Bobby Rashad Jones couldn’t help himself.
He was the midshipman with the lowest grade-point average in the Naval Academy Class of 2001 – known as the anchor – and was overwhelmed with joy to receive his commission after spending years on academic probation.
President George W. Bush was the commencement speaker in Annapolis and cordially shook hands with each graduate. But as Jones walked across the stage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the crowd roared in support for the “anchor.”
Jones was a football player who was well known on campus, partly because tradition calls for each graduating midshipman to pay the class anchor $1.
He could’ve chosen a more glamorous life and played football at a powerhouse program like Florida. Or he could’ve done without the stress of military life by going to an Ivy League school. And he could’ve left the academy when it all seemed so overwhelming after his first semester to join friends at the University of North Carolina.
But he stayed because he wanted to be part of something bigger than himself – and he had made it.
As he walked toward Bush, the excitement was too much to contain.
He jumped up and down. His head shook. He pumped his right fist in the air.
A presidential handshake simply wouldn’t do.
The former linebacker grabbed Bush’s hand, pulled him in and hugged the commander-in-chief. And not just any hug; a bear hug that briefly lifted Bush off the ground as part of what Jones would later describe as an “out-of-body experience.”
“I’m thinking it’s not a serious hug, not realizing I just got through playing football. The president is not that heavy. I didn’t realize I picked the man up,” Jones said in an interview this week at his office at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek.
The academy’s sports information department said he was listed as 6-foot-2, 235 pounds when he played football.
“My sister thought I was going to get shot, my mom was trying to take pictures and my dad was like ‘What the hell is he doing?’ ”
A lot of people laughed. Navy leadership did not. An officer on stage physically pulled Jones off the president by his uniform.
Images of Jones circulated in newspapers and on cable television broadcasts around the world.
Just days after one of the happiest moments of his life, Jones was called in for a meeting by the academy’s leadership to learn there was a price to pay for his jubilation. First, he was yelled at by a Marine general who slammed down a copy of the Washington Post with Jones on its front page.
Then he learned his first assignment would no longer be in Annapolis coaching football at the academy’s prep school like he planned. He was going straight to Japan.
But first he had to write apology letters to the Navy’s top brass, from the Secretary of the Navy on down. He wrote letters for days.
“At first I was mad about it. I was very mad,” said Jones. “But that was the other lesson I learned in the Navy and it stuck with me: accountability.”
Another lesson? Perseverance.
Navy leaders never gave up on Jones. Neither did his parents. They saw potential in him even when he didn’t see it in himself. He said he never thought about leaving the academy except during Christmas break his plebe year when he spoke with a friend playing college football elsewhere about how vastly different their experiences were.
“My parents didn’t give me that option. I knew better. And looking back in retrospect, I’m kinda glad I stayed there and fought through it,” he said.
He not only managed to graduate after struggling with time management between the classroom, football and military responsibilities, but he also bounced back from that rocky start to his career after graduation.
He was one of four graduates singled out by Bush for praise four years later during the Class of 2005’s commencement address for serving aboard the dock landing ship USS Germantown while supporting anti-terrorism efforts in the Philippines.
“Bobby was the anchorman of the Class of 2001. He was the guy that gave me that bear hug. Four years later, my ribs still hurt. So don’t get any ideas,” Bush told graduates that day.
“Here’s what Bobby says, ‘Once I got to my ship after 9/11, it did not matter where I graduated. The expectations of Annapolis graduates never change. And I’m proud to be a part of the elite and unique tradition of the United States Naval Academy.’ I want to thank Bobby for his service and thank Bobby for witnessing your graduation today.”
His reputation had been repaired enough at the academy that he even worked there as a recruiter for awhile before taking on a variety of assignments that included becoming a United Nations peacekeeper in Liberia and working at the Missile Defense Agency in Colorado as its lead war games planner.