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Originally published Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 5:47 PM

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Walter Jones' path to NFL greatness included an accidental stop at a Mississippi community college

Seahawks' Pro Bowl offensive tackle might get back into lineup on Sunday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sunday

Chicago @ Seahawks, 1:05 p.m., Ch. 13

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The story of Seattle's greatest lineman starts in a most unlikely place.

In fact, the beginning has become legendary at Holmes Community College in Mississippi, which is fitting since this is Walter Jones we're talking about.

Jones was a high-school senior tucked away at French Camp Academy, a small Christian boarding school in Mississippi.

"We just stumbled upon him," said Robert Pool, Holmes' coach at the time.

Jones wasn't even playing football for French Camp, instead working on his grades to get into Florida State, which thought he'd make a heck of a tight end.

A Holmes Community College assistant coach stopped by the school for what amounted to a courtesy visit and found this 24-karat football prospect.

And that's how the college career of a future Hall of Fame lineman started. Jones didn't qualify to enroll at Florida State in 1993 so he spent the next two years flattening opponents and dropping jaws at Holmes Community College.

"The kind of guy you dream about being able to get and coach," said Hugh Shurden, the assistant coach who first found Jones and is now the athletic director at Holmes.

It really is a remarkable story, one that's worth remembering this week as Seattle waits to see if Jones will return from knee surgery to play left tackle against Chicago on Sunday.

For more than a decade, Jones has served as the gold standard for NFL linemen. He's a nine-time Pro Bowler, a millionaire many times over who went 10 seasons without missing a game because of injury. His greatness has been a given from shortly after he arrived in Seattle as the No. 6 overall pick in 1997.

So many superlatives have been draped across his 6-foot-5 frame that it's hard to realize just how truly remarkable his journey has been. He has gone from super-sized talent hidden away at a small boarding school to a lineman Mike Holmgren called the best offensive player he has ever coached.

Not Brett Favre, Joe Montana nor Steve Young, but Walter Jones. And with that assertion, Holmgren joined a chorus that stretches back to the coaches at Holmes Community College.

"It was truly a pleasure, I can tell you that," Pool said of coaching Jones.

There's no shortage of men who'll offer a resounding amen to that.

"As ready to play as any player that ever walked on this field the first day," said Bobby Bowden, Jones' coach at Florida State. "Just a physical specimen, and had the agility to go with his size.

"He had a wonderful attitude to work with."

Jones played just one season at Florida State, redshirting in 1995 after a question about his transcript. He entered the draft after playing his junior season in 1996.

Jones was such a good athlete that Florida State first thought he might be a tight end when recruiting him in high school. After two years at community college, Jones had broken that mold.

"He kept getting bigger and bigger," said Jimmy Heggins, Florida State's offensive-line coach.

And Jones never got any slower. It's that combination of his footwork and strength that makes him the prototype left tackle. He can dance with those fast-twitch pass rushers, staying step for step as they come charging off the edge, and has the strength to dismiss them with extreme prejudice.

For two weeks, Jones has chosen not to answer questions until he plays in a game, but this is a proud man and he was last seen allowing two sacks to Dallas' DeMarcus Ware on Thanksgiving. He played that afternoon with a knee injury that required surgery.

Two operations and nine months later, he has missed six regular-season games and counting. He returned to a full load of practice, and as Seattle wrestles with another avalanche of injuries, the possibility of his return Sunday offers the hope Seattle will get better.

Jones is 35, not as great as he once was, but he still is the best lineman on Seattle's roster and one of the best in the league.

"He's 330 pounds yet he moves as if he's 250," defensive end Patrick Kerney said. "He's violent when he needs to be and when it's time to finish the play or push you by the quarterback, that's when he exerts all his strength."

Before Kerney came to the Seahawks in 2007, he played for Atlanta and remembers several long afternoons spent trying to get around Jones.

"It's like wrestling a bear for three hours," Kerney said.

Michael Bennett had a different perspective. He is a rookie defensive lineman from Texas A&M who was 7 years old when Jones began college and gets a little wide-eyed when he's talking about the cornerstone of a lineman.

"He's like a myth," Bennett said.

Or a legend that can be traced back to a small Christian boarding school in Mississippi where a community-college assistant made a courtesy visit and came away with one of the greatest linemen in football history.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

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