“He’s always been well-rounded,” said his mom, Tasha Roberts. “But he’s pretty humble about it. I’ve never seen him toot his own horn and say, ‘Hey, look at me!’”
“I just love trying out new things,” Connor said quietly.
And this week he and his teammates are trying out something brand new. They’re seeing what it feels like to walk around with a Friday night victory under their belts.
Bradford, the small, former railroad town that straddles the Darke and Miami county lines, is known for its five-day Pumpkin Show each fall. It features a Miss Pumpkin Queen contest, a bake-the-pumpkin competition, the Pumpkin City Run, a smash the pumpkin contest and various other orange gourd offerings.
The festival was supposed to be going on this week, but was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And yet last Friday night the Bradford team – just like Cinderella once did – rode in a pumpkin that turned into a fancy carriage and took them to an in-their-dreams celebration.
Senior NIght at Bradford. From left: Travis Jones (Connor's dad) Connor, Tasha Roberts ( his mom) and stepdad Michael Roberts. CONTRIBUTED
They rolled into Springfield lugging a 38-game losing streak to their matchup with Catholic Central.
It was the longest active losing streak in Ohio high school football.
The Railroaders last victory had come four years ago – October 14, 2016 – when they beat visiting Tri Village, in its first season of football, 40-27.
Since then they’d suffered withering defeats: 63-0 to Covington and Bethel and Miami East; 70-13 to Mississinawa Valley; 59-0 to Ansonia; 56-0 to Fort Loramie; 55-0 to Arcanum and 54-0 to Bethel again
In that 38-game streak, they were outscored 1,803 to 210.
Over the past eight years, Bradford’s had eight different head coaches. Two years ago the Railroaders finished the season with just 12 players and school administrators considered dropping the sport.
And last Friday night started out no different. Winless in their first six games this season, the Railroaders trailed 23-0 early in the second quarter.
But then something quite remarkable happened.
Coach Marcus Calvert, who took over the program two years ago, began urging his players to get little triumphs with each possession until they finally could “take the victory away” from Catholic Central.
And that sideline rhetoric started to become scoreboard reality after Calvert called on Connor, who he says is “part of the heart and soul of our team.”
Connor Jones talks to Bradford coach Marcus Calvert after a game. CONTRIBUTED
Just before the half, Bradford faced a fourth-and-sixth situation near the Catholic Central 40.
“We needed something to happen and I figured we’d have a better chance running the ball,” Calvert said. “We gave the ball to Connor and, even though he got hit in the backfield, he broke a couple of tackles and carried four or five guys with him a couple of yards. He gained seven. That was the turning point for us. We were able to score on that drive.”
Quarterback Taven Leach hit sophomore receiver Landon Monnin on a touchdown pass with 74 seconds left to cut the deficit to 23-6 at the half.
In the third quarter, Leach and Monnin connected again for a 15-yard TD pass and a two-point conversion and suddenly Catholic Central led just 23-14.
In the final quarter Leach threw a touchdown pass to freshman Hudson Hill and then, with 2:36 left, he had a final scoring connection with Monnin (the final two PATs failed) to put Bradford up, 26-23.
After each score A.J. Monnin, Landon’s dad and once a Bradford football player himself, sounded the loud train horn that was mounted on a trailer near the end zone. Standing with him were Skip Miller, whose son Tucker is on the team, and Travis Jones, Connor’s dad.
Catholic Central got the ball one last time, drove into Bradford territory and began throwing deep.
Back in her Vandalia home – where she was watching the Friday Night Rivals TV broadcast on Dayton 24/7 with her two youngest children, 7-year-old Charlie and 5-year-old Eloise, both who idolize their “big brother” – Tasha Roberts was a nervous wreck.
“I was on the edge of the couch and I literally covered my eyes with my hands,” she said. “But I was peeking through my fingers when I saw the interception. I was going, ‘Was that my boy? Was that Connor?’”
It was. With 1:33 left he picked off an Irish pass at the Bradford 25.
“All I could say was ‘Thank you God!’” Tasha said.
The interception sealed the unbelievable victory.
“You could hear our fans counting down to zero,” Travis said. “I’ve never been a part of anything like that in my life.”
