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Unfair

This story appears in the October issue of Carolina Blue. Click HERE to subscribe to the magazine.

Jones during his visit to UNC's season kickoff against Elon on September 1st.

Take a look up at that picture of Nazair Jones.

Across his intense yellow Nike shirt is printed the word “UNFAIR” in large, bold letters.

The word could be taken in a number of ways: unfair to other players because Jones, North Carolina’s four-star, 6-foot-5, 245-pound class of 2013 football commitment, is so physical and athletic that he can play almost any position on the defensive line; unfair to other schools that UNC continued bolstering its nationally ranked recruiting class by signing Jones; or — and perhaps this is the best interpretation — unfair to Jones, because less than one year gone, he was diagnosed with a rare disorder that caused him to lose nearly 50 pounds and left him pondering his future in football.

It all began soon after his stellar junior season at Roanoke Rapids (N.C.) High, when Jones was a rising recruit garnering interest from some of the nation’s top programs. He had just won conference defensive player of the year, and the future was auspicious.

Then came the pain.

It started in his back when Jones began working out with the school’s basketball team, and it didn’t subside.

“I had never experienced anything like it,” Jones said.

The first doctor Jones visited thought it was a cracked tailbone and referred him to UNC Hospitals, where he underwent tests, MRIs and X-rays. Jones stayed for a week and was sent back home.

Before his illness, Jones would have challenged for the No. 1 overall recruit ranking in N.C. for the '13 class.

“They gave me some medicine, thinking that (the pain) would just wear off,” he said. “But it didn’t.”

Jones returned for a second appointment and was finally diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, a “chronic pain condition that can affect any area of the body,” according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The disease forced him to use a wheelchair. Coaches who thought Jones was their defensive end of the future abated their recruiting efforts.

The handwritten letters stopped coming. Coaches’ visits to his high school happened far less often. N.C. State gave him a conditional offer: If you get healthy, they told him, then you can have a scholarship.

“I think he was written off by a lot of schools, but they don’t know the young man that I know,” said Jones’ high school coach, Russell Weinstein.

But UNC never wavered.

“That’s one thing about Carolina, though — they did stay in contact with me,” Jones said. “I respect them for sticking around even when I was down.”

Jones did his best to ensure he wasn’t down for long. But it wasn’t painless. He endured grueling sessions of rehab and physical therapy that made him question his commitment to the sport. It tested him physically, mentally, spiritually.

A standout performance at UNC's summer camp landed Jones the offer he had been dreaming of

“It took me a while to get through that,” he said. “Just trying to get back from it, it took, Lord knows, a couple months, more than that …”

His voice trails off.

“I was real discouraged about where he would be after the injury,” said Tammy Jones, Nazair’s mother. “(But) he was very determined to get back on the field.”

Jones’ recovery was gradual. He progressed from the wheelchair to a walker to crutches and slowly gained the weight back. He began running, then catching passes, then running through 7-on-7 drills with his teammates.

When the doctor finally cleared him for contact, UNC running backs coach and area recruiter Randy Jordan told Jones to call him.

Jordan gave Jones the chance no other school had been willing to: He invited Jones to an elite summer camp at UNC.

“He was asking me, ‘Was I willing to do it?’” Jones recalls. “If I show up and I don’t work out, or if I show up and I don’t do well, there might be a chance that I don’t get a scholarship … I was like, ‘Well, I’m up for it.’ I knew this was supposed to be my last chance.”

So Jones, Weinstein and their offensive coordinator made the trip to Chapel Hill.

Still not 100 percent, Jones did well in the first few drills, but fatigue set in toward the end. He was cautiously confident about his performance and didn’t expect an offer that day.

After the workout, Jones eyed Weinstein talking to UNC coach Larry Fedora. He was worried. He wanted to know what they were discussing.
Fedora called Jones inside, and they walked to a corner by a staircase.
After the two made small talk, Fedora said the words that would shape Jones’ football career.

“He said I had a scholarship to play football at the University of North Carolina,” Jones said. “I basically jumped for joy. I was at a loss of words.”

Jones committed almost immediately. The offer was what he’d been driving toward since he first put on pads, first climbed in the wheelchair, first wondered if he’d ever play a down of college football, or if the disease would win.

“He’s been through quite a bit physically, (and) he’s stayed strong through it mentally,” Weinstein said. “We’ve seen him get better each and every week here … I think that trend will continue.”

Jones says he’s “pretty darn close” to 100 percent. He’s almost back to where he was a year ago – a scary thought for ACC quarterbacks.

So don’t dismiss Nazair Jones as a can’t-miss prospect just because a rare illness threatened his unlimited potential.

That would be unfair.

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