As the Osceola Kowboys prepare for a home game football game this evening, a pall has been cast over the campus as Roger Jones, the co-founder of the Great Florida Shootout and Kissimmee Klassic and likely the best advocate for youth athletes all over Central Florida and the state, passed away Thursday night at home among his family.
Jones, who had been fighting a second bout with cancer, was 69.
Funeral services will be held on Saturday, Sept. 15 at 1 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, near West Vine Street and Dyer Boulevard.
Word spread around the Kissimmee community quickly of Jones passing. Those who knew him well, like Osceola High softball coach George Coffey and former OHS basketball Coach Ed Kershner, who he worked with to get their tournaments to an elite level echoed many of the same sentiments:
Nobody cared more about high school and youth athletes more than Roger Jones, and he leaves big shoes to fill.
"He will be sorely missed," Coffey said. "He impacted a lot of kids through our tournaments and in the youth leagues he coached in. You can go on and on about the large legacy he leaves behind."
Over the years, the Kissimmee Klassic grew into one of the biggest and best high school softball tournaments in the Southeast and a true labor of love for its close-knit volunteer group annually headed up by Coffey and Jones, its tournament supervisor and, essentially, its top public relations officer.
The inaugural 1993 tournament had three teams that played at the Thacker Avenue fields. Fast forward to this year's event, re-named the Roger Jones Kissimmee Klassic in his honor, which had 32 teams — 30 of them ranked in the top 10 of their classification’s poll. It was played at the five-field Osceola County Softball Complex, with announcers and scorers working each game, box scores and the Klassic’s history contained on a professional website (www.kissimmeeklassic.com) and, for this year, coverage from USA Today.
Kershner said he was "blessed to be associated" with Jones; their relationship went back to 1980.
"I had an idea about lifting the profile of high school basketball in Kissimmee and the rest of the area, so I approached Roger about doing a tournament," he said. "I knew Roger was an 'all-in' guy with whatever he did. He brought the Rotary Club on board, and together we turned the Shootout into the Number 1 tournament in the country for a while."
Jones recruited the best teams in the country — and they came to play for a national ranking, as future NBA stars Chris Jackson (later Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Bobby Hurley, Elton Brand and J.R. Smith played in Kissimmee in front of packed-in crowds. It all worked, Kershner said, because Jones saw what sports, done right, could generate.
"Roger rallied around the student-athlete," he said. "I think of all the scholarships his work helped create, which helped so many kids fund their dreams at the next level. The Rotary's motto is, 'Service Above Self,' and Roger just embodied that."
While the final GFSO was held in 2015 due to decreasing interest and revenue but Jones, in a 2016 interview, said he was not upset to see it end.
“I would say that it has been my pleasure to be associated with an event that raised I don’t know how much money for scholarships, and that brought the folks here the very best basketball in the country to enjoy. It was a lot of hard work, but it was a lot of fun. I’d say that we all had a great time with it.”
He loved the exposure surrounding the Shootout and the Klassic, created in 1993 to get high school athletes exposure doing what they do best against the best competition that could be found. The Shootout, which grew to a 16-team tournament listed among the best in the country during its heyday in the 1990s, helped fund scholarships for local students.
The tournaments were family affairs — they'd help out with the Shootout when held at Osceola High, less than two blocks from the Jones home.
"That's where we had to go if we wanted to see him," said son Kevin Jones.
"We didn't mind sharing him with the community," wife Betty Ann Jones said. "We always knew we were his Number 1."
The family said Jones was working on the documents for the 2019 Klassic in the days before he passed.
When not working directly with athletes, Jones' professional life included running a sports goods company, CamBroc Sports, from which he ran from 1991-2015 before retiring due to health issues. After successfully fighting off a bout with leukemia in 2012, a rare form of skin cancer surfaced in 2015.
Jones was born on April 12, 1949 in Cherokee, Iowa, where he grew up and earned All-State honors playing high school football, basketball, baseball and track. He also played in band and sang in chorus. He played football and baseball at the University of Northern Iowa, and after graduating worked various jobs in Colorado and California before coming to Florida ("the only option warm enough for me") and putting down stakes in Clearwater Beach in 1973, where he met his wife, Betty Ann and her four children. They came to Kissimmee about two years later when Roger was offered a job managing a Firestone Tire franchise.
Jones is survived by Betty Ann, children Craig, Kevin, Kirk, Keith, Cami and Brock, sister Janis, brothers Ronald and Bruce, 19 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Granddaughter Kara currently plays for Coffey on the OHS softball team.
This is a developing story. Check back to aroundosceola.com for more.