Cephus Jones missed his 77th consecutive day of practice Thursday. The Thomson lineman will miss his 11th game tonight because he is injured.
It's not just a physical pain. Jones stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 285 pounds. Jones hurts because he cannot play.
It's no matter of aptitude. He started last year for Thomson because he could wipe out two men at a time. Sophomores don't dominate on a powerhouse team like the six-time state champion Bulldogs. This one did.
"Cephus was as good as any lineman I've ever coached as a sophomore," Thomson coach Luther Welsh said. "He has all the characteristics of an outstanding college offensive lineman already. Who knows? He could go from college to the pros with his size and the way he moves his feet."
Jones might be the best player in the state not allowed to play football, and it's all for his own good.
"We're talking about him risking his life if he was to play right now," said Dr. Robert Gambrell, Jones' physician. "This isn't him hurting his knee where he couldn't walk anymore, or risking arthritis in a shoulder. I'm talking about the most serious consequence I can give a patient. I'm talking about death."
When the Georgia High School Association moved up the season so that teams began practicing in the teeth of summer - July 20, many wondered if the players could endure the conditions.
The worst fear was realized in a heat stroke that befell Jones. He's lucky the only casualty of the earliest start in Georgia prep history will be his junior season.
Still, Jones and his family are having a hard time handling that.
"We take chances every day," Cephus said. "Chances driving a car. This is another chance. I want to play football. I've been told I could die. But at least I'd go doing something that I love."
Cephus would love to play for Georgia. That dream got sidetracked July 22. It was the evening session of the third day of practice. Thomson was in shorts and shoulder pads per GHSA guidelines. The Bulldogs broke for water every 20 minutes. Jones chatted with teammate Dan Ivey during the last break.
The rest ended with laughs and the two went back into the heat. Jones, set to play tight end, ran pass routes over and over.
His body temperature began a steep climb to 107 degrees. Gambrell said the most any body temperature should zoom to would be 101 degrees, no matter the heat or intensity of the drill. Practice ended 10 minutes later. Jones is proud to say he finished practice. But he really didn't.
"I saw Cephus wobbling," Ivey said. "I was like 'Man, you straight?' and Cephus said 'Yeah. I'm good.'"
What Ivey heard didn't match what he saw. Ivey looked back and saw Jones leaning heavily on Jimmie Jones, his father.
"I'll never be able to look at him the same again," Ivey said.
Jimmie Jones believes in supporting his children. He knows what it's like to work nights and go without sleep when it comes to family. He wants to be at his son's practices. He was there July 22.
"I was tired that day and needed to go home," Jimmie said. "For some reason my car just turned and I was like 'I guess it means it wants me to go watch practice.' I just wanted to go by for a minute."
Jimmie saw his son running pass patterns and walking back sideways. He'd seen his son practice often. This wasn't right.
"It felt like my legs couldn't give me what I was wanting," Cephus said. "My body felt like it was slacking on me."
Jimmie walked over. He asked his son if he was able to drive home. Cephus staggered into his father's arms.
"I called my wife and told her to go to the hospital and call an ambulance," Jimmie said.
Thomson trainer Craig Huff stripped Cephus of everything but shorts to expose his skin. He maxed the air conditioner in his car on the way to an industrial-sized fan in the school. No good.
Cephus went to the showers where he was doused with water and packed with ice. Jimmie Jones' clothes were soaked as he propped up his only son.
"The hardest part was watching him fade in and out," Jimmie said. "All I remember was beating his chest. I was beating his chest telling him to not fade out. I was trying all I could to keep my son from letting go of this world."
An ambulance arrived and Cephus was put on a stretcher.
CEPHUS traveled from his local hospital to the Medical College of Georgia by helicopter. He spent three days in intensive care and another three days at the hospital. He lost almost 25 pounds.
"The doctors told him to thank his God he was alive," said Cynthia Jones, Cephus' mother.
Cephus' high temperature wreaked havoc all over his body. The proteins from his broken-down muscles had to be cleared out by his kidneys.
Doing so clogged those organs and caused acute kidney failure. There was damage to his liver. He was weak for four weeks. He's strong now, but his body has not fully recovered.
The junior grows more frustrated by the quarter. When he was discharged, the prognosis to play again seemed bleak. Gambrell entered the picture, and both sides were eager to slowly bring him back to the field. But Cephus' condition has been static.
"His lab tests still show evidence of damage to his kidneys and muscles," Gambrell said. "Until those come back to normal I can't clear him. We put him on an exercise prescription to see how he'd handle physical activity and his lab values actually got worse. They still do. If they keep regressing, there's no way I can clear him to play."
Biopsy results showed Cephus has an abnormality in his muscle tissue. No one knows why. More testing is needed. Those tests are due in three weeks.
CEPHUS DIDN'T LET his condition change his spirit. He awakened from a near-comatose state and acted as though the ICU was his living room.
"He snaps to that Thursday morning and the first thing he asks is to put the TV on SportsCenter and for some Gatorade," Cynthia said.
Things are not as cheery now. An uneasy vibe ebbs between physician and patient.
"I want the doctor to clear me so I can play," Cephus said. "Clear me now. Release me. Print that. I don't know what I have to do. I feel fine. Maybe I have to get belligerent and throw things. Maybe then he will clear me."
Cephus and his father are aware of the big picture. It's just one that doesn't look as bright as a proud football career.
"The doctor just needs to clear him so I can see if he can still play and then he can resume treating him," Jimmie said. "My son is not abnormal. All I want is to see is him play."
Jimmie seems ready to rush his son back to harm's way. But he's the same man who rushed to his son's aid the moment he saw Cephus stumble.
He truly believes the danger has passed.
"They can do all the tests they want but let him play." Jimme said. "If they want they can come on the sidelines and test him. He can let them see. Then they can show me how playing would be bad. If we can see him in a game, just a practice. One practice."
Cynthia watches her husband and son discuss playing. It is the first time she's been able to talk about her son's heat stroke without crying. She wraps her arms around a stuffed animal. When Cephus brings up the "death" topic, she clutches it for security.
"I just want my son healthy," Cynthia said. "I'm his mother and he's still my baby. But I also want him to see if he can live out his dreams, too."
Everyone is frustrated. Gambrell thinks the Jones' family might try another doctor to get an easier clearance.
That strategy is not unique to this family.
Cephus is stronger than he was before his heat stroke. His bench press is up, he squats 495 and can leg press nearly 900 pounds.
"They think their son is well, but I can't convince them I've seen no improvement in his condition, " Gambrell said.
"I feel for whatever reason I cannot get my point across to the parents. I'm worried about that. He's not better. He's still in a recovery period."
Cephus is already fully qualified to receive a college scholarship and wants to major in computer engineering.
But he's still a player at heart.
"I am scared by this but not terrified," Cephus said. "It is all about a chance. Maybe it's dangerous for me to go out and give it all I've got. That's true. But I want to. I love this game too much not to get back in there."
And that risk is no oddity.
"I'd take that chance," Thomson senior Pat Finnerty said. "We have this tradition. Our community takes so much pride in our team. I'd risk my health or death to play for Thomson."
Cephus believes that a solid junior year would have earned a scholarship from an Auburn, a Georgia or a Georgia Tech.
"I feel like my whole life was going in a great direction," he said. "I just hit a bump. It's no setback. Just a bump in the direction of this road. ... I might have lost this year but next year's my year. Next year I will play."
Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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