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IOWA CITY — Charlie Jones is hesitant to give up his dad’s phone number to a reporter.
The questions about the offense not living up to its potential — fair.
The questions about his successful two weeks — uncomfortable, but fair.
The question about the tattoos on his left arm — he’s hesitant, but points to them and explains their meaning.
But introducing a reporter to a member of his family is something sacred, you can tell. His eyes glance up and his eyebrow creases in thought. He’s about to say no.
“Do it,” another reporter says. He gives in.
The number “8,” is tattooed in roman numerals (VII) on the inside of Jones’ left forearm, along with the saying “let go and let God” on the outside. Eight is the number of members he has in his family: five siblings, his mom and dad. The tattoo is from a prayer his dad, Matt Jones, recites that’s especially resonant now for a transfer who gave up a scholarship at the University of Buffalo to walk on at Iowa.
“It's a prayer that basically says: just turn your life over to God and his light will come shining through in one shape or another,” Matt Jones said over the phone.
Matt didn’t know why, but Charlie wanted to meet him and his older brother, Matt Jr., for dinner during spring break of his freshman year at Buffalo. That’s when he brought up the idea of transferring. Buffalo was too far from home in Deerfield, Ill., and he wanted a school that was more enthusiastic about football.
“I said: ‘No chance,’” Matt said. “I said, ‘Do me a favor, stick it out one more year, give it 100 percent and if you’re not happy at the end of the second year, then you have my blessing to transfer.’”
After redshirting his freshman year, Charlie was a part of a 10-4 season at Buffalo in 2018, which earned the Bulls a spot in the Mid-American Conference championship game and Dollar General Bowl. He caught 18 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns that season, returning 15 kickoffs for 289 yards.
But he still wanted to be closer to home, closer to family.
“I didn't think it was going to be that big of a factor when I made that decision,” Charlie said. “It was tough for everyone to come out. They did the best that they possibly could. My dad came out probably almost every game, which was really special for me. But it was a tough transition. I think it definitely made me more independent.”
He sat out his first year as a transfer at Iowa in 2019, but in 2020 led the Big Ten in punt return yards (223) and yards per return (10.1), also leading the nation with 22 punt returns. But he still wanted more. This spring, Charlie said he was hoping to see himself as a more integral piece of the offense at wide receiver.
That’s happening. In Game 2 last Saturday, he caught his first touchdown pass as a Hawkeye against Iowa State, running a skinny slant up the middle to beat Iowa State defensive back Datrone Young with outstretched arms.
He held his index finger up to his mouth, silencing the crowd in front of him.
It’s symbolic to his quiet rise up the roster to get here, not only as an impactful player, but also as someone who doesn’t want the spotlight on him while trying to make a name for himself.
Family of 8
The VIII tattoo was Charlie’s youngest brother, Luke’s, idea.
Luke wanted a tattoo, but wanted to make sure it was meaningful. The roman numeral eight, to him, was not only representative of the family, but also everything they’ve been through together.
“I never thought I was going to have a tattoo,” Charlie said. “But things change and these mean a lot to me.”
It was Charlie’s first and is Luke’s only tattoo. Charlie loved the idea of it so much he tried to get the whole family to get one, but the two of them are the only ones who have it currently.
The second honors his Roman Catholic faith, something that’s kept him and his family grounded through life’s adversities: living far apart, injuries, Matt Jr.’s cancer diagnosis and the parents’ divorce.
“For me the number eight, it's more of like the number six,” Annie, Charlie’s younger sister, said. “Charlie includes my parents. Maybe that's why I'm like a little hesitant to get the tattoo. Friends don't really know what we're going through, like, they can try to help but it's just not really the same.”
Matt Jr.’s cancer diagnosis came at age 16 and was especially hard on Charlie, who Annie said shared a room with him growing up.
“It was tough seeing your brother fighting for his life,” Annie said. “He stayed in the family room, but we also couldn't spend a lot of time around him just because we didn't want to get him more sick with the outside germs.”
All of Charlie’s siblings will say Charlie’s dreams are not just for himself, but for his family. While a dynamic threat on the field, his heart is bigger than people realize.
“I'm a pretty independent person,” Matt Jr. said. “During that time period. I had to depend on a lot of people, including Charlie.”
Annie said Charlie calls her all the time, especially when he was at Buffalo. He shares more with her than anyone else. When it comes to sharing pieces of his life with strangers, she said it’s not just the hardships they’ve been through, but his personality. He doesn’t like talking about himself.
The hard part of Charlie’s journey back to the Midwest was he had surgery for a torn shoulder and didn’t garner much interest from the transfer portal. He liked Iowa because of the success he saw from other walk-on athletes, but it did mean giving up his scholarship at Buffalo.
After his surgery, he spent time back home before going to Iowa. Luke said it brought them closer, as they’d go to the weight room together or get up at 1 or 2 a.m. to pull the jug machine out in the driveway and practice catching balls. It’s those intimate conversations with his older brother while catching footballs on his driveway that remain his favorite memories so far.
He’s learned a lot from those talks, especially as he’s going through his own recruitment right now as a senior football player at Deerfield High School. He’ll be visiting Iowa for the Kent State game Saturday.
“I would always be like, ‘this guy has so many offers,’” Luke said. “Charlie said that doesn’t matter, just got to go out and play your game every single time. Don't worry about what others have.”
As he watched Charlie on a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown against Michigan State last year, Luke realized what’s possible for himself, too.
The relationship with Annie is different. Charlie is Annie’s best friend, especially since they’re only 19 months apart.
Annie went to community college in California, working three jobs at a coffee shop, day care and as a nanny after a torn disc in her back ended her competitive dance career. Her life had been so consumed by dance that she needed to figure out her path.
Instead of selfishly telling her to follow him to Iowa, one of the two schools she considered, he told her to chase her dreams at North Carolina, where she now studies journalism and entrepreneurship.
The reason why, she said, Charlie can be such a private person is because the family’s hardships have just closed them off to others.
“It makes it hard for us to open up,” Annie said. “He's also humble and he knows he's good, but I don't think he understands he has the ‘it’ factor.”
Annie thinks a lot about taking two different paths: one as someone who starts her own company to help children with cancer navigate their nutritional needs, another is her being on the sidelines, calling her brother’s games as a sideline reporter.
Maybe she’ll be on the sideline when Charlie is playing in the NFL.
“You can’t say, ‘Charlie, if you make it,’ he’ll correct you and say, ‘No, no, no, you mean, when I make it.’” she said.
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