MILLVILLE — Millville Midget Football League coach JT Burks said when his Thunderbolts team found out they would be going to the league’s Super Bowl last year, 7-year-old player Joseph Jones Jr. visited his father’s grave to share the news.
“Everybody rallied around that,” Burks said. “Kids were really excited. Everybody wanted to try to win the Super Bowl for coach Joe.”
Joseph’s father, Millville Midget Football League coach Joseph “JoJo” Jones Sr., was shot and killed one year ago Friday.
Since then, the case continues to be tried in court and the football community continues to try to rebuild a sense of trust and safety on the field.
“My initial thought was sadness, anger and frustration because I felt as though it was supposed to be like a safe haven for kids,” said Burks, 34, who has coached in the league for five years. “I felt personally that I failed to protect them as far as preserving them from the negativity.”
Jones, 37, was shot in the parking lot of Lakeside Middle School as coaches, parents and athletes, including his son, were leaving after football practice.
Officials conducted a two-month investigation into what they called a targeted attack. Six people were indicted in February and charged in his murder and subsequent cover-up.
One suspect, Hakeem Smith, 23, pleaded guilty Monday to hindering apprehension and conspiracy in exchange for probation and 364 days in jail, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said.
Smith, who was not charged with murder, will be sentenced in mid-September. The other defendants await court appearances later that month.
In the meantime, Burks has worked to rebuild a team that was shaken by the incident.
In 2018, his team, which consists of kids ages 5 to 7, had 40 players. After Jones’ murder, only 25 came regularly.
“A lot of the parents didn’t feel safe, especially at my age group with them being 5, 6 and 7,” he said. “They’re still a lot of people’s babies in their eyes.”
It also affected their performance on the field.
“We started out the season tough,” Burks said. “We started out with a losing record. It was hard to rebuild chemistry and have practice time.”
In response, Burks said the league and leaders from the city and county worked together to improve safety, including adding more security cameras in the area and having police make more appearances at their practices and games.
“I think just from us having a good group of coaches and having a good organization that has a lot of stability and structure, I think that was easy to give everybody a sense of comfort to ease all their anxiety and frustration and how the city stood behind us, too,” he said. “I think that gave everybody reassurance.”
Shera Gill, 33, of Vineland, takes photos for the league. She made a video last year that turned the phrase “turning tragedy into triumph” into a rallying cry in the community.
“Those kids have overcome everything thrown at them,” Gill said. “Sports is very important, to me, in youth. It teaches you a lot of lessons; it teaches you to continue; it teaches you that things don’t always go your way.”
Burks said a local church offered free counseling, and he and other leaders continued to act as mentors for kids.
The team was also given the chance to go to a Philadelphia Eagles game last August after the NFL team donated tickets. Webb-McRae was present as they boarded six school buses and headed to the game.
“The community came together to support the kids by letting them know it’s OK to grieve (while providing access to counseling) and how to get back up and press on,” Webb-McRae said in a statement at the time.
It was tough, but Burks and others in the community didn’t give up.
“Seeing the strength of the kids, how they were able to continue to move on and persevere, seeing how the community ran together and stuck together as far as the organization, that kept me motivated,” he said.
The team turned its record around in October and won enough games to make it to the Super Bowl in November. They didn’t win the game, but Burks said it meant a lot for the team and Jones’ legacy.
Burks said he remembered Jones for his discipline and ability to teach kids the game with sayings such as, “We’re Thunderbolts, we never give up” and “On the field, we’re brothers.”
“When I first got the head coaching job years back, he was the first person who pulled me aside and said, ‘You have to remember that these kids will follow you wherever you lead them, so make sure you’re comfortable with who you are as far as a coach,’” Burks said. “Believe in your system, and kids will follow you wherever you go.”
Burks said the team has increased again to 38 players, including Jones’ two nephews and his son, who has returned for another season.
Next year, Jones Jr. will have a bigger role on the team, starting on both offense and defense.
“I’m looking forward to try to repeat our success from last year,” Burks said. “And hopefully bring some closure to it by hopefully capping it off with a Super Bowl.”
Staff Writer Colt Shaw contributed to this report.