TAMPA — When he walked across the stage in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center nearly two weeks ago among hundreds of other Florida graduates, Gator linebacker A.J. Jones wasn't thinking about himself.
Instead, he was thinking about his family, the young children in his neighborhood who look up to him as a Gator football player, and his former Midddleton High School classmates who didn't make it out of their struggling neighborhood.
"I made it," was his prevailing thought during the ceremony to pick up his degree in Family, Youth and Community Sciences. "Especially coming out of Middleton High School, there's not too many of us that can say we made it. So I feel like I did it for my community, my friends and family. I guess I was representing a lot of them, too. I feel real blessed. Most people don't get the opportunity to do this, and besides my cousin, I'm the first person graduating from college in my immediate family."
And the magnitude of it all wasn't lost on his mother, Jenny Jones.
"Words can't even explain," she said. "Out of all the trips going up and down the road watching him play football, that was the most meaningful trip of all to Gainesville. To see him walk across that stage meant everything to me."
In a perfect world, Jones would have ended his career in the national title game or a BCS bowl. Instead, he and the Gators will conclude this season in Saturday's Outback Bowl. The opportunity to play his final game in his hometown is more than a small consolation prize.
"That's real big for me," he said. "You always want to go to a BCS or even a national championship game. But for me, at least I'm coming back home playing in front of a lot of people I know. For me it's going to be a big-time atmosphere. Who wouldn't want to go back home and play in front of their hometown?"
Playing at all is somewhat of a miracle for Jones. He was born prematurely and doctors told his mother he would never play sports, and would suffer from some mental disabilities.
"Here is a child they said would never play sports and he played five years of college football," Jenny Jones said. "They said mentally he'd be disadvantaged, and he walked across the stage and got his college degree. I think what has got him through everything is his faith. He has very strong faith. When he comes home, anybody that knows him and is around him (sees) he continues to have faith in God and that's what's brought him through everything."
Jones, 22, arrived in Gainesville in 2006 rated as the No. 13 outside linebacker in the nation by rivals.com, but his career has been filled with injuries and setbacks.
As a freshman he broke his foot one week before the opener and missed the season. His second year, he broke his wrist in the second game and played through grueling pain the remainder of the season.
In 2009 Jones started the first 11 games before suffering a knee injury and missing the final three.
Despite it all, he wouldn't change a thing.
"It helped me grow up a lot," he said. "Throughout my years we've been through our ups and downs, but the down years helped me to grow into a man. It helped me to find positive things in life. And being hurt, it helped me to focus on my education a lot more because you never know what can happen. … It taught me that I can fight through a little bit of adversity through my life."
Florida coach Urban Meyer on Tuesday called Jones "one of my favorite guys" and praised him for his efforts during his time with the Gators.
"He's a person that's come a long way, on the field and off the field," Meyer said. "He's a graduate of Florida. … He'll probably have a chance to play a little bit (professionally), maybe, maybe not. But he understands the value of what just happened, with life. He's very respectful. You just like being around guys like that. He's one of my all-time favorites."
Meyer will coach his final game with the Gators on Saturday, and Jones and his senior teammates get one last chance to determine an ending to their careers. If Jones has his way, the story concludes this way: "Urban Meyer goes out a winner," he said. "We go out hand-in-hand as winners. That's the way we want it to be."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.