Dominion Energy, Virginia Sports Hall of Fame Spotlight: Thomas Jones

Jones’ run to Hall of Fame began with parental ‘three p’s’

This is the fifth in a series of stories on the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame website profiling the eight members of the Hall’s stellar induction Class of 2018. Induction weekend is scheduled April 7, 2018, at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts at the Town Center of Virginia Beach.
By JACK BOGACZYK
Hall of Fame Class of 2017

Asked to choose a biggest thrill in his success-stuffed running back career that has led to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, Thomas Jones was stumped for a minute.

“Wow,” one of the Commonwealth’s most prolific football performers said. “That one is tough.”

What wasn’t difficult for Jones was to list why he became two schools’ career rushing leader and ran for 10,591 yards in 12 NFL seasons. He answered that one faster than he used to hit the hole in the deep Southwest Virginia coalfields at Powell Valley High School and the University of Virginia, where he set eight ACC records and 15 school standards.

“My mom and my dad are a huge part of it; everything goes back to them,” said Jones, who has moved from football to Hollywood as an actor, producer and CEO of a company he founded to help aspiring talent find futures in his current business. “It was a struggle, but they showed my brother and sisters and me the way.

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“I’m going into the Hall of Fame, but the drive that allowed me to achieve what I did … that goes to them. We didn’t have a lot in Big Stone Gap and Appalachia, except a big, close family when I was growing up. My mother worked underground in the coal mines for 19 years. My dad could only do it one year, but then he took on whatever jobs he needed to get it done. He installed pools, did odd jobs, ran football camps. He was an Air Force guy.

“We chipped in as kids. I’d go out and cut a lawn for $5 or $10, and I knew the money was going to them to help out. Sometimes at Christmas we didn’t get much, but we watched them work hard and we appreciated that because they were working for us. I saw that. It resonated with me even back then, and I remember when I was 5 years old, I told my mom I was going to make the NFL and buy them a house and a car.

“The majority of my success is the motivation I found from them, wanting to take them on a journey to wherever it took me.”

Jones has made his parents, Thomas and Betty, very proud. He’s the third of their seven children.

“Honestly, what Thomas has accomplished didn’t surprise me or his mother,” the elder Thomas Jones said. “I’m saying that because he’s always been inquisitive, and he’s never taken any shortcuts – never believed in them. I can go back to when he was 6 or 7 and Tony Dorsett was big in Dallas with the Cowboys. Thomas wanted a Dorsett football outfit.

“So, we got him the jersey, pants and helmet. Then he said he wanted shoulder pads and I told him, ‘Let’s just hold off on that. Maybe you should start off by doing pushups, sit-ups. Start out with a few. But if you’re going to start doing five, then don’t ever do four.’

“In our old house we had wooden floors and he and his younger brother, Julius (who starred at Notre Dame and played in the NFL, too) would do pushups. Betty and I could hear them through the floor, Thomas doing them sometime at 3 in the morning because he hadn’t gotten in as many as he wanted to do in one day. When he graduated from Powell Valley High School, Thomas was at 200 pushups a day.

“We talked to him about three things – persistence, patience and perseverance – the three p’s. We talked about whatever you do, whether you’re in the public works department on a trash-collection truck or playing football, you take the same recipe to get the job done.

“That’s all Thomas knows. His career is what happens when opportunity meets with preparation. What he’s doing now, getting more into acting, he’s going about it the same way. He lives out in Los Angeles, no car, walks everywhere he goes, lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He’s focused on getting where he wants to go, and his mother and me are very proud of him and thrilled he’s getting recognized by the Hall of Fame, which has to be the height of Virginia sports.”

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One number the former running back hadn’t crunched is 21,782 – the combined number of yards he rushed in high school, at UVa and for five NFL teams. That’s 12.38 miles. There’s also his graduation from Virginia in three years with a psychology degree he said he put into quick use in making the transition from years in his home state to the NFL.

“Going into the Hall of Fame in Virginia is incredible for me,” said Jones, who will be part of an eight-person induction class on April 7 at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts at the Town Center of Virginia Beach. “I’ve traveled a lot and seen a lot, and Virginia is one of those states that has a lot of talent, whether it be sports, or artists, or whatever. You get in a conversation with someone out here in Los Angeles and a lot of times someone will bring up a name and that person, he or she, artist, athlete, TV anchor – they’ll be from Virginia.

