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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC defensive tackle Nazair Jones endured a long, painful road back to the gridiron

Hey, Kenny. Hey, Naz.

The trainer takes a tube about six inches long marked “Enbrel” from the fridge and gives it to North Carolina’s star defensive tackle. His hands envelop it completely. He takes the top off of the tube to expose the needle, swabs a bared thigh with an alcohol wipe — this week it’s the right leg, next week it’ll be the left — and sticks the needle into the muscle.

It takes 15 seconds, tops. After almost 170 injections, Naz has gotten quite good at this. It’s pain now or more pain later. And it’s been a long time since he wasn’t hurting.

He was hurting the first time he met Coach Larry Fedora. They were talking in the weight room at Roanoke Rapids High School. Fedora had come to see the player people were saying could be the next great Tar Heel defensive lineman. He hailed from the same area that produced Kareem Martin and Kentwan Balmer, but people saw shades of Julius Peppers when they watched him play.

But, at that moment, even a ghost would have been bigger than Naz.

He had recovered enough from his illness to graduate from a wheelchair to crutches, yet the once robust, 250-pound player Fedora had seen wrecking opponents on film had wasted away in only a month.

After a few minutes of conversation, he interrupted Fedora.

Coach, do you mind if I sit down? The pain is ... I just can’t stand up.

“I walked away from there, him weighing 218 pounds, thinking, ‘Man, he’s going to be lucky if he ever gets to play the game,’” Fedora said.

Sacrifice equals success

The odds were against Naz from the beginning.

He was the son of a single mom in Roanoke Rapids — one of the poorest cities in the country. And for a while, he was running with the wrong crowd. His mom thought her son would be pulled under sooner or later. So, Naz made some changes.

When he was 16, he emblazoned the words ‘sacrifice equals success’ in ink on his left arm. Reaching his dreams cost some friendships, but in his own words, eff it.

“I kind of created that mentality when I go into a lot of things,” Naz said. “Just say eff it and just go about it.”

Homework due for a class? Extra conditioning because the first-years don’t know how to practice hard yet? Just eff it and just do it, Naz says.

A shot every week to blunt pain that’s been constant since 2011? That’s easy — just eff it and do it. Sacrifice equals success.

“I think that tattoo really explains his journey to where he is now,” said senior defensive end Mikey Bart, who was a part of the same recruiting class as Naz and will start alongside him this season. “He’s overcome a lot.”

After his team lost in the playoffs his junior year of high school, Naz came home and fell asleep playing video games on the couch, trying to numb the pain of the loss. He woke up the next morning and stood up to go to the bathroom. Then, his upper body locked.

“I stood up, and I was just kind of stuck there,” Naz said. “I had to call for my mom and my little sister to come help me out.”

What followed were months in different hospitals seeing different doctors — who each had different theories about what had happened to him.

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Finally, they found an answer. Complex regional pain syndrome: lasting pain that typically occurs in an arm or leg after a clear trauma and often afflicts women in their 40s.

Naz didn’t fit most of those boxes, but the condition was there in his lower back regardless. By the time they’d figured it out, he was in a wheelchair, unsure if he’d ever walk again.

“It was crazy, because you don’t go from healthy to almost paralyzed in a night’s sleep,” Naz said.

His weight had plummeted along with his recruiting stock, and he faced an uphill journey to get both back. The only reprieve from the pain was Ibuprofen and sucking it up.

He spent a lot of time asking why. He asked everyone: family, doctors, God. No one could give him an answer. No one could tell him if he would be okay; all they could do was stand by him.

“There were times and nights that I didn’t believe I would get it back,” Naz said. “But thank God I did.”

Worth the pain

In one sense, the story is over for Naz. He’s gone through rehab, regaining his weight and strength. He’s rebuilt the muscles that atrophied. He’s cried himself to sleep in the hospital bed at night, and on Saturday, he’ll run onto the field at the Georgia Dome and play the game he loves again.

Almost five years after being too weak to bear the weight of his own body, Naz has become the cornerstone of the UNC defensive line.

In 10 games in 2015, he amassed 40 tackles and displayed a knack for making big plays in big games.

In the ACC Championship against Clemson, he notched six tackles and his second career interception — diving for the catch after he stuck his tattooed left arm in the air to deflect the pass himself.

Shades of Peppers indeed.

But the scars don’t go away. The pain doesn’t go away. He weighs 310 pounds now, but he can’t forget what it felt like to be a shadow of that. To be vulnerable and weak and still have someone like Fedora believe in you enough to give you a shot. One that will hurt, yes, but one that makes the pain worth it.

“I’ll never forget that day,” he said. “Him seeing me like that at my worst, I realized that he took a chance on me giving me a scholarship to come here. I appreciate him for that because not a lot of people took that chance.

“I try to give him everything I’ve got.”