The more I delved into Basil Shabazz’s prep career, the more apparent it became that I’ve never seen anyone like him in 15 years covering prep sports in Arkansas. There are great athletes, and then there is Shabazz. He is in a class by himeself.
The stories that former prep sportswriter Wadie Moore (now with the Arkansas Activities Association) and former Arkansas men’s basketball coach Nolan Richardson and others tell, make it clear. Moore said the only other athlete he’s seen that compares to Shabazz is Brinkley’s Jerry Ecwood, who eventually starred at running back at the U of A and played in the NFL.
That made me wonder, ‘Who have I watched in 15 years that comes close to the mystique of Shabazz?’
One name popped into my mind — Matt Jones.
Before he starred at Arkansas as a dynamic quarterback, he played wide receiver at Van Buren High School. The Pointers employed the Wishbone offense and very rarely passed. The gangly Jones, split out wide, with a veteran quarterback under center. In a game against Rogers, Jones caught all three Van Buren passes for 103 yards. Two of them were touchdown catches. A star was born.
Jones played quarterback and receiver for the Pointers following season before transferring to run Fort Smith Northside’s offense the next season.
Jones not only starred on the field (More than 1,700 yards of offense and 20 touchdowns as a senior), but he was one of the best basketball players in the state, too (He averaged 24 ppg as a senior and was a McDonald’s All-American finalist). It’s rare to find an athlete in the school’s largest classfication who starts in two different sports for three years and earns all-state honors in multiple seasons.
Playing two sports was so important to Jones, he based his college decision on it. Both Houston Nutt and Richardson agreed to let Jones play both sports at Arkansas. Oklahoma also recruited Jones heavily.
In high school Jones’ poise stood out as much as his atheltic ability. Like all great atheltes, he wanted the ball in the big siuations (that didn’t change in college either). His ‘it’ factor may not have been as wild as Shabazz’s, but greatness flowed from him. Even as a sophomore, he impressed with a combination of speed, size and moxie. There wasn’t question he was a Division I talent and possibly a future pro.
Shabazz had speed, power and leaping ability. Jones had size (6-foot-6), speed (4.37 40) and great vertical leap (39.5 inches). It could be argued he was freakish in his own right, even though he starred in two sports and not four.
Where he separates himself from Shabazz is what he did after high school, starting for Arkansas and orchestrating a win in the seven-overtime game at Ole Miss, ‘The Miracle on Markham’ win against LSU and the big win at Texas. He was as clutch as any QB in U of A history, and he did it with a nonchalant flair. He made it look so easy. He also played two seasons of basketball for the Hogs, pulling off a feat very few quarterbacks would even try. He told me in an interview before his senior season he would play professional basketball in Europe if football didn’t work out. He had a passion for basketball and could have made some money overseas if he had decided to pursue it earlier.
Finally, Jones showed versatility when he switched to receiver to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars for four years after being drafted with the 21st pick of the first round in 2005.
I’ll never forget the natural ability he showed in high school. He may not quite have reached Shabazz’s stature, but there won’t be many that are as athletic or play two sports at as high of level as he did, either.