Papa Didn't Preach

Sept. 2, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Being as much a fan of back stories as those on front pages, I am pleased beyond repair by three behind-the-scenes tales leading into Georgia Tech’s season opener Saturday — one above the others.

Stories like these will help get your gridiron groove back so lift the lid and look inside; there are wondrous tales.

You can hardly go wrong with the one about Isaiah Johnson. He will be the only true freshman to start forthe Yellow Jackets against South Carolina State, at least if thelatest depth chart holds. Kyle Jackson’s bounce-back from what could have beencareer-ending foot surgery all the way to the starting lineup isrewarding for anyone who knows the young man’s passion for the gameand his teammates.

But I cannot stop thinking about Kevin Cone.

The senior will start at wide receiver for the second opener in a row, which is a big deal for a guy who began his college career at Shorter College. His story gets better when you go back even further in time to find some seriously unique context. In it, there are lessons as well.

Cone didn’t play high school football until he was a junior, and did not start until he was a senior – even though his father Ronny played the game to its highest level as a running back with Georgia Tech from 1979-`83 and then with the NFL’s New York Jets!

This tale doesn’t begin with his high school coach, Paul Standard of St. Pius X, but I’ll pick it up there since it was Standard who “recruited” Cone back into the game.

Visit a spell with Standard, and his face lights up at the mention of Cone, whom he’d watched play basketball and run track as a freshman and a sophomore. “He was a fine, fine athlete, and of course could jump and he had height,” Standard recalls. “I kept after him, saying things like, `You’re going to be the best split end I never got to coach.’ “

There’s some irony in that because Standard, much like Tech coach Paul Johnson, favors the air-borne ball about like Woody Hayes did a few decades ago. Not so much.

Really, though, there was more to Standard’s interest. “Beyond his athletic ability, I just had a feeling that he could bring value to the program,” the coach said. “He’s a special, special young man.”

To meet Kevin Cone is to see this. He has an uncanny habit of busting a smile out in so many situations, and he works at his crafts as if his life depends upon it.

He did not, however, fancy football much past the fifth or sixth grade. When he opted to leave the game, Dad was fine with it. There was no pushback.

“I played when I was a kid and gave it up and just focused on basketball,” Cone said. “[Dad] just wanted me to do what I wanted to do because he knew if he pushed it and I didn’t like it then it wouldn’t have worked out.”

There are many, many parents who know that same thing and not only about football. But they push anyway, often with miserable pushback the other direction.

Not Ronny Cone. And when Kevin’s younger brother Zach, now a fine baseball player at the University of Georgia despite being drafted by a Major League team out of high school, Dad rolled with that, too.

Pause, breathe deep, and over a few paragraphs absorb the beauty of parental wisdom.

“When Kevin was young he played a while, and then said, `Dad, I don’t want to play anymore,’ ” Ronny recalled. “I said, `I’m not going to push you.’ To play football, you’ve got to want it to be successful at it. I always told them when you do something, do the best you can.

“[Zach] played I think one season and decided that football was not for him. He would have been a fantastic player. He was about 10, and got hit real good and decided that was not for him. I totally get that. I really didn’t want them to have to live in a shadow where they had to be like their daddy. I didn’t want people pushing that way; sometimes it doesn’t happen like that.”

No it doesn’t. Nor does a sport to which someone is not attracted one day become attractive again.

But, “Coach Standard kept nipping at him,” Ronny Cone said, and a boy came back around on the way to becoming a man.

“I gave it a shot,” said Kevin, who started both ways for Pius as a senior. “I was a cornerback and a receiver. I may have had more interceptions than receptions.”

Here, a young man prone to grinning bears teeth in an uplifting way.

Back a few years, however, there was cause for pause as he prepared to graduate high school because he really wanted to go to Georgia Tech, as both parents did. He was not accepted, at least not completely, by those on The Hill and was not on the radar of then-coach Chan Gailey and his staff.

“I got a conditional acceptance . . . that said if I went to another school for a year [and did sufficiently well] I could get in,” Cone said.

Providence was on Cone’s side. By now he not only wanted to go to college but keep playing ball. Standard has an excellent relationship with Phil Jones, who coaches at Shorter, and thus was a solution found.

Soon, Cone was a Shorter Hawk, and in 2007 he caught 12 passes and scored two touchdowns.

Then, he transferred to Tech, walked on and sat out the ’08 season per transfer rules, and started the first three games last season. He broke an ankle in Tech’s sixth game without having registered a reception (he did total a few special teams tackles).

His next reception will therefore be the first of his Division I college career. Tyler Melton may play as much or more than Cone at wideout as Melton works his way back from injuries of his own, but Cone is a success story of great magnitude already.

Papa didn’t preach nor push, yet Paul Standard pulled and Dad’s patience and paternity show in his sons (and a daughter).

“I think the thing Kevin got from me was just the knowledge that you’ve got to put time in,” Ronny Cone said. “If you’re going to be decent at this game, you’ve got to work hard.”

Indeed. Kevin Cone’s worth ethic has brought Tech’s program enough value that Paul Johnson has put him on scholarship.

“I could not be more proud than I am of Kevin Cone,” Standard said. “He has worked so hard for everything he has. They don’t come any finer.”

Send suggestions and comments to stingdaily@gmail.com, and please let me know where you’re going to tailgate Saturday morning. Perhaps I’ll visit, take a couple pictures and write about you in a Saturday evening special edition.

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