DALLAS — When Landry Jones left on a mission trip to Haiti earlier this summer, he was one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
When he came back, he was better.
The Oklahoma quarterback had a life-altering experience while in that island nation. He glimpsed inconceivable poverty. He witnessed unflappable faith. But when devastating news came from home, his already-tugged heartstrings were stretched even tighter.
It changed Jones.
On the day the Sooners made their rounds at Big 12 Media Days, you could sense a difference in the quarterback. He had an ease about him that was absent these past two seasons.
He is more confident in his role as a leader.
“It's an honor to lead this team,” Jones said. “It's an honor to lead these guys.”
Two years ago, Jones was thrown into the fire as a quarterback and a leader when Sam Bradford injured his shoulder. He was simply trying to make something out of a season that held so much promise, to survive a season marred by injuries.
But even last year when Jones returned as the starter, there was a sense that the leadership crown sat uneasily on his head.
Yes, he quarterbacked the Sooners to the Big 12 championship. Sure, he helped OU end its five-game losing streak in BCS bowls with a Fiesta Bowl triumph. Still, Jones didn't have that air of ultimate confidence that surrounds so many quarterbacks.
Had someone asked him to attend Media Days or take a two-by-four upside the head a year ago, for example, Jones might've taken the knot on his noggin.
Not so this year.
“I'm probably not as comfortable as Travis is,” Jones said, glancing across the room at teammate Travis Lewis.
Listen, no one is as comfortable with the media as the loquacious linebacker. He spouts quotable one-liners quicker than a comedy-club act.
Still, there's no doubt Jones is more at ease.
Some of the answer lies in the maturity he's gained and the success he's enjoyed, but no small part of it was that mission trip to Haiti.
Jones was among nine football players who made the journey to the Mission of Hope, a Haitian ministry that includes an orphanage, school, church and medical clinic. Several members of the OU women's basketball team had been there a year ago, and while Jones heard stories from then-girlfriend, now-fiancée Whitney Hand, it didn't prepare him for what he saw.
“I think it just really kind of opened my eyes,” Jones said. “There's life outside the United States, there's life outside of football, and there's life outside the University of Oklahoma.
“Everyone doesn't walk around with an iPhone in their back pocket.”
Life in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country touched Jones so much that he began thinking he might move to Haiti one day to minister to people there.
Amid that emotional time came news that Sooner linebacker Austin Box had died. Thousands of miles from home, Jones and his teammates leaned on each other. They mourned together. They cried together.
“It was important for us to be together at that time,” Jones said, “and kind of get to walk each other through it.”
Jones led the way. He'd never had someone close to him die, but even as he was dealing with the loss, he helped provide spiritual comfort to his teammates.
Those days in Haiti provided perspective for Jones. He saw quite clearly what was important to him — faith, football, friends — but at the same time, he realized just how fortunate he was to have everything that he had.
At a position that is as much about intangibles as skills and talents, Jones is more prepared to lead than ever before. He came back from Haiti changed.
He came back better.