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Former University of Minnesota football star Dominic Jones offered some high school football players $100 recently if they could come up with his previous jersey number and his current one.
One raised his hand and said Jones was No. 2 as a Gopher. Correct.
Nobody knew his current number. "Number 00425759. That's my number," Jones said. "My name now is Inmate. It's not Dominic Jones."
In the past year, the 21-year-old Jones has gone from an admired team leader with realistic NFL dreams and a college diploma within reach to a sex offender serving a one-year sentence in the Hennepin County workhouse.
During his first public interview since he was charged last summer, Jones spoke about personal responsibility, college sports and his journey.
"I am not blaming a white man. I am not blaming a prosecutor. I'm not blaming a judge. I'm blaming me. That was hard for me to do at first," he said. "I'm human. I made a mistake."
Jones had a full-ride football scholarship to Texas Southern University. Instead, he reported to the workhouse on July 7, after the state Court of Appeals declined a stay pending his appeal. He can get out during the day for work or studies. (An appeal of the guilty verdict is still pending.)
Jones spent the first seven days in full custody, locked in his cell 22 hours a day, before county corrections got the proper paperwork for his job.
"I am trying to tell you when the bars shut, reality set in," he said. "When I hit rock bottom, I hit it hard."
He knows he let team down
He leaves the Plymouth correctional facility at 7:15 a.m. Monday through Thursday, he is at the E.J. Henderson Youth Foundation in Eden Prairie, working on conditioning and mentoring high school and college players. Friday through Sunday, he works at a clothing store in St. Paul.
He is back in Plymouth for dinner at 6 p.m., then to his cell. He reads, takes a shower. Then it's lockdown and lights out at 11 p.m. Like all inmates, he is subject to random strip searches. It has been humiliating and humbling, he said.
Jones knows he has disappointed people, including the Gophers, who went 1-11 without him last year. "I let those guys down that I worked my butt off in the weight room with," he said. "I was the messiah of the team. With that young team, I needed to be there."
But he wasn't. Last July, Jones was charged with raping a woman too drunk to give consent. A 37-second cell phone video recorded by an ex-teammate shows Jones masturbating over the woman. He was kicked off the football team, then convicted of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, but acquitted of rape.
Jones did not talk in detail about that night in the room shared by four former teammates. He said in the past he believed the behavior was consensual. Jones was the only one charged, although the woman had sex with three others before he arrived.
Before this, Jones was on track to graduate in December with a degree in sociology. He was kicked out of school shortly after his conviction.
Jones said he had to summon the courage every day to walk into the courthouse during his two-week trial. His lawyer, Earl Gray, would tell him, "No matter what happens, this is not the end of your life."
Jones said he has seen the error of his ways.
He said he used to party to the "extreme," despite his image as role model for the team. He would tell high school kids not to drink while underage, yet he would do it himself.
He doesn't disagree with things prosecutors said after the trial, about athletes being given privileges by society that distort their views of right and wrong. "When you're put on a pedestal like that, you hear a lot of things and you see a lot of things and you think it's OK," Jones said.
He is familiar with the term "jersey chaser," for women who offer themselves sexually to star athletes. "But who is it really on?" he said. "It's on us."
Now he wants to use the clout that came from athletic fame for good. He points to the example of Magic Johnson opening up about his struggle with HIV. This fall, at the urging of his new bosses, he will speak to inner-city kids about his life.
"He's a good person, but he made a bad decision," said one of his bosses, Mark Ellis, a former assistant coach with the Vikings under Mike Tice.
He thinks Jones can reach inner-city kids because he is one. "His message is, 'Look, I had it all right here in my hands. It's all gone,'" Ellis said.
He said he told Jones, "I need you here to be a model, a flawed model. You're someone that made a mistake, and you're working through that."
Jones said his support system includes Henderson and Ellis, his fraternity brothers at Alpha Phi Alpha, former Gophers coach Glen Mason, his mom and God.
Freeman pulls for redemption
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office prosecuted Jones, said, "If you believe in redemption, and I do, I'm glad to see that's occurring already."
Jones "made a frightful decision that really impacted a person. I appreciate that he's starting to acknowledge that," Freeman said.
Jones said he'd like to play football again, but wants to get his degree. He's hoping to take courses this fall.
"My purpose in life isn't football," Jones said.
Jones has a 2-year-old son in Ohio being raised by the boy's mother and his mom. Seeing his son is one of many things big and small that he says he sees differently. "To be able to eat a meal of your choice. The value of a hug from your son. The value of an education. One decision, that's all it could take, and everything could be snatched away from you."
Jones already has props for his presentations this fall: his old jersey, a prison-style uniform and a doctor's scrubs and stethoscope. He will tell kids that it takes hard work to get the jersey or the scrubs, but just one bad mistake to end up in a prison jumpsuit.
At his sentencing in May, Hennepin County District Judge Marilyn Rosenbaum talked of the trouble she had reconciling the sincere letters of support she received about Jones with his behavior that night in April 2007.
Jones thinks about those letters and the supporters who wrote them. "I've got a lot of people to prove right," he said.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747