LINCOLN — Keith Jones saw it as being welcomed into a special club, but one that carried a high level of responsibility.
In the years before he joined the Nebraska football program coming out of Omaha Central in 1984, the Husker I-back tradition had been building with runners such as Mike Rozier, Roger Craig, Jarvis Redwine, I.M. Hipp, Rick Berns, Jeff Kinney and Joe Orduna.
All-Big Eight performers, every one of them.
“It was an honor, because you knew the shoes that you were going to have to try to fill, and you looked forward to that challenge,” Jones said. “You knew it was going to be competitive, knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Because going into the Nebraska program, especially in the early ’80s and mid-’80s, that running back position was the premier position.”
Keith “End Zone” Jones did his part over the next four years, running for 2,488 yards and leaving with the No. 3 spot on the Huskers’ all-time rushing chart behind Rozier and Hipp.
The two-time All-Big Eight pick ran for 582 yards in his final three regular-season games in 1987 and finished his career with 32 touchdowns, including the first scores against Oklahoma in both 1986 and ’87.
After being a sixth-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Rams, Jones spent parts of four years in the NFL. His best season came with Cleveland in 1989 when he started two games, ran for 160 yards and a touchdown and caught 15 passes.
Jones said he recently took a break from several different ventures to spend time as a stay-at-home dad to Quincy, 16, Kaydon, 10, and 5-year-old twin girls Ezley and Xonya. Quincy McKelvy is an Omaha Burke junior who has been a part-time starter the last two seasons as a Bulldogs running back.
More from Jones, who last weekend was inducted into the Omaha Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame:
Q: What was the lowest spot on the NU depth chart that you can remember?
A: My freshman year coming in, I was probably behind at least Jeff Smith, Paul Miles, Doug DuBose, Thurman Hoskins, Jon Kelley ... so, man, No. 6 already. But coming in I just assumed I’d play freshman ball and kind of get in the pipeline and wait my turn.
Q: How did you react to that as somebody who had just broken some of Gale Sayers’ records at Central?
A: That’s the way it was, and I expected that coming in. The beauty of it is you know you’re going to be in a very competitive situation and there would be an opportunity to compete every day in practice. I knew with getting that opportunity, I was hopeful I’d be able to move up on the depth chart as soon as possible.
Q: Where did the “End Zone” nickname come from?
A: When I was in high school. Going into my senior year, I was having some success, and a few of the guys were actually teasing me and making up some different nicknames. A guy by the name of Bruce Cullum, a guy I had played with all the way back to little league, said “End Zone,” and it kind of stuck after that.
Q: Why did you wear No. 6? Did it have to do with a TD being worth six or just coincidence?
A: It’s ironic you ask because at the OPS Hall of Fame I told them where that No. 6 came from. My senior year in high school (1983), we lost three games — by one point to Gross High, lost to Prep by two, then lost to Burke by three. So a total of six points, and I just always felt like if I’d done a little more in those games we could have won ’em. So I picked No. 6 because that was kind of my driving force — to finish every run, to try to make the most of each play.
Q: With your speed, did you feel like you were living that “End Zone” nickname every time you touched the ball?
A: I knew if I got out on the edge that that possibility was there. And with the Nebraska scheme and their system and with the option, our receivers and tight ends were always blocking out on the perimeter so, yeah, I was pretty confident.
Q: What was your fastest clocking in the 40?
A: Back then Boyd Epley had the electronic time system, and my fastest on that was a 4.31. The kind of give-and-take to me at that time was always going back and forth with track. With football, I had to gain weight and put on muscle. Then with track I had to be lean and sleek. And at times I kind of felt like I never figured it out. Then my senior year, I think it was, Coach Osborne came to me and told me, “Your track career is over.”
Q: Who could run with you from those 1980s teams?
A: Ya know, (wingback) Dana Brinson. When we were going through conditioning and training, I’d always see Dana kind of lurking. And Dana also ran track. I think I was kind of the carrot for him. So he was always kind of lurking, which worked out for both of us, because he always pushed me. And once Terry Rodgers came, Terry had pretty good speed, too.
Q: Do you feel as if you became a complete back in Lincoln?
A: Running between the tackles was something I had to develop, which I felt over the years at UNL I did. Because you don’t get to play under Coach (Frank) Solich and not be able to do that and do that good. I wasn’t a very big guy, but I felt if I hit the hole as fast as I could, with speed and momentum, it’d work for me.
Q: Colorado fashioned itself as an upstart under Bill McCartney and beat Nebraska in 1986. Did that make your 248-yard game in Boulder in 1987 one of your favorites?
A: Absolutely. Back then, you looked at scouting reports and knew guys were trying to beat you, so they were kind of the enemy and you really weren’t trying to learn a whole lot about them. So watching the Colorado special a few weeks back (30 for 30 on ESPN) gave me a little more insight and allowed me a little more respect for their program. But my senior year, rushing for 200-plus yards was an accomplishment for me, because I realized for Colorado what playing against Nebraska was like, that that’s what they played for every year.
Q: Ever wish they would break out the all-red home uniforms that you guys wore in the 1986 game with Oklahoma again?
A: Yes! Have they done it since then? They were really cool. It kind of took a lot to convince Coach Osborne to allow us to do that. I believe it was Broderick (Thomas) and Danny Noonan and some of the leaders on defense. That was kind of their idea.
Q: With the 1987 NU-OU game being hyped as Game of the Century II, how did players not get caught up in all that hoopla?
A: That previous year was hyped, also, but not as much as the ’87 game. For us, we knew what we needed to do and felt like the game plan was in place, and we really felt like we were going to win that game.
Q: Did you grasp as a 17-year-old what it meant to break records that belonged to Sayers?
A: I had no clue. I had no clue, and you could call it immaturity or whatever you want. I recognized his name, I remember “Brian’s Song” ... but it was probably not until after my senior year. I can’t remember what was said that made me realize the accomplishment, but I think it was an article that was done in The World-Herald, and the stat comparisons and that sort of thing, when I realized, “Hmmm, OK.”
Q: How proud were you to see I-backs like Leodis Flowers, Calvin Jones and Ahman Green follow you from Central to Nebraska?
A: It was amazing. I always felt like guys before you set the standard and you tried to raise the bar. I just felt like I was very proud of their success. And then with Ahman, after I had come back and was retired and was coaching up at Central, just the chance to work with Ahman was very fulfilling, because I had been where he was trying to go. So any advice you could teach or show or articulate to him along his way, you knew it would be helpful.
Q: Was it always going to be Nebraska for you coming out of high school?
A: The final two were Nebraska or Washington. Coach (Don) James out there, he came here to visit and I took a recruiting trip out there. I fell in love with the water and the mountains and all that. But when it came down to my family getting to see me play, it would have been more of a challenge being all the way out in Seattle. LSU was another school that was highly interested, but I kind of decided last minute to eliminate them.
Q: Is it true that you wouldn’t even make a trip to Oklahoma?
A: At that time, that was just a no-no. For me, that was just one of those things where that was not even an option. I know a few years after me they were interested in Leodis — and not sure if he took a trip there or not — but for me being right here in Nebraska and knowing the history and the tradition, that’s just a line that I really wasn’t interested in entertaining.