough that practice ran until 10 at night. So tough that players pushed cars instead of weights.

The boy without a father figure needed this, even though he doubted so at times. Sure, there were times he wanted to rebel, times he wanted to give up, times he told his coach he wouldn't do it, wouldn't make it.

"He saw something in me that nobody else did," Jones says. "... He came in at a point in my life where I needed that direction."

This is what Coach Mac saw: a player who took over a basketball court like a Mack truck. The kind of player who shattered a backboard on a reverse dunk in a basketball tournament. The kind of player reminiscent of Charles Barkley.

His family thought he would be a basketball player; Shaquille O'Neal without the height. But those same skills translated easily on a football field. All basketball did was add the grace and balance.

"Like he pushes those guys down just like they are pieces of paper," Gwendolyn says. "Momma and I always laugh about how easy it looks."

Coach Mac didn't stay long in Aliceville. He's now a high-school principal in Mississippi. Earline doesn't see the timing as coincidence.

"It's simple," she says. "He was an angel sent from God to be there for Walt."

The mostly gentle giant

Beverly Jones will never forget watching her Pro Bowl brother chasing the chickens around her yard in Carrollton last offseason so that the kids watching him would laugh.

"You play ball," he explains, "so they put you on this pedestal. I try to let them know that I'm still the same person. I'm still the same Walt. I still do crazy things.

"So if I want to, I'm going to chase some chickens."

That much everyone agrees on. From high school to junior college to Florida State and to the NFL, nothing changed Jones — a man so laid back his personality type is recliner.

He's the same guy who wanted to watch the NFL draft from Aliceville instead of in New York. The same guy whose mom says she has to make eye contact with him just to make sure he's listening. The same guy who teammates joke didn't talk during his first two seasons with the Seahawks.

"A lot of people ask me what it's like to have a pro football player for a brother," Beverly says. "I don't know because he still seems like little Walter. Ain't no different, except he's bigger now."

Tobeck says Jones has become more outgoing each season. Just last week, while talking about how quiet Jones is, Tobeck notes that he can hear Jones cracking jokes in the next room.

On cue, Tobeck comes up with his own joke. See, Jones and Tobeck watch "The Sopranos" together, and since Tobeck can't come up with a character with Jones' personality, he compares his teammate with "the ducks that swim so peacefully in Tony Soprano's pond."

Relationships like these played a role in Jones' negotiations with the Seahawks last summer, although the $16 million signing bonus certainly didn't hurt.

"I don't take into people well," Jones says. "It takes me awhile to get to know people and open up to people. I've opened up to everybody on the team, so I don't think I can go nowhere else and have to learn a whole new group of people again."

Teammates can't recall ever seeing Jones get mad. If he gets beat for a sack, Tobeck says, Jones might get a look in his eye and usually flattens said defender on the next rush. It's the same thing Earline always says. Her son is quiet, but don't push him.

And everyone in the family remembers the last time someone pushed.

It happened last Mother's Day, at Walter's house in Huntsville. Earline stopped counting at 55 people for the gathering, and since the house now is so big, it wasn't even close to full.

The kids went swimming in the backyard pool, and it backed up and overflowed. Jones had just put shrubbery neatly around his pool, and the water started running all over the place. He called for assistance only to be reminded it was Sunday, and the pool people wanted him to wait until Monday for repairs.

"Y'all going to come out here and fix my pool!" Gwendolyn recalls her brother yelling. "I just put in this shrubbery, and this stuff is going all the way out here in my gazebo!"

That's the only time in recent memory — and one of few times ever — the Jones family can remember Walter getting mad.

"I try to stay at even keel, man," he says. "When I get to that point, I kind of scare people."

An unbreakable family bond

During the season, Jones doesn't talk much with his own family.

"If the cat done fell in the well, let it stay in the well until his season's over," Earline says.

When it's over, of course, he's coming home.

"The day after," Gwendolyn says. "Always."

Jones never forgot Aliceville or the siblings he grew up with. There are signs everywhere like the billboard that make it seem like he never left.

Like the one at the football stadium that reads "Walter Jones Fieldhouse." Jones paid for that, along with uniforms for the team and rings when they won the state championship in 1997. He also brought kids from all over Alabama to the football camp he hosted for the first time last summer on the field in his backyard. And his family always adopts another family for Christmas, just like someone did when he was little.

Jones also brings each of his siblings and their spouses to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Since he's become one of the most dominating linemen in football, it has become something of an annual vacation.

"I don't want it to be me just sitting there telling stories later," Jones says. "I want them to experience all of this. When we sit down telling stories, we're going to tell these stories together."

So that's what they do — in Huntsville, in Seattle, in Hawaii. The Jones family sits around the table, eats just like they always have and kills time telling stories.

Like the time a young Walter and his younger sister, Tanya, went for a joy ride, with Walter steering and Tanya mashing the gas pedal to the floor until the car crashed into a truck. Or the time the siblings "borrowed" a neighbor's boat, catching something serious when Earline found out what they were up to.

Sometimes, though, they aren't as specific in their storytelling. Sometimes they just talk about the family that had nothing and everything all at the same time.

"That's still what it's going to come down to," Earline says. "That God brought the Jones family from rags to riches."

Walter always told his mother he'd take better care of his feet when he could afford to. Growing up, she could only afford to buy her children one pair of shoes at a time.

The first time Earline visited Seattle, she took a walk in her youngest son's closet. Guess what she found inside that ran rivers down both cheeks?

Some 500 pairs of shoes.

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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