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By LARRY VAUGHT
It was 32 years ago that Danville’s Chris Jones had suffered a knee injury that ended his University of Kentucky football career and left him with no chance to pursue a National Football League career that then UK coach Fran Curci still believes he would have enjoyed.
“I love Chris Jones. I think he could have been one of the great football players that we had there. It was us and Oklahoma and we got him. He had the most devastating injury, and it was right in front of me. It destroyed his whole career. But he was a great kid and I hear he’s doing very well right now,” Curci said.
Jones now lives in Lexington and works at Fifth Third Bank. He recently attended the practice UK coach Joker Phillips invited alumni to watch.
He was a Parade Magazine All-American in football at Danville and voted the state’s best running back in 1978. He was also a third-team all-state basketball selection — he scored over 1,200 points — won the 1978 Class AA 100-meter dash in 9.8 seconds and was second in the 200 dash in 22.5 seconds.
He was redshirted at Kentucky in 1978 after pulling his hamstring in the preseason. He finished seventh in the Southeastern Conference in rushing in 1979 and led UK in scoring and had Curci comparing him to NFL great Chuck Foreman. However, he tore ligaments in his right knee in the third game of the 1980 season and that led to nerve damage in his foot that ended his career for the same injury that players today are normally able to come back from in a year because of medical advancements.
“You do not find many guys with his size, speed and strength,” Curci said on a recent visit to Kentucky. “He was a pro. There’s no question he would have been a pro. He had the dedication, too. He wanted to be good and then that leg just went right in half right in front of me. It was the Indiana game. I will never forget that.”
Curci will never forget how hard he had to recruit to keep Jones from going to Oklahoma.
“It was really hard. I spent a lot of time with his family. The night he finally said he was coming to Kentucky I was so excited — and I’ll never forget this — I am driving home faster than I should. A state trooper stopped me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I am telling him that we just got Chris Jones of Danville and as I am talking, he is still writing the ticket,” Curci said. “He gave me the ticket. I thought, ‘Hey, maybe have a little mercy on Curci.’ But he didn’t.”
However, Curci knew the ticket was well worth the price of landing Jones.
“Chris was a special athlete. You have to plug these guys in. You lose a Sonny Collins, you have to pick up another great player like a Derrick Ramsey,” Curci said. “You always have to have that one guy that the other team has to find a way to stop him. There has to be one guy on the team.
“I saw Kentucky play Tennessee last year and I had never seen a Tennessee team with no players. They didn’t have one guy who you could say you better stop. If you don’t have one really spectacular player that the other team has to find a way to stop him, you become mediocre team. Chris was one of those guys that could be spectacular. He would make other teams have to find ways to stop him.”
Recruiting regulations were different in 1978 when Curci signed Jones, so the coach was able to fly into Danville in a helicopter the morning Jones signed his scholarship papers.
“We would fly in and all the high school kids see that and it would be a big deal. It was part of making a big deal out of it and that made it hard to say no,” Curci said. “In recruiting you try to get a top guy to commit and once he commits, you would like to think he is a honorable guy and is coming.
“Chris committed and stuck to his word. It used to be you had to recruit those guys all summer. Now at least there is a rule once you sign, you are locked in. It was not always that way. But there was no way I was not going to be in Danville that morning and let somebody from Oklahoma try to sneak in and change his mind.”