He could hear Connor’s grandmother, Marcia Smith, joyously ringing her cowbell in the stands as her husband, Joe, stood next to her videotaping the celebration. And for the first time in four years, the Bradford train horn was roaring loudly in victory.
“When the game ended, all the kids were hugging each other and then they were hugging their parents,” Travis said. “There was a lot of emotion. When I got to Connor and gave him a hug, he was crying a little bit.”
‘We can win here’
Connor’s parents were both athletes at Bradford. Travis played football, basketball and baseball and Tasha was a volleyball and basketball player.
“I was very young when I had Connor,” she said. "I was 16, just a sophomore. His dad was a senior and had just turned 19. We ended up living with my mother for a couple of years. Both of our families really helped us.
“And while things didn’t work out for Connor’s dad and me, we both love Connor more than anything.”
After going to kindergarten and first grade in Bradford, Connor moved to Vandalia with his mom and thrived there until eighth grade when he decided he wanted to try living back in Bradford where his dad lives.
Bradford homecoming queen Maggie Manuel and Homecoming King Connor Jones. CONTRIBUTED
“He likes the small town and a lot of our family on both sides lives there,” Tasha said. “I was scared at first because he’d be farther away from me, but I think it’s the best thing he’s done. He’s really excelled there.”
Travis agreed: “Honestly, sometimes I don’t know how he does it. I guess he’s just a great mix of me and his mom together. Sports-wise, I’d says he gets that from me. But his good judgement and brains, he got that from his mom.”
Initially, Travis said, his son had trouble adjusting to the Railroaders' football futility and how some kids seemed resigned to it:
“I told him it’s not that they don’t care. It’s just after you’ve been knocked down so many times, you just try to deal with the blows and make it through the fight.”
Long ago Bradford did have success. It’s 1922 team went 10-0 and outscored opposition, 256-0. It had a 10-0 season in the 1950s and another in 1982, but over the past 30 years there have been just a few winning seasons.
Once he started playing varsity, Connor did all he could to lift the program and, according to Coach Calvert, he, along with fellow seniors, quarterback Taven Leach and lineman Austin Crickmore, are now the pillars of the team.
“Connor does anything and everything you ask him to do and he does it 10-fold,” Calvert said. "You couldn’t ask for a better kid.
“After last season, when we were looking for players, he said, ‘Coach, give me the list of everybody who was at the meeting this winter.’”
Connor made phone calls to the students who weren’t playing, talked to their parents and even visited their homes to make his pitch.
“I wanted the younger generation to be able to keep football here and know what it’s like to represent your school and your town,” Connor said.
“He got three or four extra guys to practice,” Calvert said.
This season Bradford has 24 players and next year Calvert hopes the have 27 to 30 on the team.
Travis said the win the other night “shows the younger kids, ‘Look, we can do this! We can win here!’”
Connor Jones playing marching tenor quad drums in Bradford band. CONTRIBUTED
A hero’s welcome
Bradford Superintendent Joe Hurst called Friday night’s victory “monumental.”
It lifted the team, the school, the town.
“Usually our bus rides home are quiet, we don’t have much to say,” Connor said. “This was different.”
A caravan of cars followed the bus on the nearly 50-mile trip from Springfield to Bradford.
“The firetruck met us and led us through town,” Connor said. “People were alongside the road and cheering and honking their car horns. People came outside of their houses and cheered. It felt great.”
Calvert said he received text messages and tweets not only from family and friends, but from rival coaches, athletic directors and superintendents, all congratulating him and his team.
“A lot of people were happy to see Bradford finally do well,” he said.
The game was rebroadcast on Sunday morning and all the players gathered at a teammate’s house for a viewing party.
Travis said Friday’s victory will be a boon to Bradford:
“It’s going to help in a lot of ways. Connor always talks about how he wants to help change the culture here and get Bradford going in the right direction.”
Tasha recently talked to her son about just that:
"He wants to go on to college and, if possible, play sports there. He likes the idea of coming back to Bradford afterward and teaching (history) and coaching and giving back the community.
"I told him to see what’s out there – to go out into the world, go to college, go through some experiences – and then bring it all back to Bradford.
“That’s what small towns need. They need someone to bring things to them. They need someone who can really give something back.”
Actually, Connor and his teammates already started doing that last Friday.
Thanks to them that loud train horn wailed long into the Bradford night.