Sam Jones

Senior Sam Jones is a valuable two-way player for the Troy Trojans, who face Grandview tonight in the Class 3A Division I Region III final in Waco.

TROY — While growing up, Sam Jones and his friends used to talk about being part of the best football team Troy’s ever seen and what that might be like should they one day reach their lofty dreams.

Jones and the crew now know exactly how that looks and feels after recording the most wins in a season and advancing to the fourth round of the playoffs for the first time in program history.

“I was going to get donuts at the donut shop and there were a couple of old guys sitting there and one said, ‘Hey, are you number 34?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And he said, ‘I have a couple pictures of you,’” Jones recalled Tuesday of a recent encounter with two Troy Trojans faithful. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s crazy. I don’t even know you.’”

Deservedly so, all the eyes of Troy are on the Trojans (12-1), who take on defending Class 3A Division I state champion Grandview (12-1) in the Region III final at 7:30 tonight at Waco ISD Stadium, with the winner moving on to the state semifinals.

Jones said the recognition is a tad surreal, but getting Troy into the fourth round isn’t too surprising given how much work he and his childhood cohorts put in since formulating those early aspirations.

“It’s kind of crazy, honestly. I wouldn’t say I’ve never thought of it. I always thought we could achieve great things and never thought any less,” said Jones, who’s started for the varsity since his freshman season and has developed into a skilled two-way player head coach Ronnie Porter categorized as one of the team’s most valuable assets. “After every season, I’m like, ‘I have to get better. We have to be the best Troy team anyone has ever seen and the best we can be.’ I think that’s what drove us as little kids. We just want to be the best for Troy and represent our town and our coaches.”

In a sense, the mission is accomplished, though Troy isn’t exactly keen on stopping now, not after enjoying its inaugural taste of practicing in December and not with just three wins separating it from the ultimate prize.

“Everything is breaking history here. Everything we’ve done and everything we are going to continue to do is more than what’s been done here in the past,” Porter said.

As Jones stood near the home-side bleachers at Trojan Stadium, he reflected on the past four years with the Trojans, basked in the present and looked to the future, which will include an upgrade to the field (from natural grass to artificial turf) on which he spent countless hours. While he’s slightly bothered by the fact that the improvements will come just in time for him to shift from student to alum, Jones wouldn’t trade his time on the old-school, uneven playing surface that had its part in molding him as a player.

“On grass, I guess it gives some kind of toughness because when it gets muddy, it’s tough to stay up and if you fall you might get some dirt in your mouth or something,” said Jones, whose passion for football grew out of trying to keep up with his older brothers in the family’s front yard. “So, you have to have a pain tolerance because it might have some rocks in it.”

Jones’ role for the Trojans has increased each season, going from defense-only to double-duty as fullback and linebacker.

His responsibilities on offense have expanded over the last couple of years, too, and include his duties as a blocker for junior running back Zach Hrbacek, one of the area’s most dynamic players at that position, and toting the ball himself. Jones is second behind Hrbacek’s 2,546 yards rushing with 775, leads the team with 19 receptions, has eclipsed the 100-tackle mark, tallied six sacks, four interceptions and caused eight fumbles.

Yet, Porter said even all those statistics don’t do justice in explaining Jones’ impact.

“He’s probably one of our more valuable players, honestly, for what he does offensively and defensively. The kid barely comes off the field,” Porter said. “He’s one of those really, really good high school football players. He’s hard-nosed and tough as nails. He turned his ankle really bad in the Lago Vista game and played through the entire game in pain, just about. Just kind of toughed his way through a pretty severe sprain. That’s leadership — a huge amount of leadership.”

A dose of humility rises to the forefront, even in the midst of the coach’s praise.

“It really starts with our offensive line. They really get us through every game,” Jones (6-foot, 200 pounds) said before reciting the first and last names and a specific quality or characteristic about each O-lineman he admires. “They have the grit and the grind and when we look for someone to lean on, it’s always them, and they push us through. When the hard times get hard, we look to them and they’re there.”

As far as what he enjoys more between making a tackle and scoring a touchdown, he said the latter because the entire team can rejoice in that accomplishment. He went on to say how his TDs aren’t his favorite to celebrate.

“I like to finish off blocks and watch Zach walk into the end zone,” he said.

Hrbacek’s done that 33 times this season.

A few more tonight wouldn’t hurt.

Win or lose, though, Jones knows that those same childhood friends — now teammates — and the coaches he looks up to will be there in the aftermath, which is what matters most to him.

“We’re a team. We don’t bring each other down. We try to teach each other. I mean, of course, we are going to laugh and joke all the time. But we’re not doing it to be mean. But we are always there for each other. If something’s wrong with our families or school, we’ll help you,” Jones said. “I’ve learned a lot and it’s mostly thanks to my coaches. They’ve always given me a spark when I’m tired or made me laugh when I’m having a bad day. I just thank my coaches every day because they’re the world, man.”