When Patriots rookie Mac Jones was a fifth-grader at the Bolles School, he wrote a letter to his future self as part of a school assignment. His teacher, Dawn Collins, looked forward to this activity every year. She instructed students to try to capture both their thoughts at the moment and their hopes for the future. The completed notes would then be sealed until the spring of their senior year of high school.
“Dear Mac,” a 12-year-old Jones penned in neat cursive, “This is me in fifth grade on the last day of school.”
Jones’s letter, dated May 28, 2010, began with his optimism about his girlfriend and closed with his potential plans on whom he hoped to bring to prom. (His girlfriend was merely one of three options he listed.)
“I’m very funny,” Jones wrote. “Mrs. Collins says I’m quite the ladies’ man.”
While the commentary on his love life may have provided a few chuckles, other lines from Jones’s letter now seem quite prescient.
“I just won an award for most likely to become the best all-around athlete in the class of 2017,” Jones wrote, triple-underlining “best all-around athlete.”
“Mrs. Collins said by now I will have a full athletic scholarship,” he continued. “I probably will play QB, just like now.”
Seven years later, when it was time to open the letters, Jones already had left Bolles early to attend the University of Alabama for spring football.
“He’s almost like a prophet, if you will,” quipped Tom Collins, head coach of the Bolles middle school football team and Dawn’s husband.
Although Jones wasn’t able to open his letter among his peers ahead of high school graduation, Dawn reached out to Jones’s mother, Holly, to ensure he would still receive the letter and enjoy the experience of re-reading his youthful musings.
“It was such a precious letter, beautiful little cursive,” said Dawn. “He predicted his future. He did.”
Living the dream
The fifth-grade letter wasn’t the first time Jones had documented his football dreams in a school assignment. When he was in second grade, Jones imagined even loftier aspirations: to make it in the NFL.
“When I grow up I want to be a football [player],” a 7-year-old Jones wrote on a worksheet dated Nov. 3, 2005. “I [might] be in the NFL. I do not [know what] team I will be on.”
That year, Jones started playing quarterback for a Pop Warner team in the Mandarin Athletic Association, a league in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. His talent was evident from the get-go.
“He could throw it,” said Eric Yost, who coached Jones for seven years in Pop Warner. “At a young age, he could throw it.”
Added teammate Matt Johnson, who played with Jones both in Pop Warner and high school: “Most Pop Warner teams really couldn’t throw the ball downfield well. There weren’t many quarterbacks we played against who could throw it as far and as hard and as accurately as Mac could. That always made teams game plan for us differently.”
Jones was always an active kid, one that loved recess and juggled multiple sports, from football to soccer to baseball. Athleticism ran in the family, as his father, Gordon, played college tennis and later competed in a men’s singles qualifying match at Wimbledon in 1978. His brother, Will, played Division 1 soccer at Mercer University, while his sister, Sarah Jane, played Division 1 tennis at the College of Charleston.
Mac’s sport, however, was clearly football.
“I’ve seen him throw a baseball from center field to home plate with no accuracy,” Yost said. “Like, he airmailed it home. He had the arm strength to get it home, but it was like 6 feet over the catcher’s head. I’m like, ‘How can this kid throw a football so dang good and so accurately?’
“Mac was that kind of kid. It was natural. He picked up the football and he could throw it.”
It didn’t take long for Jones to take football seriously. When he was 9, he started booking personal training sessions with Darin Slack of the Quarterback Academy. Two years later, he started working with DeBartolo Sports University’s Joe Dickinson, now a quarterback consultant for the Buffalo Bills.
“Mac was always very coordinated and very athletic early on,” said Slack, who still works with Jones. “The skills and mechanics, they can always tend to be a little rough as you can imagine, being a young boy. We don’t really start to see anything forming up until 12 or 13 years old.
“But he really came on quick. He always had a very coachable heart. That was the one thing that set Mac apart, that he was always very teachable.”
Even at the youth level, Jones began to develop important habits, showing up to practice early, studying the playbook, and breaking down film with Yost at age 10.
More than anything, his coaches and teammates say, Jones had begun to assert himself as a competitor, so much so that his emotions would occasionally get the best of him.
