There’s a story I need to tell you, but you’re probably not going to believe it. It begins in September 1901, when John Burton Foley journeyed from the Midwest to Washington, D.C., to attend the funeral of President William McKinley. During those travels a man approached Foley and spoke of an uninhabited land just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually Foley purchased some 50,000 of those acres, harboring visions of the next grand metropolis. But his dream never came to pass. Today, that land in South Baldwin County, Ala., consists mainly of large swaths of farmland dotted with modest residences. Horses and goats graze. Signs with images of tractors and the message share the road line dirt paths.
Foley never would have imagined that long after he bought those 31 square miles, a child with long arms and long legs and big ears would be born there, a child who would later be compared to a beast, a monster, an alien, a legend, a superhero. That out of this dust bowl of obscurity, a man would rise whose life seemed more myth than reality. So if I were to tell you the story of that boy from Foley, and if you closed your eyes, it might feel as if his tale were playing out on black-and-white 8mm film, flickering across a projector screen at 16 frames per second. The tales would seem tall, the details implausible. But after you hear so many witnesses recount so many fantastical stories, you just might find yourself convinced that his legend was true all along.
As a baby he would pick things up—things babies aren’t supposed to pick up—and that’s what he would play with. He had no interest in blocks or G.I. Joe figures. Quintorris Jones was drawn instead to logs and slabs of oak. Sometimes the pieces of wood were just as big as the boy. “He would pick it up and put it on his chest and just walk with it,” says a cousin, Sam Jones, 18 years Quintorris’s senior. “And I would think, What in the world is this boy doing?”
The kid was painfully shy, tethered to his mother, Queen Marvin, but he was always big and strong and fast. In Foley’s streets he’d play a game they called Throw ’Em Up Bust ’Em Up. Maybe you know it as Crush the Carrier or Rumble Fumble, but the point was that one kid would get the football and another dozen would try to catch him and throw him to the pavement. Quintorris would play with boys five years his elder, “and if they did catch him,” says Sam Jones, “he’d just push guys off with one hand. He was never scared of anything.”
Those who knew Quintorris back then say this all just came naturally, that he was born with that strength and speed, as if he came out of the womb with muscles bulging. They make it seem as if he were created in a special lab where scientists spliced together all of the perfect traits to create the perfect athlete. “Can’t nobody take credit for that,” says Sam. “He was always just different.”
You’re skeptical already, aren’t you?
Years later Kenny Thomason and Rusty Hinson would ask the boys at Foley Middle School, where they coached the football team, which players would be coming up the following season. Who did they have to look forward to? And every time those boys would say the same name: Quintorris, Quintorris, Quintorris. O.K., great. Is he in sixth grade? Fifth?
“Third,” Hinson remembers them replying.
It would be three more years before the coaches finally met the kid they had been hearing about. Thomason and Hinson were working canteen duty when they spotted a sixth-grade boy, big and strong, hanging out on the blacktop behind the school. “Everyone was crowded around him like he was some kind of hero,” Hinson recalls.
The men approached. They asked if he played sports. The boy meekly nodded. What do you play? He managed to whisper one word. “Everything.” Got any hops? “A little bit.” There was a basketball hoop nearby, regulation size, rim slightly bent. Can you touch the net? The 11-year-old was wearing duck boots. He didn’t respond; he simply turned around, took one drop step and exploded into the air.
Who was this kid hanging from the rim with both hands? Nobody was calling him Quintorris. They asked his name.
On the first day of Quintorris’s third-grade school year, when Kathryn Ford asked every one of her kids what they wanted to be when they grew up, Quintorris looked up and spoke some of the very few words he would say in class all year: “I’m going to be in either the NFL or the NBA.”
Impossible; that’s a one-in-a-million thing.
“I tried to cushion him,” Ford says now. “I never considered that he is that one in a million.”
Fact is, the boy was so quiet that he could have gone 12 years in Foley schools without anyone ever knowing he was there, were it not for his athletic feats. How does one remember a kid so invisible?
Years later, Ford would read in the local newspaper about the athletic exploits of Julio Jones, and she would wonder, Who is this boy? She knew every kid who came through her school. Then one day a picture ran alongside an article: a boy with long arms and long legs and big ears.
“Oh, my god,” Ford said. Clark Kent is Superman. Peter Parker is Spider-Man. “Quintorris is Julio. Julio is Quintorris.”