ALL-TIME TEAM: Running backs

It’s hard to really even wrap your mind around the numbers Jesse Jones posted in his career as a running back for the Tyrone football team, but lost in all his accolades some twenty years later, one often forgets that Jones’ freshman year in 1997 Jamal Owens began the season at tailback and Mark Wyland was the team’s go-to ball-carrier.  Jones was a reserve, and he never started until Week 5, but by season’s end it was clear that Coach John Franco had a special talent on his hands who would be toting the ball for quite some time.

It’s frequently an overlooked piece of the story, but it makes his totals all the more impressive, if that’s possible, because the figures are so far out of reach it would stand to reason a runner would need four complete seasons to even approach them.

The rise of Jones coincided with the rise of data driven analyses of sports in general, but high school sports in particular. He was a player there on the cutting edge when statistics and numbers were becoming available on a wider scale, making comparisons easier.

That’s not to suggest that Jones was defined by numbers, but in truth one of his great attributes is he was able to forge a career that took seemingly impossible numbers and made them possible, all with a mystique and aura that drew fans and media to him like a moth to a flame. The statistics he generated were Paul Bunyon-esque, for those into American folklore. If you’re more comfortable with a sports analogy, he was Tyrone’s answer to Babe Ruth, a player who came along and completely revamped the way the running back position would be judged  because his abilities were so far beyond what had been seen before.

Jones ran for 2,000 yards in a single season twice and scored 99 career touchdowns.  His lowest output in a full season as a starter came his sophomore season in 1998 when he rushed for 1,517 yards and 27 touchdowns, which at the time was the second-best single season for a Tyrone back ever. That changed dramatically over time, and one of the reasons is because Jones changed the calculus of what it meant to be a premier rusher at Tyrone.  Simply put, he was one of those rare individuals who was placed on this earth to be a football player.

So, if the purpose of this series is to identify those special players at Tyrone who could be a part of a legendary all-star team filled with the greatest of all time, Jones would not only make the team – he would be a cornerstone of the team, a No. 1 draft pick, a lottery player who could become the face of a franchise. There have been other special running backs to wear the Orange and Black. Some may have been faster, like Larry Glace, and some, like Wyland, may have been more powerful. Tyrone has produced 21 1,000-yard backs, so finding a runner with special talents wouldn’t be all that hard.

But none of them did the special things Jones did to the level he did them Friday night after Friday night.

Jones was the centerpiece of the offense in 1999 when the team won the PIAA title, and man did he deliver.  Still a junior, Jones ran for 2,368 yards and 36 touchdowns, and was an absolute gamer.  In the 1999 District finals against Forest Hills Jones was kept in check by a defense loaded at the line of scrimmage for three-and-a-half quarters, giving the underdog Rangers a prayer, trailing 9-8 in the fourth quarter.  And then, as John Franco said  later, “Jesse turned into Jesse.” A sweep left midway through the fourth quarter turned into the 52-yard touchdown that set Tyrone on its way to a 22-8 victory.

In the PIAA championship game he did it again.  With just over a minute left, the Eagles led Mount Carmel 7-6 and had possession of the ball at Hershey Park Stadum. The problem was they were backed to their 8-yard line and going into a wind that had been knocking down passes all day. The scenario was convert here or give the Tornadoes the ball on the plus side of the 50 with the game on the line.

No worries.  Sweep left, 92 yards, touchdown Tyrone.

Game. Set. Match.

Tyrone won 13-6 and Jones ended the game with 179 yards rushing.

He was even better as a senior, rushing for 2,232 yards in two fewer games than the year before, and it was a year he showed some guts and resiliency as well.  In the District quarterfinals he ran for a record 314 yards in a win over Bishop McCort, but he pulled a hamstring in the process, making him questionable for the semifinals.  A week later, serving as little more than a decoy, Jones ran for more than 90 yards against Westmont-Hilltop to send the Eagles into the championship game for the second straight season, this time against arch-rival Bellwood-Antis, which had upset Tyrone in the season-opener.

The Devils had stifled Jones in Week 1, but in the finals, before nearly 10,000 fans at Mansion Park, he ran for 139 yards and caught a touchdown pass.

That was Jesse.

Jones received plenty of accolades, as well.  He was named to four All-State first teams in 1999 and 2000, and in 2000 he was one of a handful of players to make the cover of PA SportsFever magazine as part of its Pennsylvania Supreme Team.

He finished his career with 7,233 total yards and left a legacy that school boys will be chasing for generations. But what really sets Jones apart is how far he remains from those players closest to him in Tyrone’s record books. For example, his career yardage totals are more than 2,000 yards beyond the next closest running back. While two backs other backs have run for 2,000 yards in one season, Jones did it twice. Jones’ 36 100-yard games are 13 more than Brice Mertiff at No. 2. Mertiff is the next closest behind Jones in career touchdowns, as well, but he’s a full 37 behind.

