Kids love to aim for the bucket in basketball games, and the guys on the Peaster Greyhound seventh grade team are no different. They are talented hoopsters accustomed to swishing nets.
So it was extra impressive that these same Peaster kids resisted any temptation to let one fly for the final 3:18 of a recent game. Instead, they dribbled out the ball until the final buzzer. They were winning and didn’t need — or want — any more points.
For the previous few days, their coach, Nick Jones, had been away tending to the unexpected death of his beloved father, Steve Jones. Healthy and vibrant at 61, Steve Jones contracted COVID-19 shortly after Christmas and was taken to a hospital in Nacogdoches and put on a ventilator. Later, he was moved to a hospital in Kansas City and hooked to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation life support system in a last-ditch effort to save him, but he died on Jan. 26.
Nick Jones, who was born and raised in the small town of Mount Enterprise, not far from Nacogdoches, returned to East Texas to bury his father in early February. He had returned to Peaster in time for his basketball team’s game that day.
“I hadn’t been able to talk to the kids or see them,” Jones said. “I didn’t even know the kids knew how old my dad was or anything. I was talking to them before the game and said something about, ‘We just need to go out there and score as many points as we can.’ One of my kids said, ‘Hey, coach, how about if we just score 61.’ Man, I liked to broke down.”
The kids knew what Jones had been going through and knew the age of his father. They came up with a plan to honor the elder Jones by scoring 61 points and preventing the other team from scoring that many.
Such a moving sentiment from youngsters touched Jones deeply.
“I’m kind of speechless,” he said. “It’s hard to explain how much the kids and everybody in this community have helped me get through the most difficult thing in my 37 years that I’ve had to deal with.”
The kids’ act of kindness reinforced a decision Jones had made not long ago to move his family from Mount Enterprise to begin coaching at Peaster.
“I’ve been coaching all my life, and the kids here at Peaster are special,” Jones said. “We spend all our time as coaches trying to teach them and never expecting them to teach us.”
The boys’ plan worked. They scored 61 points and held their opponent to 10.
Before joining the coaching staff at Peaster, Jones had been coaching at Mount Enterprise, the small East Texas town where he had grown up. His parents and grandparents had grown up there, as well, and the Jones' roots run deep in the area. Jones had coached at a couple of other schools before returning to his hometown alma mater in 2015.
By 2020, though, Jones was married with two young children. His wife had graduated from occupational therapy school and was looking for a job.
“A bigger town would mean more opportunity for her,” Jones said.
A mutual friend put in a good word with Gary McElroy, who was beginning his first year as athletic director and head football coach at Peaster. McElroy tapped Jones to coach his junior high football, basketball and track teams and to help out with the high school football team. The Jones packed up, left Mount Enterprise and rented a house in Weatherford just in time for the new school year.
“We love it,” Jones said. “To me, I feel like I’m living in downtown Dallas. I’m used to 500 people in a town.”
They enjoy having shopping amenities nearby in Weatherford and love the small-town feeling of kinship they’ve found in Peaster. Losing his father gave Jones an up-close view of the Peaster community in action, and he liked what he saw.
“The community has been great,” he said. “The staff. The administration. It’s unbelievable. My superintendent, my preacher and my athletic director drove four hours to my dad’s funeral. They never even met my dad, but they were there for me and my family. You don’t meet a lot of people like that.”
It makes sense that the children’s actions would mirror that of their parents, he said.
“These kids, you can tell they are raised by good parents,” he said. “They are respectful. ‘Yes sir. No sir. Yes ma'am. No ma'am.’ The whole school is like that. It’s a different world here.”
Peaster is Jones' fourth stop on his coaching career. He envisions it as a place to stay, a place to feel welcomed.
“The community and parents are supportive of whatever we’re trying to do in athletics or in the classroom,” he said. “I’ve been to schools where parents want to blame the teachers. That’s not how it is here. They support us and want what’s best for the kids.”
The kids are benefitting, apparently. For a handful to come up with the idea of scoring 61 points to honor their coach’s late father smacks of empathy and grace.
“Just the care they showed, the love they returned to me,” Jones said, his voice cracking a bit as he spoke. “Just for them to think about that meant a lot. Seventh graders, you don’t really know what’s going through a seventh grader’s head or what they got their minds on. It was a very difficult situation I was going through and being able to get a smile because of them was big during that time.”