The Prep Rally: Best in the West series will highlight the all-time best players in western Arkansas as selected by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
FORT SMITH -- Matt Jones didn't just have big plays or memorable games.
His entire career was a highlight reel.
For a seven-year stretch that includes high school and college, Jones remains one of the most iconic athletes in the state's rich sports history.
He immediately made his mark for the Arkansas Razorbacks' football team as a freshman in a 58-56 win over Mississippi and Eli Manning that took seven overtimes in November 2001.
Jones ran 25 yards to start the third overtime, threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to George Wilson in the fourth overtime, ran for an 8-yard touchdown in the fifth one, threw a pass to Jason Peters to complete a two-point conversion in the sixth overtime, and tossed a two-point conversion pass to DeCori Birmingham in the seventh overtime following Mark Pierce's 1-yard touchdown run.
The next season, Jones fired the shot heard 'round the state in the Razorbacks' 21-20 win over LSU at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock when he threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Birmingham with nine seconds left on the day after Thanksgiving that sent the Razorbacks to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Jones started the drive with a 50-yard pass to Richard Smith down the Razorbacks' sideline. After an incomplete pass, Jones threw the touchdown pass that will remain as one of the biggest plays in Razorbacks' sports history.
"It's just a blessing from the heavens," then Arkansas coach Houston Nutt told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after the game.
David Carlton had to kick a long extra point after the touchdown received an excessive celebration penalty, but his kick slipped inside the left upright for the difference.
In 2003, Jones guided the Razorbacks to a 38-28 win over longtime Southwest Conference nemesis Texas in a nonconference game for a rare win by Arkansas in Austin.
Jones ran for one touchdown and provided the finisher with a 60-yard run inside the Texas 1 that set up a Carlton field goal on the series following Texas cutting Arkansas' lead to 35-28.
Later in November, Jones, a junior, led Arkansas to another marathon win when Arkansas defeated Kentucky, 71-63, again in seven overtimes.
Jones threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Jason Peters in the second overtime, ran three yards for a touchdown and completed a two-point pass to Pierce to extend the fourth overtime, tossed a 15-yard scoring pass to Wilson in the fifth overtime, extended the sixth one with a two-point pass to Wilson, and completed a two-point pass to Peters following Birmingham's 25-yard scoring run that opened the seventh overtime.
Following his junior season, Jones contemplated declaring for the NFL draft but withdrew his name just before the deadline.
He also played basketball for the Razorbacks both for Nolan Richardson and Stan Heath, joining the Razorbacks following his junior football season after the Independence Bowl win over Missouri and working his way into the starting lineup in February 2004.
He even thought about foregoing his senior year in football and concentrating just on basketball.
He was that good.
He returned to the gridiron, though, in 2004 as the Razorbacks' lone returning starter and finished his collegiate career with the most rushing yards by a quarterback in SEC history. Jones was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft in 2005 by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The 6-foot-6, 242-pound Jones was clocked at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
In four seasons with Jacksonville, Jones caught 15 touchdown passes as a wide receiver.
All of that, of course, was after a standout multi-sport high school athletic career.
He burst on the high school scene as a 6-4, 184-pound sophomore at Van Buren in 1998, just two years removed from the Pointers' 1996 state championship.
The Pointers were born and nurtured in the Wishbone and threw just 77 passes in 1998 with Jones catching 11 passes for 213 yards and six touchdowns. In the conference opener against Rogers, Jones snared a 50-yard touchdown pass from Bobby Hickey.
His impact as a sophomore was more immediate on the basketball court.
He teamed up with senior Billy Pharis and helped the Pointers to a share of the AAAAA-West conference championship, their first since being elevated to the state's largest classification eight years earlier, and to the Class AAAAA state tournament.
In his first conference game, Jones scored 20 points with Pharis scoring 21 to lead the Pointers to a 62-56 win at Fayetteville.
Pharis led the conference in scoring and was the Most Valuable Player in the summer All-Star game while the fluid Jones excited the crowd with dunks. Packed crowds at the old Clair Bates Gymnasium became routine, especially for a fevered February rematch at home against Fayetteville when Pharis scored 37 points and Jones 14 in an electrifying 79-75 overtime win.
