JONES — When David Cornwell stepped off the plane in Bamako, Mali, a little over a year ago, the first thing he noticed was the smell.
“It's just different,” said Cornwell, now Jones' quarterback. “It smells like burning firewood all the time.”
Right in the middle of the high school football season, Cornwell was literally half a world away on a mission trip to the West African country.
The trip has become something of a family tradition for the Cornwells. Ron and Debbie's older son, Daniel, had taken a trip to Mali as a sophomore as well.
The Cornwells had lived in Omaha, Neb., for most of David's life.
Their church, Christ Community Church, had long been involved in mission work in the country. David had worked with the church's Meals for Mali program, packing pre-made meals to send there.
He was excited about the trip but wasn't sure about the timing of it or his future once he returned to the U.S.
Cornwell expected to start as a sophomore at Millard South High School in Omaha.
The team had gone to the state championship game the year before and had a string of quarterbacks over the last decade who had started as sophomores and remained in place until graduation.
“I knew the system,” Cornwell said. “I was a ball boy, and by the time I stepped into freshman ball, I was next in line.”
Everything seemed perfect until his parents told him they were moving to Jacksonville, Fla., because of his father's job.
Cornwell thought the fit, football-wise at least, was a good one. He was in a recruiting hotbed and would play for former NFL quarterback Mike Loyd at Ponte Vedra High School.
Just more than six months after moving, though, Ron found out he would need to move back west. The family decided to move to Jones.
That was several months away, though.
For now, the family needed to decide on the best plan for Cornwell's education.
Cornwell could stay in school in Florida, knowing he would likely be uprooted by year's end, or he could homeschool for several months and prepare for the mission trip, take his ACT and focus on his mother's health.
Debbie had a thyroid condition for nearly 20 years but had been suffering bouts of insomnia and had lost more than 20 pounds in less than a month. At the time, doctors thought the symptoms were unrelated to the illness she'd been treated for previously.
“I was worried about that before,” Debbie said of David's reaction to another big life change. “But his attitude was one of, ‘I just want mom to be healthy and to just learn and grow.'
“Homeschool was a great opportunity to prepare him for the trip, and he really ramped up on his French. It some ways it was exciting, but it was bittersweet. David loves football. It was a sacrifice that he had to make to give up the season, but he chose to make it willingly.”
But even without the reward of games on Friday nights, Cornwell kept working on football.
He threw to his dad at Davis Park in Jacksonville, occasionally working with former OU assistant Joe Dickinson when Dickinson visited Florida, and doing cross fit with an ex-drill sergeant.
“I was training every day, doing something,” Cornwell said. “There was a time when we went 22 straight days and I had three levels of blisters on my big toes. They'd bleed every night and I'd have to soak my feet to get ready for the next day.
“About Day 15, I'm thinking, ‘Why am I driving here?' A voice in you wants to quit, but there's such a big reward.”
Part of that reward is coming now that he's settled in as a junior at Jones.
Cornwell has the Longhorns 4-1 going into Friday's game vs. Mount St. Mary. Jones has won four straight after dropping its first game, which was Cornwell's first varsity action.
It's also coming on the recruiting trail, where the 6-foot-5 Cornwell already has an offer from Indiana. He has also visited or is scheduled to visit Oklahoma State, Auburn and Michigan.
It's also rewarding off the field, where Cornwell is settled in at Jones and Debbie is doing great physically after doctors fixed a medication issue that was causing her problems.
As much as the football training helped, the off-the-field lessons he's learned in the last year have done more to put him in a position to succeed in football or whatever else his life holds.
“He's become a lot more aware of the world as a broader place instead of just where we're at,” Debbie said. “He was able to experience firsthand what it's like in an impoverished area and to contribute and serve with no expectation of getting anything back.
“He's been blessed by God with his height and his talents. We wanted him to have an appreciation for how blessed he's been.”
It's also helped him find some calm as the recruiting process has heated up in recent months.
“Without that trip to Africa, I'd be worried about getting caught up in it,” Cornwell said. “You've got to stay humble through all this. It's kind of hard not to when you go over there.”
St. Mary (2-3) at Jones (4-1)
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Noteworthy: St. Mary's Mikee Anthony has rushed for 638 yards and nine touchdowns. ... Jones' Taylor Bilyeu has 69 tackles and 380 rushing yards. ... Randal Case has six interceptions for the Longhorns. ... Two of St. Mary's three losses have come by six points, including an overtime loss to Christian Heritage. Its wins have come by an average of 46 points.