JEFFERSON CITY — In the office of Mike Jones, there is a photo. The photo, about 8-by-10, is framed with a white border. It is just beneath his daughter’s high school graduation pictures on the middle row of Jones’ bookshelf.
The photo represents a defining moment in Jones’ life. It exemplifies the greatest achievement for a franchise that has just moved to Los Angeles. The photo is a constant, everlasting reminder of a back-and-forth, all-out war that was won that day, 16 years ago. The question at hand is simple.
Where were you when Mike Jones made the tackle?
No, not where were you in the physical sense. Where were you emotionally? Angry? Overjoyed? Frustrated? Crying tears of joy? In utter disbelief? Considering the circumstances, they’re all valid reactions.
The photo is an image of Jones and Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson. The final play of Super Bowl XXXIV. Before that point, Titans quarterback Steve McNair marched his offense down the field in Atlanta on the Rams’ defense to put his team in a position to come away with a victory.
As the Titans lined up for the final play on the 10-yard line, Jones was lined up against Tennessee tight end Frank Wycheck, while closely eyeing Dyson. When Dyson crossed into Jones’ zone looking to score the game-winning touchdown, Jones did what he had been doing that entire season. He made the tackle.
Jones, lying underneath a fully extended Dyson reaching for the blue and gold painted end zone grass, had his arms wrapped around the lower body of the receiver and made the tackle, as teammates, photographers and football fans all over the country watched in awe.
What makes the photo so special isn’t necessarily the tackle itself. Yes, the photo was snapped during the peak of a legendary game. But for Jones, the head football coach at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, the photo embodies a lifelong journey, full of doubts and struggles, ending with one of the greatest plays in the Super Bowl.
That day, Mike Jones, given one of the most common names in America, had his name etched in Super Bowl history. For Jones, the journey leading up to that day is just as important as the tackle itself.
A path to college
Jones was born in Kansas City, some 250 miles from where he would eventually leave a lasting legacy. As the fifth child born out of nine, Jones was often referred to in his family as “the oldest of the second group.” Smack dab in the middle.
Sports were used as an outlet for kids to avoid the unknown dangers and temptations of a rough neighborhood. Jones was left with an ultimatum.
“You had a choice of what you were going to do back then, and hopefully you made the right decision,” Jones said.
He chose sports. Specifically, football, track and field, basketball and his childhood love, baseball. If he had it his way, he would’ve played major league baseball. But things weren’t that simple.
Jones’ high school in Kansas City, Southwest, didn’t have the funds for a baseball team, according to Jones’ football coach, Keith Hannaman.
“Things might’ve been different for Mike if we would’ve had a real baseball team,” Hannaman said. “For an inner-city school, we sent more kids away to (football) scholarships than all of the other city schools combined.”
“If they wanted to go to college, their best bet was through the Southwest football program.”
Jones was a two-position athlete on the field. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he was a physically imposing running back, earning All-State honors his senior season. On the defensive side of the ball, he excelled as a linebacker, recording 10 interceptions his senior year.
Schools like Michigan, Arizona State, Colorado, Notre Dame, Kansas and Missouri chased after the young athlete.
“I was almost certain I was going to Kansas. Then I went on my recruiting visit and I absolutely hated it.” Jones recalled with a smile. “My hatred for Kansas started early.”
Jones would eventually commit to Missouri. As a running back.
He played running back all four years at Missouri and even set a record for most receptions by a running back by the time he graduated. Scouts watched him heavily during his senior season, and he expected to hear his name called in the 1991 NFL draft.
But he never did. Jones went undrafted.
A few hours after the draft, Jones received a call from the Los Angeles Raiders. They wanted to sign him.
“I didn’t think I was the Raider type,” Jones recalled. “They looked for the 4.3 guys. The Bo Jacksons, the Marcus Allens, something like that. I wasn’t their type of running back.”
But the Raiders saw something in Jones the other 29 teams didn’t.
A switch that made history
Jones’ combined numbers as a running back were average at best. His numbers as a linebacker? No. 2 in nearly every category behind Roman Phifer, a second-round pick.
The Raiders believed they had a second-round talent as an undrafted free agent. Jones was asked to play linebacker for the first time since high school.
Jones would learn the nuances of playing linebacker at an NFL level with the Raiders, before eventually signing with the Rams in 1997 in St. Louis.
Jones’ first couple of years in St. Louis were nothing special. The team won just nine games in two seasons. Then came the magic of 1999.
The 1999 Rams accomplished quite a few firsts for the franchise in St. Louis, Jones’ third season with the team: the first winning season in St. Louis, the first playoff team in St. Louis, the first Rams team to go undefeated at home, the first NFC championship game in St. Louis and of course, the first — and only — Super Bowl appearance and victory in Rams history.
The irony of the photo is that the 1999 Rams were known for their high-powered offense. The greatest show on turf. The fact that Jones, a former undrafted running back turned linebacker, pulled off the key play was incredible.
As for the tackle, as Jones would tell anyone, it was just a normal play. It was something Jones had done since playing high school football. See the ball, make the tackle. It was common practice for the veteran. He was so focused on the game, he didn’t understand the magnitude of the tackle at the time. He didn’t realize he made a name for himself with a single play.
“As a linebacker, you tackle guys all the time. About 90-100 times a season,” Jones said. “It just so happened to be the last play of the Super Bowl. That’s what makes it so special more than anything.”
Using the memories as a tool
Jones is now the head coach at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. The photo of his tackle is not the only memorabilia from his time with the Rams.
On his desk sits a replica of the Lombardi trophy, approximately 2 inches shorter than the real version.
To the right of the trophy, Jones keeps a book. The book, titled “50 years, 50 moments: The Most Unforgettable Plays in Super Bowl History,” was given to him by one of the authors, NFL Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Rice. These keepsakes remind him of his proud past, while he tries to build a new legacy at Lincoln. He uses the tackle as a tool to teach his team to take advantage of the moments life presents.
“Coach talks about opportunities,” Lincoln sophomore wide receiver Will Peters said. “He was a linebacker, and he made the tackle when the opportunity presented itself. That’s what we try to do here.”
As Jones continues to develop his team, he lives a relatively normal life in Jefferson City — until Super Bowl week when reporters and columnists from all over the country try to get in touch with him for stories about the tackle and his ’99 Rams team.
It's happened more this year now that the Rams announced their move back to Los Angeles.
He doesn’t mind it, though. He loves reminiscing about those moments he cherishes so much. The moments the photo represents. It’s something he encourages frustrated Rams fans to do themselves.
“We started something special. The parade memories, going downtown, seeing half a million people excited about being world champions. It’s a special feeling,” Jones said with a smile. “The atmosphere, the energy the fans brought to the game, we really had a home-field advantage.
“The fans were a part of it. They got to live it with us.
“No one can take the memories we have.”
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.