The eight-year-old boy noticed his dad was about to leave. He ran into the yard to retrieve another rock that was small enough to fit in a pocket but carried significance the size of a boulder.
Jack Dobyns saw his father Jay in the driveway following a brief weekend visit at their Tucson home. The danger of what Jay was returning to prompted Jack to do what he did a few times before — grab a rock — when his dad was about to return to his work as an undercover agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Jack knew of when his dad was shot in 1987, almost seven years before he was born. Only three years removed from his football career at Arizona, Jay was on his very first assignment as an ATF agent in Tucson serving an arrest warrant on a convicted felon who was recently released from prison. After he ignored the pleas from the felon to drive away from federal agents who had their guns drawn, Jay was shot in the chest. The agents opened fire and killed the felon before rushing Jay to the hospital.
Jack knew of the story and how his dad survived following emergency trauma surgery because Jay was open with his son about his treacherous experiences. By not holding back, he would avoid resentment from his son in the future, if he managed to survive through the uncertainty of being an ATF agent.
When Jack was in grade school he drew a picture that he made into a Father’s Day card that depicted Jay getting shot and laying on a hospital bed undergoing emergency surgery. Using his exact spelling, Jack wrote: “Happy Father’s Day. I hope this never hapins again to you. Love Jack.”
If the bullet had entered slightly differently and pierced his heart, Jay would be dead. Jack would not be born.
Jack stood in front of Jay in the driveway after retrieving the rock. He handed the rock to his dad without saying a word. Jay took the rock and placed it in his pocket and looked at Jack’s face. He was preparing to return for his final run as an undercover agent in “Operation Black Biscuit” that included the infiltration of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.
“Don’t worry,” Jay told his son. “All of these good luck rocks you’ve given me have kept me safe.”
“Those aren’t for good luck,” Jack responded.
Jay recalls now, 15 years later, that his “brain froze” when Jack made that statement.
“For two years, I believed that’s what the rocks were,” Jay said. “I thought he had been giving me good luck charms. I just looked at him standing in the driveway, no shirt or shoes, a little innocent boy, not knowing what to say.”
“Those rocks are to put in your pocket,” Jack told him. “When you think someone is going to shoot you or stab you, you can put your hand in and touch it and it will be like I am there with you to help you.”
Jack hugged his dad and ran off to play in the yard. Jay stood motionless in the driveway, taking in what his son just said.
“I was at the lowest moment of my life,” Jay says now. “It took an 8-year-old boy to teach his dad what my job was. It was not to be an undercover agent or fight violent crime. It was to raise good kids. At that moment, I knew I had failed him. I cried for hours after that.”
Jack, his sister Dale and mother Gwen faced more than their own psychological battles when Jay was doing his perilous undercover work. They had first-hand experiences of the hate toward Jay by “some of the most dangerous people in America,” as Jack now calls them.
Jay recalls his son receiving a death threat at the age of 9, only a year after the episode in the driveway.
“One of the intercepted threats was, ‘If we really want to hurt him, do we put a bullet in him or his kids, his wife, his dog. What will hurt him worse?'” Jay said. “Another was spoken to me. ‘We know where your kids go to school. One day, you’re going to be waiting at the bus stop and he’s not going to get off.'”
Jack mentioned that the experience of not knowing what to expect from these death threats hardened the family instead of making it weak with fear.
“As a young kid I knew that my dad had a dangerous job and he was trying to make our community a safer place,” said Jack, a Salpointe Catholic graduate who is now a junior criminal justice student at Chadron State College in Chadron, Neb. “It’s a hard line of work but it’s worth that sense of duty and accomplishment.”
When asked when he fully comprehended what his father’s line of work entailed, Jack said, “I would say probably when I was around 10 or 11, a young kid, really, when we started moving around … we moved to California for a little while. We got out of Arizona because it was basically too dangerous for us there and we were constantly getting threatened. … At that point, I realized this was the real deal, not a game or a joke of my dad working with bad guys. This was a pretty serious thing.”
About three years after that, when Jack was 14 and the family was back in Tucson, he, his mom and sister encountered life-threatening horror — their house on a mini-ranch in northwest Tucson was set ablaze by arsonists targeting his father.
“I was out of town,” Jay said. “When I got home, the house was still smoldering and Jack was walking around the yard holding a framing hammer. He wouldn’t let it go. I asked, ‘What’s up with the hammer?’ … He said, ‘You weren’t here. What if they come back? I’m going to be ready for them this time.'”
Six months after the house fire, Dobyns became a New York Times bestselling author following the release of his book, “No Angel – My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels.” The book chronicles the Hells Angels investigation and how it impacted his life and career.
The blaze started at 3 a.m. in the back porch area near Jack’s bedroom. Jack was the first to realize the house was on fire because the heat shattered the window and covered him with shattered glass.
He managed to wake his mom and sister and get them outside safely. He then returned inside to rescue the family’s two bulldogs. Nobody was injured from the fire that cost about $300,000 in damages. Jack’s room was burned beyond recognition. Jay’s Arizona letterman jacket that hung from one of Jack’s bedroom walls was singed.
