Harrisburg's Jimmy Jones broke down racial barriers in college football

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) -- Jimmy Jones had "it" in 1968.

He was senior class president at Harrisburg's John Harris High School.

He was a good student.

He was a great football player.

"He could run. He could pass," recalls George Chaump, Jones's coach at John Harris, "but most of all could lead. He was a great leader."

Chaump says nobody could keep up with this Jones. In three seasons he quarterbacked the Pioneers to 33 wins and no losses. His 35 touchdown passes as a senior set a state record.

"He was probably the best quarterback high school-wise in America," Chaump said.

Jimmy Jones had it.

And nearly every college wanted it. Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and many more made offers to Jones.

How many?

"Over a hundred," Jones said.

Ultimately, the young man from Harrisburg decided to go west. He chose the University of Southern California. He says he picked the Trojans because he was confident he could start as a sophomore and Coach John McKay told him he could play quarterback, which was then a novelty at major college football.

"Black quarterbacks were always known as running quarterbacks and I knew that I could pass," Jones said of his game.

In 1969, Jones did start as a sophomore. USC's arch-rival, UCLA, learned the hard way that he could indeed pass. Jones threw a game-winning touchdown in the final minute to beat the Bruins and send USC to the Rose Bowl. It's an iconic play heralded as one of the greatest in 'SC football history.

Jimmy, ever the pioneer, became the first African-American quarterback on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And in the 1970 opener, as a junior, Jones led integrated USC into segregated Alabama to play a game that went way beyond football.

"The conditions of race in the United States needed some type of movement that was gonna change people's minds," Jones said. "Who would've known that a football game between USC and Alabama would be an integral part of changing the way things were viewed in the South and across the country as a whole."

USC throttled Alabama 42-21 on the field. There was tremendous reaction off of it.

"After that game, Bear Bryant, a famous, great coach at Alabama, went to his president and said, 'if we don't start taking black players, we're gonna be in big, big trouble'," Chaump said.

The game has been the subject of numerous documentaries. It is credited with breaking down color barriers in college football in the South.

"That was the Emancipation Proclamation," Jones said with a hearty laugh.

Though Jimmy helped to free black athletes in the South, and set numerous offensive records at USC, he couldn't escape the shackles of NFL stereotypes.

"I went undrafted," Jones said flatly.

Chaump shakes his head. "He should have made pro ball in this country, but for some reason, they didn't pick black quarterbacks."

Jones went to the Canadian Football League and, to the surprise of no one, led his team to victory. Jones quarterbacked Montreal to the Grey Cup championship, its version of the Super Bowl. His teammates still tell him that a player with his skill set today would break the bank and have teams breaking down his door.

"They say, 'man, you were just born too soon, Jimmy. You were just born too soon.' It's always frustrating when you can't achieve a goal for whatever the reasons," Jones said. "There are some frustrations that went along with that."

But not bitterness.

Jones is soft-spoken and quick with a smile. A husband of 46 years with two sons, he devoted his life to helping kids as a coach, counselor, and minister. He's philosophical about his journey.

"If you're not at the right place at the right time, then it's not meant to be, and sometimes it's just not meant to be and the acceptance of all that is what makes you, I think, a good person," he said.

Though he never found NFL fame and fortune, he never lost "it".

"He still looks great," Chaump said. "He's handsome, fit, and he's still the great Jimmy Jones."

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