It’s a landslide and a no-brainer to instantly include Jones as a starter on the All-Time team.

Number two on the list isn’t quite so easy, though the numbers clearly point in one direction.  There have been so many outstanding running backs at Tyrone that even when a special place is reserved just for Jones choosing a backfield mate is a tough decision.  Mertiff, for example, was a 4,000-yard back who also had more than 400 yards receiving.  Christian Getz ran for 1,000 yards twice in an offense that loved to throw the football.  James Oliver ran for 1,000 yards twice during a recent two-year span when even the casual fan knew he was going to carry the ball more often than not.

Marcus Owens bursts free against Central in 1996.

What the decision for No. 2 on the all-time team came down to was style.  If you’re starting Jones, the best contrasting back from a stable of thoroughbreds would have to be Marcus Owens.  He was one of the starting backs on the original All-Century team in 1999, and aside from Jones it would be hard to say anyone better has run for Tyrone since then.

Owens had numbers that were just as flashy as Jones.  He was Tyrone’s first 2,000-yard runner in 1996 when he diced opponents for 2,266 yards and 29 rushing touchdowns.  He had blazing speed, and he wasn’t afraid to run up through the tackles.  When his career was over he was Tyrone’s first 4,000-yard runner, and that was in only two seasons as a starter.  As a sophomore in 1994, during John Franco’s first season, Owens split duties at tailback with Brady Naylor.

Of all the backs to have played for the Golden Eagles, Owens may have had the quickest feet, with only Mertiff and Oliver approaching him in that category.  And like Chicago Bears legend Gayle Sayers he seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, making open field cuts to not only dodge players in front of him, but those pursuing him, as well.

Owens was the focal point of teams in 1995 and 1996 that essentially made Tyrone football what it is today, winning two of what became three consecutive District championships and playing in the PIAA finals in 1996.

To round out the group, while they would not be starters, it would be hard not to invite Oliver and Mertiff to the All-Time team’s training camp.  Mertiff is one of only three players – along with Jones and Owens – to run for 2,000 yards in a single season, he was a valuable receiver out of the backfield, as has been noted, he was exciting to watch, and he was a winner.  Like Jones and Owens, he was on back-to-back championship teams (2003 and 2004), and were it not for an obscure call involving a credit card or something in the PIAA semifinals in 2004 he would have played for a state championship.

James Oliver celebrates a touchdown.

Of all the backs mentioned, Oliver may be the most gifted to have played at Tyrone.  He was big and powerful, fast and shifty.  He is one of Tyrone’s  Super Seven who have more than 4,000 total yards to their credit, and he earned every one of them.  As a junior he ran for 1,893 yards in only 11 games, and he set a school record with 343 yards in one game against Bald Eagle Area. He was a stud, but he had three things working against him: as a sophomore, it was Christian Getz, who wasn’t giving that starting tailback spot up to anyone.  As a junior, it was his disdain for powering it up between the tackles.  And for his career, it was a lack of games – his teams never advanced beyond the District semifinals, so he never got those extra two or three games that would have made his numbers elite.

Below is a list of the 1,000-yard rushers to have played for Tyrone. Comment underneath on who you feel would be a Golden Eagle back worthy of mention on the All-Time team.

Tyrone 1,000-yard Rushers

Name                   C            YDS        TD          YR

Jesse Jones          335        2,368     36          1999

Marcus Owens     286        2,266     29          1996

Jesse Jones          309        2,232     26          2000

Brice Mertiff        246        2,042     33          2004

Aleic Hunter        267        1,932     25          2014

James Oliver        248        1,893     26          2012

Christian Getz      322        1,822     23          2011

James Oliver        200        1,664     28          2013

Johnny Franco     223        1,651     27          2006

Shayne Tate         208        1,546     15          2007

Marcus Owens     277        1,553     28          1995

Brice Mertiff        241        1,523     18          2003

Gary Weaver       243        1,518     20          2015

Jesse Jones          245        1,517     27          1998

Christian Getz      240        1,452     22          2010

Chet Wolford       226        1,406     20          1961

Larry Glace          199        1,371     18          2008

Marty Kimmel      218        1,284     13          1982

Fred Kaspick        178        1,265     12          1968

Mark Wyland       239        1,224     33          1997

Levi Reihart         222        1,199     14          2009

Brinton Mingle    183        1,132     23          2005

Jim Albright         261        1,131     11          1976

Dennis Rozick      231        1,087     7            1978

Bobby Irwin         206        1,030     6            1969

Scott Hoover        189        1,028     16          1988

Kenny Noel          182        1,011     13          1947


  1. Kerry another factor which makes Jesse’s records even more incredible is that he very rarely played at all in the fourth quarter and sometimes not in the 3rd depending on the score.


  2. WOW. Awesome Article!! Can’t believe it has been that long ago.
    Thanks for bring back so many years of memories.


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