When Patriots rookie Marcus Jones came off the field early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Jets, his parents initially expected the worst.
Jones, back to return a punt, had limped to the sidelines, forcing the Patriots to burn a timeout so that safety Myles Bryant could step in while trainers checked out Jones’s ankle. Sitting in the stands at Gillette Stadium, Jones’s father Marc and mother Viola kept their eyes glued on their son, who eventually left for the locker room.
“I was like, ‘Oh, it’s bad,’ ” Viola said. “It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad. I was like, ‘Uh-oh, he’s going to the locker room. It’s not good, Marc. We got to get up.’ ”
The Patriots called Jones as questionable to return, so, as the defensive stalemate between divisional foes continued, Marc and Viola got up from their seats and made their way to the field level to check on their son.
By the time they made it to the designated area for family members, Marc took a look at the television screen and saw Jones back on the field.
“I said, ‘That’s Marcus back out there,’ ” Marc recalled. “And then, all of a sudden, I’m watching it, and he caught the punt and started running. And it got so loud in there. I saw him running, and I was screaming and hollering. I said, ‘That’s him!’ ”
With 26 seconds left on the clock, and the score still tied at 3-3, Jets punter Braden Mann decided to boot the ball inbounds. Jones caught the punt at the 16-yard line and sprinted up the sideline before cutting back to the middle of the field. At that moment, his father had a good feeling about what would happen next.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this before,’ ” Marc said.
Jones, who developed a reputation as a talented return specialist throughout high school and college, followed his teammates’ blocks and ran to the end zone, scoring the game-winning touchdown. The wild sequence invigorated the home crowd and the Patriots, who improved to 6-4 to maintain their wild-card spot in the playoff picture.
“I was screaming and hollering,” Viola said. “The people around us were screaming and hollering, running with us, kissing us. It was wonderful.”
Added Marc, “It’s something to see. He’s always been underestimated because of his size. But he has that pit bull mentality. He works hard. He has some speed, too, to show.”
Sunday marked the first time Marc and Viola had attended a Patriots game together, making the day even more special. Because Marc is a junior high school teacher and coach in Alabama, finding games that work with his schedule can be a challenge.
The couple had to choose between Sunday’s game against the Jets and the Thanksgiving matchup against Minnesota, but opted for the former to go to a home game.
While the biting New England cold was a bit of an adjustment — Marc joked that he’ll need 48 hours to “thaw out” — the decision certainly worked out well.
“For both of us to be there, I was like, ‘Oh my God, look at this!’ ” Viola said.
When Jones was a senior at Houston last October, Marc and Viola watched him return a kickoff 100 yards for a game-winning touchdown against Southern Methodist with 17 seconds remaining. The play was one of four touchdowns Jones scored on special teams that season.
“Every game we go to together, it seems like Marcus does something spectacular,” said Marc.
Sunday’s 84-yard touchdown is undoubtedly the top highlight of Jones’s young NFL career.
The third-round draft pick took over as the team’s punt and kick returner in Week 4, and has emerged as one of the most productive specialists across the league. Jones, the only player to return a punt for a touchdown this season, ranks second in the NFL in average yards per punt return with 16.65 and is second in kick returns with 24.29.
“If you look at a couple of his previous returns, he’s one block away,” said Marc. “I said, ‘Sooner or later, I think it’s going to come.’ Somebody’s going to make a good block for him, and he’s going to break one.”
His father was right.
After New England’s 10-3 victory, Marc’s and Viola’s phones started blowing up with celebratory messages and calls from friends, family members, and coaches from all stages of Jones’s football career. Amid the craziness, the couple congratulated their son.
“I told him, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ ” Viola said.
As Marc and Viola reflected on the moment and their son’s journey to the NFL, they couldn’t help but see the younger Jones, the one that used to catch “punts” in the backyard with his dad.
“He always tells me, ‘Mama, you know I’m grown now,’ ” said Viola.
Added Marc, “I’m like, ‘Man, this guy went from pee-wee football to the NFL.’ ”