“It’s like John McEnroe,” Yost said. “McEnroe pouted and threw little fits, like those things. That’s all part of maturing. He’s a competitor. Highly competitive people, when things aren’t going their way, they’re really not happy. They hate losing.”
In time, Jones channeled that competitiveness into more subtle displays.
“He always had a knack for getting under the skin of opponents,” said Johnson. “He did it in kind of clever ways, with a little laugh or a smile. Maybe a defensive lineman would almost get him, and Mac would slap him on the butt as he went by, just to get in his head a little bit.”
Student of the game
Jones finished his Pop Warner tenure with only eight losses in nine years, according to Yost. That was just the beginning of a fruitful football career.
He would go on to post impressive numbers at Bolles after being named the starting quarterback as an upperclassman. His junior year, he threw for 2,150 yards and 26 touchdowns. As a senior, he led Bolles to the Florida 4A state championship game and finished the season with 1,532 yards and 29 TDs.
Jones, a four-star recruit, originally planned to play college football at Kentucky, before reneging on his commitment in order to attend Alabama. After redshirting his freshman year, biding his time behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, Jones was named Alabama’s starting quarterback for the 2020 season. He finished the year with 4,500 passing yards and 41 touchdowns en route to the national championship.
As his game developed, what facilitated Jones’s success? Yost immediately pointed to his head.
“The brain,” Yost said. “He learned. He’s a learner. There’s no secret. He’s not like the fittest, slimmest, trimmest, most muscular guy. But he’s worked hard. He’s learned the game. He understands what mistakes not to make a second time.”
Added Slack: “Mac has the ability to process very quickly and very intelligently to make good decisions. He doesn’t have a tendency to fixate. He can come off receivers and make good decisions. He doesn’t feel the need to drive the ball into multiple-defender situations. Throwing into triple coverage isn’t his thing. He’ll check down and hit the proper guy. He has very disciplined decision-making, which allows him to go to the right guy at the right time.”
With Slack, Jones continued to refine his mechanics. The pair honed in on basic elements, such as developing a sound base so he can generate more power on his throws, and perfecting his arm path and footwork.
“Mac was always very particular about what he wanted to see,” Slack said. “If there was something that was a little off, he would give me a call, he would reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m just not feeling this,’ or ‘I’m not sure if this is right. Can you help me here?’
“These were things that, probably to the average observer, they wouldn’t think they’re that big of a deal. That just shows you the heart of Mac. He’s always concerned about making sure that he’s getting the most out of his mechanics.”
Waiting his turn
As Jones prepares for the next step in his career — competing for the Patriots’ starting quarterback job — the parallels in each step of his football journey are difficult to ignore.
At Alabama, Jones played for Nick Saban, widely considered the greatest college football coach in history. with a record seven national championships.
At Bolles, Jones played for the late Corky Rogers, the winningest high school football coach in Florida with 465 victories and 10 state championships. Rogers, who died at 76 in February 2020, was known as a disciplinarian.
In New England, Jones will play for coach Bill Belichick, who requires no introduction to Patriots fans.
“Mac’s never had that guy that’s the warm and fuzzy, soft, hands-off coach,” Yost said. “He’s always had guys that have really challenged him. He’s always risen to the occasion.”
With the Patriots, Jones will also be presented with a situation he’s encountered twice before: potentially having to wait his turn. Even before he left for Alabama, some wondered whether he was making the right decision because they all assumed he would earn little playing time.
“I’ll be honest,” Slack said. “When he went to Alabama, I had questions. I wasn’t sure. I was like, ‘Mac, is this the best option because you’re not going to play right away?’ I think he had it in his heart that he knew he could play at that level.”
Added Yost: “Everybody wants to play now. We all do. But he’s OK taking the time to learn. When he got his opportunity, we’ve seen what he can do.”
More than a decade has passed since Jones wrote that letter, when he fantasized about his future.
Even as he’s accomplished far more than what he had written, Jones hasn’t forgotten. The night of the NFL Draft, amid the festivities in Cleveland as a first-round pick, he remembered to reach out to Mrs. Collins.
“He’s the kind of kid that you don’t forget, but the kind of kid that doesn’t forget you, either,” she said.