Notre Dame football charity softball event has Tony Jones Jr. thinking baseball again

Eric Hansen I South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Tony Jones Jr., flipped his fingers through the new, bright red highlights in his dreadlocks as he pondered an old dream that apparently didn’t go to die after all.

Monday night in the second-annual Football and the Force charity softball event held at Four Winds Field, the Notre Dame junior running back was among the Irish football players who most looked like someone with baseball in their past.

Apparently it might still be in Jones’ future as well.

“I’ve thought about it, talked about it for a long time,” said the former high school outfielder at IMG Academy of doubling down on two sports. “I might play baseball next year. I don’t know yet.”

He played infield and played it well Monday night in one of the four three-inning games staged against local law enforcement officers at the home of the Class A South Bend Cubs. The Irish players and coaches came close to splitting those four games, ceding football-esque totals in both losses, to the South Bend Police Department (17-1) and to a combined team of Mishawaka officers and Indiana State Police (17-8).

The Jerry Tillery/Alex Bars team tied the ND Security Police, 1-1, in the first game of the night. Another ND squad jumped out to a 12-1 lead after two innings against the St. Joe County Police, then hung on for a 12-10 win with the tying run at the plate at game’s end.

Proceeds from Football and the Force benefit Indiana C.O.P.S. (Concerns of Police Survivors). Indiana C.O.P.S. provides resources to assist in the rebuilding of the lives of surviving families of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

Irish players signed autographs, posed for pictures and interacted with fans when their group wasn’t on the field.

In the two ND losses, two coaches with extensive baseball backgrounds had rough nights on the mound.

Before Clark Lea was a football defensive coordinator, he was — once upon a time — a bruising college fullback. and before that, a baseball player. A scholarship baseball player, with an NAIA World Series ring.

None of that translated for him against an impressive SBPD squad. The first three pitches hurled by Lea resulted in an inside-the-park homer, another inside-the-park homer and a triple in the rout.

Swedish-born ND linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath prevented a fourth consecutive extra-base hit on pitch No. 4 by alertly positioning himself on the outfield warning track and catching a 350-foot smash at the wall in what turned out to be a six-run inning.

Lea played baseball collegiately at Birmingham Southern, then Belmont, before transferring again to Vanderbilt, where he walked onto the football team.

Ironically, defensive backs coach Terry Joseph, who played baseball professionally for four years, had a less flattering bottom line — 13 runs given up in a single inning, and to a Mishawaka/State Police team that quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees shut out in the first inning.

Shoddy defense behind Joseph didn’t help.

Joseph was a 13th-round draft choice of the Chicago Cubs out of Northwestern (La.) State in 1995 and topped out at the Double-A level before finding his way back to football through the coaching ranks. He actually played at Four Winds Field as a visiting minor-league outfielder for the Cub’s Rockford affiliate 22 summers ago.

ND head coach Brian Kelly, whose Irish were split into four different teams, limited his role to throwing out the ceremonial first pitch and snickering at the proceedings.

That included Jones’ base running.

Jones tripped and rolled running between first and second on a scorching line drive down the left-field line, then got thrown out at home after trying to stretch the triple into an inside-the-park homer. He later added another extra-base hit.

Tight end Cole Kmet, who actually played for ND baseball coach Mik Aoki this season (primarily as a pitcher), flew out to left in his only at-bat.

“It’s slippery out here,” Jones said of the blunder. “It’s all right. I’m just trying to have fun out there. Doesn’t really matter if you win or lose.

“Just coming to the field and playing on a pro field and bonding with my teammates and bonding with the police officers is what makes tonight special.”

The most impressive base running might have come from nose guard Kurt Hinish. The 6-foot-2, 292 nose guard took an extra base on a single and belly flopped hard into third before scoring.

One of the more impressive defensive performances was turned in by linebacker Te’von Coney, with consistent — and sometimes spectacular — play at second base. ND’s leading tackler in 2017 brought his dog, Lola, along with him to the game.

The Irish veteran players have been back on campus for a week now, participating in summer football workouts on the field and the school’s 4-for-40 community service curriculum off it. The majority of the freshman class, those who weren’t early enrollees, join the others when regular classes begin next Monday.

Football and the Force is part of the 4-for-40 program.

“The idea is it gets them back to campus,” ND director of player development Ron Powlus said. “It gets them on a training regimen as athletes and as students and as citizens in our community.

“As we say in recruiting, and we mean it and believe it, coming to Notre Dame is not a four-year choice but a 40-year decision. Forty years and beyond does that degree and experience carry you, so that’s where we come from with the 4-for-40 and that’s why we do it to help develop them as people.

“There’s no school credit. The NCAA allows for programs like this, but certainly the benefits for life are important.”

Notre Dame’s Tony Jones Jr. tries to juke the catcher, but can’t, during the Football and the Force Charity Softball game Monday at Four Winds field.
Notre Dame’s Tommy Kraemer signs an autograph for Mike Roberts of Detroit during the Football and the Force Charity Softball game Monday at Four Winds field.
Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery reacts after tagging out Security Patrol’s Michael Clayton as WSBT’s Pete Byrne makes the call during the Football and the Force Charity Softball game Monday at Four Winds field.