Kenyatta Jones, USF’s first NFL draft pick, dies at 39

Former USF offensive tackle Kenyatta "Bear" Jones spent parts of four seasons in the NFL, earning a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots. (Times file photo)
Former USF offensive tackle Kenyatta "Bear" Jones spent parts of four seasons in the NFL, earning a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots. (Times file photo)
Published June 9
Updated June 11

Former USF OT Kenyatta "Bear" Jones, the first Bull ever selected in the NFL draft, has passed away in Colorado, his mother confirmed Saturday.

Jessica Hadley-Brown, heading out the door of her Marion County home to catch a plane for Colorado, said her son died of cardiac arrest. Mr. Jones was 39.

"Just a fun-loving guy, man, like a gentle giant," said former Bulls FB Keith Williams, a teammate of Mr. Jones on USF's inaugural 1997 team. "But on that field, he took care of business."

A Gainesville native who starred at Eastside High, Mr. Jones — listed at 6-foot-4, 308 pounds as a Bulls senior — played four seasons for USF. He earned second-team Division I-AA All-Independent team honors in 1998 and played in the 2000 Blue-Gray Football Classic.

"Extremely competitive," former Bulls C Joey Sipp said of Mr. Jones, a former suite mate at USF's Fontana Hall.

"You tell athletes all the time you can't turn it off and turn it on when you wanted to. Kenyatta Jones was one of those guys who could turn it on and turn it off. … When he turned it on, he was unstoppable."

His athleticism was further illustrated with his one-year stint  on USF's basketball team in Seth Greenberg's third season as coach (1998-99), when injuries besieged the Bulls roster and Greenberg sought out football players to provide additional bodies in practice.

"(Defensive back) Anthony Henry was ultra-athletic," former Bulls G Anddrikk Frazier recalled. "That's who we were expecting to show up over the holiday break. When KJ walked in the (Sun) Dome, we were rolling."

But not for long. Mr. Jones stuck with it and appeared in three games, collecting two rebounds.

"KJ brought a toughness and preparation that you would expect from someone who was competing for a starting job," Frazier said.

"He became one of the guys immediately. His intensity in practice coupled with his encouragement during games, jokes on bus trips and team meals made him a team favorite and a basketball brother."

He ran a sub-five-second 40-yard dash at the 2001 NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, and was selected in the fourth round by the Patriots in the NFL draft that April. As the 96th overall pick, Mr. Jones was selected immediately before teammates Anthony Henry (No. 97) and Bill Gramatica (98th).

Primarily a guard in the pros, Mr. Jones earned a Super Bowl ring as a Patriots rookie despite limited action. He spent parts of four seasons in the NFL and later played one season (2008) for the Tampa Bay Storm in the Arena Football League.

Characterized as the "life of the party" by Sipp, Mr. Jones' career was tainted by a sequence of arrests, including one on a felony charge of carrying a concealed firearm just prior to his senior season at USF. Mr. Jones underwent pretrial-diversion, according to court records.

In October 2003, he was arrested for allegedly dousing his house guest and administrative assistant with scalding water, and was released by the Patriots five days later.

In July 2008, he was arrested in a Tampa narcotics sweep for allegedly trying to purchase less than a gram each of cocaine and marijuana, but those charges either were dropped or he wasn't prosecuted, court records indicate.

On Saturday, however, former teammates preferred to remember a burly peer described as a fun-loving soul and  consummate teammate.

"I mean, just the ultimate teammate, ultimate competitor," former Bulls TB Otis Dixon said.

"On a long, hot day, he was gonna help us get through practice. … Life will never be the same. He hasn't been in my life, but he's in my life."

What led him to Colorado wasn't immediately clear Saturday. Mr. Jones was among a handful of players who couldn't be reached last summer for a Tampa Bay Times 20-year anniversary package on the '97 USF team, but former teammate Cory Porter said then Mr. Jones was involved in the rap-music business in Jacksonville.

Related: Revisiting the inaugural 1997 USF Bulls football roster

"We took care of business when we had to," Williams said. "But off the field man, he was just a good guy. Just a fun-loving guy man, like a gentle giant."

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