“I think about it from time to time,” said Jack, who recently completed his third year with Chadron State as a tight end/wide receiver. “I still have very vivid images of waking up and seeing that fire in the back. It’s kind of like a flashback.
“I was thinking about this about a week or two ago. We had a bonfire in my backyard at school. The next morning my clothes smelled like smoke from the bonfire and it took me right back to walking through the house the next morning. I felt like I was walking through that ashy house. I could smell that ember or smoky wood smell. I feel like that fire has motivated me in football and through my criminal justice degree. It’s been a motivator, something that’s driven me to work hard.”
Jack was an accomplished receiver at Salpointe, where Jay served as a coach during his time there, but he did not land scholarship offers from major universities. He took the opportunity to prosper at Chadron State, where he started every game this season after coming off the bench as a freshman and sophomore. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Jack has established himself as a reliable blocker and possession receiver for the Eagles.
This season, Jack started to wear No. 82, the number his dad wore with Arizona following his career with Sahuaro and one-year stint with Arkansas in the early 1980s. Jack draws inspiration from how his father played with conviction as a slender receiver bouncing back after menacing hits from larger, physically imposing defenders.
“Every Saturday a kid who barely weighs 170 pounds dripping wet goes over the middle for us,” the late Larry Smith said of Jay in a 1984 interview with the Arizona Daily Wildcat. “I know this Jay is a tough, reckless, S.O.B. After games, he looks like he’s been run over by a train. I personally think he enjoys taking the defense’s best shot just so he can get up and laugh at them.”
Jay was chosen as the AllSportsTucson.com’s No. 1 player in a top 10 list of badasses in Arizona football of the Pac-10/12 era (1978 to now). Jay continues to carry the hard-edge image Arizona football wants to project with his defiant, bold look with that long flowing goatee.
The program invited Jay to talk about what defines Arizona’s “OKG” (Our Kind of Guy) in a 2015 recruiting video. “An OKG loves adversity,” Jay says. “He needs adversity to feed on the fire inside of him.”
A YouTube video has surfaced that displays “Jay Dobyns’ Greatest Hits.” Watching the video that includes Jay taking tough hits and standing tall serves as a motivator for Jack.
“I watch it before every time I play,” Jack said. “It gets the juices flowing. It’s a mental-focus type of thing for me.
“Ever since I was a little kid, he’s really given me a good example helping me establish the confidence and pride in myself and my family. He told me growing up, ‘Don’t do anything halfway. Don’t do anything mediocre.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re the President of the United States or flipping burgers at McDonald’s, you be the best at whatever you do.”
Jack did not receive all-conference honors at Chadron State this season for his 29 receptions for 245 yards. He did not make headlines after catching the first touchdown pass in his college career in the Eagles’ regular-season finale last Saturday.
That will not faze Jack, not after what he experienced in his childhood with his dad’s perilous occupation and playing behind Cam Denson and other standouts at Salpointe.
“He plays the game like I did, as hard and as violent as he can,” Jay said. “He gives you every ounce of his effort and skill. I would have loved to have him as my teammate. I’d know that win or lose, he was going to give it all or die trying.
“He’s better than I was. He’s bigger at 6-4 and 230. He’s a better route-runner. He has better hands. I was quicker but he is stronger. I never broke many tackles. He is hard to get down. He moves the pile. I was just buried under it. The kid is a flat-out warrior.”
Not to be overlooked in Jack’s development is his mother Gwen, Jack said, because of how she provided strength at home while Jay was on assignment. She had the code name “Big Lou” when Jay’s family happened to call his cell phone and he was in the company of the Hells Angels. Jack called him once during a Hells Angels meeting. Keeping in character, Jay said, “Whassup? Big Lou there?” That’s code for “put your mother on the line.”
Big Lou is as much of a hero to Jack as his dad. He does not hesitate to call himself a “Mama’s boy” despite the toughness he tries to show on the football field.
“I get my hard edge, mean, tough aspects from my dad,” said Jack. “My mom is like kind of where I get my personal, loving, caring side. My mom has supported me through everything I have ever done in my whole life.
“My mom doesn’t care about football. She likes football because I like football. She’s one of those moms that’s worried about her son getting concussions but she’s always supported me through sports and now seeking to become a law enforcement agent. She was really strong when my dad was gone. She ran the house. She kept us in line while putting a lot of love on us.”
Jack plans to carry on his father’s legacy in law enforcement with the thought of doing undercover work.
“I’ve always looked up to my dad and the sacrifices he made in his personal life to hopefully protect people in harm’s way,” Jack said. “I’m very proud of the things he’s done and the risks he’s taken. Even though it’s put some stress and problems in our personal family life, it is completely worth some of the amazing things he’s accomplished.”
The kid who handed his dad a rock as a sign of being with him at all times will soon be in his dad’s role of fighting crime. The rock will be in the other’s pocket.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.