The following season, Jones led the conference in scoring and guided Van Buren to a runner-up finish in the AAAAA-West. Jones broke Corliss Williamson's conference record by a basket with 335 points in 14 conference games.
In the regular-season finale, Jones scored 34 points and yanked down 20 rebounds in an 80-60 win at Bentonville. Jones played just three quarters.
A month earlier, in a 63-53 win over Russellville, Jones scored 26 points just in the fourth quarter. He was perfect on six shots from the floor and added 13 free throws in 14 attempts in the last quarter. With 3:07 left, he slammed a rebound back through. Fifteen seconds later, he had a steal and a breakaway slam. He punctuated the remarkable quarter, and win, with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"Wow, 26 points in the fourth quarter," Van Buren coach Randy Loyd said after the game. "I've never heard of anything like it."
Veteran Russellville coach Marty Barnes said. "I hope I never do again. He's their money man. We were well aware of what he was capable of."
Through three quarters, Jones had just six points and two rebounds and spent most of the third quarter on the bench.
"That was a crazy game. I wanted to prove to Coach that I needed to be out there. I got mad, and I had something to prove," Jones said later.
Jones had a similar game earlier that season on the football field.
Jones started the season at quarterback, but was replaced by Chad Randleman in the second quarter against Fayetteville in October and moved to receiver. With Fayetteville leading, 25-8, Jones caught touchdown passes of 67 and 70 yards to help lead Van Buren back to a 26-25 win. Jones caught five passes for 206 yards.
Jones transferred to Fort Smith Northside after the basketball season in his junior season.
At Northside, Jones led the Grizzlies to the second round of the Class AAAAA playoffs before a 21-3 loss to eventual state champion Cabot.
Playing exclusively at quarterback at Northside, Jones ran for 943 yards and 13 touchdowns on just 101 carries. He threw for 815 yards and seven scores.
In basketball, Jones again led the conference in scoring and guided the Grizzles to the AAAAA-West championship. Northside lost to Conway in the opening round of the state tournament.
Jones played in the 2001 Arkansas High School Coaches Association's All-Star football game, teaming up with cousin Josh Driscoll to alternate at quarterback for the West team. Booneville's Ken Rippy was the head coach and turned the offense over to Greenwood's Ronnie Peacock and his wide-open offense.
Peacock knew all about Jones. Greenwood had played Northside in the season-opener. Jones carved up the Bulldogs, running for 127 yards on just four carries with touchdown jaunts of 51 and 47 yards. He also returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown, untouched, in the 37-7 win that proved to be Greenwood's only loss of the season on the way to a state title.
Jones earned Most Valuable Player honors in the All-Star game, throwing two second-quarter touchdown passes to Sheridan's Jason Wood and leading the West to a 14-13 win.
Jones' career will remain an enigma of sorts as he's remembered partly as a quarterback, partly as a wide receiver and partly as a basketball star. Or maybe, all of the above.
AT A GLANCE
SCHOOL Van Buren/FS Northside
CREDENTIALS As a sohomore at Van Buren, helped the Pointers claim a share of the 5A-West title for the first time after 8 years in the 5A. … Led the conference in scoring as a junior and broke Corliss Williamson’s 5A-West scoring record. … Scored 26 points in the fourth quarter in a 63-53 win against Russellville. … Transferred to Fort Smith Northside for his senior season and ran for 943 yards and passed for 815 yards. … In basketball, led the conference in scoring for the second straight season in leading the Grizzlies to the 5A-West championship. … At Arkansas, elevated his status with numerous memorable games and moments including a pair of seven-overtime wins, a road win at hated Texas and one of the biggest plays in Razorbacks’ history with his Miracle on Markham pass to beat LSU. … Was the SEC’s all-time leading rusher as a quarterback. … Was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. … Played four seasons in the NFL and had 15 touchdown receptions.
THAT’S WHAT HE SAID “That was a crazy game. I wanted to prove to Coach that I needed to be out there. I got mad, and I had something to prove,” Jones said following his 26-point fourth quarter against Russellville as a junior at Van Buren.