For Jacob Jones, brain condition a blessing in disguise

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JACOB JONESBy MIKE SCHOEFFEL

When Jacob Jones was two months old, doctors told his parents he might not live through the night.

Jones had just undergone the first of countless risky surgeries to help improve a condition called hydrocephalus, better known as water on the brain. It was a near miracle that Jones survived surgery, doctors said, but the night would be an even bigger test. And even if he lived through the darkness, there was no guarantee he wouldn’t become a lifelong vegetable, or grow up mentally disabled.

Flash forward 30 years. Jones, now a man of faith and the head tennis coach at Liberty Hill High School, is “about as normal as someone my age can be,” as he put it. After years of surgeries — “too many to count,” he said — he hasn’t undergone one since 2008.

“The longest dry spell of my life,” he said, proudly.

He still lives with a device implanted in his body to drain fluid from brain to stomach, but beyond that, he’s a fully functional adult, living in Liberty Hill with a wife and two kids. They love to read, go hiking, learn about the world. That sense of domestic normalcy, Jones says, is a blessing in itself. It was never a guarantee. Fate could have unfolded in many different ways, less happy endings could have occurred. But the very condition that nearly ended his life in early childhood, the condition that made his teenage years an extraordinarily risky endeavor, opened up avenues that he may have never come across otherwise.

“You never know what God has next for you,” he said. “It’s like a puzzle piece. Up close, it looks like your life is falling apart. But when you look back on it, everything has fallen into place.”

Tennis: A Symbol of Normalcy

For Jones, tennis was always a vehicle to restore a sense of order to his often chaotic life. He showed interest in the sport around the age of five, when his mother would take him to the local court in his hometown of Beaumont to hit around. Said Jones: “It became a daily ritual. I picked it up from her, I got the bug, and it kind of snowballed from there.”

Through all the surgeries and setbacks, playing tennis became a symbolic measure, a sort of baseline that let him know he was becoming normal again.

“Before I would go under, I would ask the doctor ‘When will I be able to play tennis?’” he said. “That was my goal. If I could play tennis again in five months, I was happy. It always gave me a sense of stability, a feeling that no matter how my health is going, I can still hit a tennis ball.

“I always knew no matter how bad it got, I could go to the court and do that one thing.”

Jones played tennis throughout high school, plowing through the hard times. As he remembers it, his early-to-mid teenage years were the most challenging. He recalls having “a surgery every year,” each one coming with an intensive rehabilitation process.

Upon graduation, he enrolled at Lamar University in Beaumont, where he intended to walk on to the tennis team. But the hydrocephalus returned just before the start of the season, forcing Jones under the knife yet again.

That particular surgery would change the course of his life, eventually leading him where he is today.

“After surgery, I found it was very hard to return to my peak as a player,” he said. “As a competitor, I wanted to be the best I could be. When I couldn’t do that because of a health problem, it became, well, frustrating. That’s sort of how I got into coaching.”

His college coach asked him if he was interested in coaching at a small private school in Beaumont. Jones accepted the offer, working as the tennis coach and PE teacher. From there he went to a private junior high school in the same county, before eventually moving to Georgetown where he became a teaching professional in 2012.

Jacob Jones, Welcome to Liberty Hill

So how did Jones end up at Liberty Hill High School? Funny thing is, he never even applied for the job.

“I started teaching one of the players from Liberty Hill when I was in Georgetown” Jones recalled. “The following summer, a bigger group of Liberty Hill kids showed up. Eventually, they asked if I was interested in coaching the high school team.”

In the summer of 2015, one of the kids’ mothers reached out to Jones and said that Liberty Hill High School athletic director Jerry Vance was looking for a new tennis coach. The two of them did a Q&A over the phone, word got back to Vance, and the rest was history.

“Before I knew it, they hired me,” recalled Jones.

Liberty Hill assistant tennis coach Monica Miller has witnessed first-hand Jones’ positive impact on the team.

“Coach Jones has a demeanor that makes the athletes feel at ease, which in turn makes them willing to try new endeavors,” she said. “He has had to overcome many struggles in life and never lets excuses hinder him.”

After accepting the position (in addition to coaching, Jones also teaches American Sign Language), Jones had to find a house in the area. But all the rentals he and his wife looked into were too expensive. On a whim, he asked Miller if she knew a place. As it turned out, her in-laws were looking to rent a house located less than two miles from the high school. Jones recalled seeing it for the first time.

“When I drove up, I immediately knew it was too expensive for us,” he said. “I told them we would look at it, but won’t be able to afford it. The day after the visit, Monica’s in-laws asked what we could afford. We gave them a number — a lot less than the house is worth — and they said OK, it’s all yours.”

“One second we were stressing about finding a place to live, the next we found an oustanding place in a great location,” he added. “That was God putting the pieces where they needed to be.”

A Never-Ending Itch

Before Jones was born, his father suffered a terrible accident at the paper mill factory. A conveyor belt holding a two-ton roll of paper broke, sending the pulpy boulder careening toward Jones’ father.

“He had a split section decision,” said Jones. “He thought ‘If I dive hard enough, I can at least get out of the way enough to tell my wife and kids goodbye.”

He leapt, but it wasn’t enough to completely avoid the enormous projectile. The roll caught his left leg, which he had to have amputated at the knee. After Jacob was born, he and his forged a special bond over their respective challenges — a bond strengthened by a shared love of fishing. Jones’ father couldn’t play tennis, but he sure as heck could cast a reel.

“Our health issues sort of paired us together,” said Jones. “We were able to understand ‘OK, we have these things we have to deal with. My dad isn’t going to lose his life because of his left leg, and I’m not going to lose my life because of my condition.”

One night during high school, during another health episode that left Jones violently nauseous, he was sitting across the living room from his father. Through bouts of vomiting, he heard his father utter “My toe itches.” Jones finished puking and looked up at his father.

“I’m sorry for your headaches,” his dad said. “But I have no foot or toe to scratch, and it won’t stop until my brain tells it to.”

That episode taught Jones a lesson that has stuck with him throughout all the complications, the surgeries, the rehabilitations: no matter the severity of his own suffering, there is always somebody out there worse off than he is.

“One day my headache will finally go away,” said Jones. “But my dad will never be able to scratch his toe.”

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