- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 28, 2020

As Maryland’s team bus pulled up to Ryan Field on Saturday, the tears began to fill Jeshaun Jones‘ eyes. He had wanted this moment for so long — a return to the football field, healthy once more — and now it was really upon him.

So he let the tears fall, and he was relieved none of his teammates surrounding him on the bus said anything. He preferred to share that moment with his mom, Nicole Baran, who knew exactly what he’d gone through since tearing his ACL in August 2019.

“I’m here,” Jones told his mom over the phone, standing on the field pregame.

Baran was there, too, having flown in from Florida to Chicago to see Jones play against Northwestern.

Nothing could’ve kept her from being there, not after watching her son wheel into surgery a year ago. She’d preached patience, watched his incremental improvements, and listened to his concerns — about his recovery, about his playing time once he returned, about the coronavirus potentially derailing the season and his plans.



She’d been through it all, alongside Jones. She’d felt the ups-and-downs that come with a year-long recovery process. And she also felt the outpouring of emotion taking place before Saturday’s game, a turbulent road finally leading back to the field.

“You earned this,” Baran said through the phone to her son. “You worked your butt off. You enjoy every minute of it.”

Jones practically became a star overnight for the Terrapins. In his first game, a season-opening upset over Texas, the 6-foot-1 wide receiver recorded a passing, rushing and receiving touchdown. He went on to finish the 2018 campaign with the most receiving touchdowns for a Maryland freshman since Stefon Diggs.

And then all that progress was derailed. Jones suffered a torn ACL on the first day of fall camp ahead of his sophomore season, requiring his first ever surgery and the lengthiest recovery period he’d ever experienced.

But waiting can lead to frustration, especially for a player who said his longest time away was two weeks during his senior year of high school for a sprained AC joint in his shoulder.

“It took a lot of explaining and perspective for him to understand that, you know, there’s no reason to rush,” Baran said. “That was a process in itself, getting him to wrap his mind around the idea that, ‘This season is over, doesn’t matter how quickly I heal, I have to let this go.’”

Once Jones accepted the timetable, improvements came more steadily. He’d call or FaceTime his mom whenever he’d reach small milestones: walking without crutches; increasing his knee’s weight threshold; bending it further and further with time.

He sent his mom a video of himself doing one-legged squats, growing strength and confidence in what he could do once again with his knee.

“I’m holding my breath the entire time I’m watching,” Baran said. “It was crazy.”

But as the novel coronavirus pandemic spread and the Big Ten season was put in jeopardy, new doubt crept into Jones‘ mind. Had all the work to get back from a torn ACL been for naught? Would he need to wait another year before retaking the field?

In August, the conference postponed the season. In September, after much hemming and hawing, an eight-game, conference-only schedule appeared. That’s when excitement first began to build for Baran and Jones, with a date to circle on the calendar: Oct. 24 against Northwestern.

Baran has an app to track flights, finding the best deals to book trips to her son’s games. The only problem this time, though, was she wasn’t sure if she’d be allowed to attend Maryland’s season opener. So as airline prices rose the closer it got to kickoff, Baran waited anxiously for confirmation.

As soon as she got it from the school — about a week before kickoff, she said — Baran paid whatever it took so she could see Jones run on the field again, leading his team with five catches in the 43-3 loss.

“She’s really seen this process from Day One,” Jones said. “And the fact that she got to see me go out there and play was pretty cool.”

After the game, Baran made a beeline through the stands, working her way toward the visitors’ locker room. She knew she couldn’t get close to Jones, not with the coronavirus restrictions. But she at least wanted a chance to see him, to say she was proud.

By that point, with the temperature falling well below the 42 degrees it was at kickoff, Baran couldn’t feel her toes. Still, when her son asked her to wait by the team bus, she did. And once Jones left the locker room and went to see his mom, they got a few minutes together to talk, to think back on the last year, to appreciate the hardships that led to that moment.

Because there were hardships. But standing in the cold outside Ryan Field was proof of how far they’d come.

“I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else but there with him,” Baran said. “Even though I couldn’t touch him or get close to him, I just had to be there.”

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