BLOOMINGTON — As Hurricane Michael tore through the southeastern United States last week, Florida native and Indiana linebacker Reakwon Jones heard the screams of his family. A tree had just fallen onto the house, and Jones heard it while on the phone with his stepfather.
The family’s house was destroyed. Its clothes and belongings were lost. The surrounding area of Panama City, Fla. saw five schools vanish. Because of poor cell reception, Jones still hasn’t been able to speak with his father, who also lost his home during the hurricane.
12 hours away in Bloomington, Jones was both praying for his family and preparing to play against Iowa. At first, he felt helpless. He could hear the pain in their voices. He wanted to be there.
“I felt really down because everybody wants to be there with their family and friends when they’re going through something tough,” Jones said. “But my mom’s really strong and she encourages me no matter what that if I’m okay, she’s gonna be okay, so that helps me to be able to just go through the day. I know they’re strong and they’re going to get through things without me. They can and they did.”
Despite the ongoing crisis in his hometown of Lynn Haven, Fla., Jones knew there was a game to be played. A crucial one, on homecoming, that Indiana lost 42-16. It was the most disappointing game of the season for the Hoosiers — allowing Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley to throw for six touchdowns. The momentum established the week before in a valiant effort against Ohio State had evaporated.
“It was really emotional for me,” Jones said. “I went out there and I wanted to win that game for my city. I wanted to play as hard as I could for my city and I felt like I went out there and played as hard as I could, and that I did everything in my power that I could for myself. And then just to see the results of that game, you know, it broke my heart. I broke down after the game and it was just tough.”
Following the game against Iowa, Jones arranged for his family to visit him in Bloomington. He hadn’t seen his family since January. The hurricane had passed in the Florida panhandle, but Jones’ family was still on curfew. Once it was lifted, Jones’ family rented a car and drove 12 hours to southern Indiana to visit the eldest member of the household. They arrived in Bloomington Friday, just in time to see Jones play for the first time in college, on Saturday against Penn State.
Except the Jones’ family had just lost everything. Reakwon’s mother, stepfather, and two youngest siblings weren’t able to afford a place to stay in Bloomington. So the eldest brother hosted his family for the weekend.
“It was a blessing,” Jones said of the visit. “After the game, I got to hang out with them. They stayed with me because they couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else. They stayed with me and my two dogs. We made it work, we packed up in there. We just hung out and had fun, caught up, talked and just shared feelings.It was really good for me. It’s really hard to focus when you haven’t seen your family in forever and something like that happens. And I was able to see them, lay eyes on them, and see that they were physically okay.”
With 63 Hoosiers either hailing from Indiana or its bordering states, many families are able to see each game at Memorial Stadium. For Jones’ mother, this was her first visit to IU since dropping Jones off as a freshman in 2015. Walking into the stadium from Indiana’s pregame buses, it was the first time Jones saw her face.
“I just couldn’t believe that they were there,” Jones said. “Just to see them in person in Indiana was crazy. I knew they were coming but at the same time I couldn’t believe that they were here. I was extremely happy. I felt the same again. I was smiling and it was just a great all-around feeling to have them here to support me and I support them through what they’ve been through.”
Working with Indiana’s compliance office and the NCAA, Jones has started a GoFundMe to assist his family. Everything was lost in Hurricane Michael. He isn’t looking for big donors. All he wants is a restart button for his loved ones.
“Whatever someone can donate, we’re grateful for anything that happens,” Jones said. “ Like I said, we’re just trying to find a way to restart and build on, and just move on in life and kind of just put this in the past because I mean, no one wants to hang onto this forever.”
For now, the family is staying in Alabama, with the grandmother of Reakwon’s stepdad. Jones doesn’t know how long, as there isn’t a home to return to in Florida. But his family is safe, and recently together. For that, Jones is grateful.
“Throwing in that hurricane just changes everything like, man, that could’ve been the last time I saw my family,” Jones said. “I thought about that and that’s what kind of broke my heart but I’m just glad they’re okay.”