Jones becomes CFL's biggest star

by Campbell Blake
November 24, 2001 - Canadian Football League (CFL)

Jones becomes CFL's biggest star

by Campbell Blake

From being an Arena League cast-off to one of the premier players in the Canadian Football League after winning this years Most Outstanding Player award, Winnipeg Blue Bomber starting quarterback Khari Jones can only think of what might have been as he prepares for the most important start of his pro career, the 2001 Grey Cup Championship in Montreal.

Following a stellar college career at the University of California-Davis where he was named the 1993 American West Conference's Offensive Player of the Year, Jones's pro career started in a less than impressive manner with very little opportunity to show off his skills. Jones spent the 1995 and 1996 seasons playing in the Arena Football League with the Albany Firebirds and had a stint overseas with the Scottish Claymores of NFL Europe in the spring of 1996. As a member of the Firebirds, Jones found himself buried behind a trio of legendary AFL quarterbacks in Mike Pawlawski, Fred McNair and Mike Perez. Over his two seasons with Albany, Jones would throw only nine passes completing six of them for a total of 87 yards. In the spring of 1996 Jones also suited up for the World Bowl Champions Scottish Claymores of NFL Europe. In his lone season on the other side of the Atlantic, Jones would complete his only pass of the season for nine yards.

"It was a little frustrating because I was not playing, but also it was a learning experience, as it was my first season in the league," said Jones. "Mike Perez was a veteran, had thrown a lot of touchdowns the previous season, so I understood he was the starter"

In May of 1997 Jones arrived in the CFL for the first time when he signed a contract with the B.C. Lions. During the 1997 season, Jones spent the year on the waived injured list and did not see action in any of the Lions regular season games. At British Columbia's training camp in the spring of 1998, Jones, in his second season with the Lions, beat out former NCAA standout James Brown for the third quarterback spot on the team. Jones had his busiest season to date as a pro, completing 11 of the 18 passes he attempted for 89 yards along with being picked off twice. Jones continued to improve in 1999 as he finally started to show off his skills. During the season he completed 11 of the 24 passes for 129 yards. The highlight of the season for Jones came on September 12 in the Lions 20-16 win over Winnipeg when he scored the go ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of the game.

"When I went to the B.C. Lions for the next three years, and was behind Damon Allen, it was also really frustrating because I did not get the chance to play early on as they already had established players at the position," said Jones.

In 2000 he headed east to suit up for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Blue Bombers acquired Jones, along with B.C.'s 4th round draft choice in a trade with the Lions on February 28th. In exchange for Jones, Winnipeg sent veteran offensive lineman Chris Perez to the Lions. The season would prove to be Jones's breakout year, even though he started the year as Kerwin Bell's backup. When Bell began to falter, Coach Dave Ritchie made the switch and Jones made the most of it. In his first start as a Blue Bomber July 28, Khari lit up the scoreboard. He completed 27 passes on 48 attempts for three touchdowns and a whopping 448 yards. He went on to throw for 300 or more yards on seven occasions. Khari won CFL Player of the Week honours in Week 13 action against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In that game, he completed 18 passes on 29 attempts for 390 yards and three touchdowns. At season's end, Jones's first season with Winnipeg proved to be one of the best in team history. His 4,142 yards passing was the eighth best single-season Blue Bomber mark while his 31 touchdown passes was sixth best ever for a Winnipeg quarterback. Khari Jones had finally arrived.

"In Winnipeg I was finally able to compete for a job and get a chance to play," Jones noted. "That was when things opened up for me, I was able to make the most of my chance and now I am getting the opportunity to play"

2001 was the year Jones established himself as one of the CFL's best. He was named to the CFL all-star team as one of only three unanimous choices to go along with winning the league's most outstanding player award. In his first full season as Winnipeg's starting quarterback, the five-foot-11, 195-pound Jones guided the Bombers to a league best 14-4 record. He also led the CFL in three offensive categories with 4,545 passing yards, 30 touchdown passes and 329 completions with the help of an awesome trio of receivers in Milt Stegall (81 catches, 1214 yards, 14 touchdowns), Robert Gordon (54, 857, 4) and Arland Bruce (48, 818, 7). Jones then led Winnipeg to a 28-13 victory over Hamilton in the Eastern Final, which earned the Blue Bombers a trip to the Grey Cup for the first time since 1993.

"All of my receivers have played outstanding for me, including Milt Stegall and Bobby Gordon who have been all-stars in the league," said Jones. "In addition we have Arland Bruce who has made a lot of big plays this year, and he has been outstanding"

A Grey Cup championship would give Khari Jones's storybook season a memorable conclusion but even without, at least until Sunday night, he has already had one of the CFL's best single season performances in league history. Regardless of where Jones ends up next, if its back in Winnipeg or if he carries on the tradition of the most outstanding player award recipient migrating to the NFL, he will always have a place in the hearts of the loyal Blue Bomber fans, particularly if he and the Bombers win it all.

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