“It’s a humongous honor for me. I remember back at Powell Valley High School, I always wanted our highlights to be on ‘Friday Football Extra’ out of Roanoke (WDBJ TV), and we’d never get on there until the playoffs because we were so far away (in Wise County). Our area is kind of secluded. It’s kind of like the forgotten part of the state, really.

“One reason I went to the University of Virginia was I wanted to be an ambassador for where I’m from, to show what my area of Virginia can do. I looked at my whole career as being a Virginia ambassador … still do.”

Jones led Powell Valley to back-to-back state titles in 1994 and ’95, and he rushed for 7,793 career yards, including a VHSL-record 3,319 for a single season. He scored 104 career touchdowns.

At Virginia from 1996-99, Jones ran for aUVa career-record 3,998 yards, topping Tiki Barber’s 3,389. His 1,798 yards in ’99 remains the school record. Jones finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior, then was selected No. 7 in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft by Arizona.

And when he got to the NFL, a 5-foot-10, 210-pound Jones found he wasn’t big enough, especially in trying to find yardage for a Cardinals’ franchise that was in the doldrums. So, using some of that same drive to succeed that had lifted him at Powell Valley and UVa, he reinvented his game, altered his eating and workout habits and changed his body by adding 20 pounds.

He went from Arizona to Tampa Bay to Chicago to the New York Jets to Kansas City and stands as the No. 25 rusher in NFL history with 10,591 yards.

“It goes back to home,” Jones said. “My dad really pushed me, and he and my mom put the discipline in me. I remember back when we’d play in high school, the next morning I’d grab the paper, wanting to see if my picture was in there or what it said about our game. By the time I’d get the paper, they’d have taken the sports section out. I had to read the front page. Then, read the back page. Then, I got to see the sports page.

“Football became my career and obviously it was important to me, but I learned back then that football is recreational. You need to have more than that. You need to understand the real world. I had a drive at a young age and I think it came from seeing what I wanted.

“My dad used to take me to University of Tennessee games (the closest major program to Big Stone Gap). We’d see Tennessee-Notre Dame, Tennessee-Alabama, Tennessee-Florida. And we’d come home to Big Stone Gap, and my mindset was what I had experienced was what I wanted. The seed had been planted. Until you see what you’re trying to get, you don’t quite know where you are going or how to get there.

“Some people see it and they are scared, or it’s ‘I have to have this.’ It was the latter for me. So, every Saturday night, I’d watch every minute of every game I could. I knew all of the teams and watched all of the scores. And I’d go out and run, Big Stone Gap, Appalachia, working out, because I wanted to be able to reach what I had decided I wanted.I constantly did extra things, because I wanted a scholarship and thought I could get it if I worked at it.”

These days, the former running back is known in Hollywood as Thomas Q. Jones (Q for Quinn). He was living in Miami (where he still has a home) in 2013 when a friend convinced Jones he had the talent to be an actor. He landed a guest role in a TV series episode shot in Miami, and Jones was convinced to hire an agent.

“Still, I wasn’t really serious about it, and then he kept sending me to auditions,” said Jones, who also has founded CASTAR Applications Inc., a mobile app to help aspiring talent find acting jobs and to promote talent and opportunities.

“In 2014, I got into it a bit more, but I’d had no acting classes. That scared me straight.”

He landed a recurring role in 2015 in BET’s “Being Mary Jane” as a love interest to Gabrielle Union. Among movies and other TV appearances, Jones figures to make his biggest splash to date in the upcoming film, “A Violent Man,” in which the ex-running back plays a struggling MMA fighter who finds himself in the battle of his life after his one-night stand is found dead in her home. The movie, whose cast also includes Denise Richards, has gotten plenty of attention from reviewers and film festivals, including one in Miami.

And beyond that? In the afterlife, Jones already has committed to donating his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which studies brain trauma and its connection to CTE.

So, back to the start … What was Jones’ biggest thrill in his career?

“There were so many,” Jones said, running through his memory bank. “I’d have to say it would be a tie. Our first state championship at Powell Valley, 1994, my junior year, we beat Sussex Central at home. Football back home is really big, just like ‘Friday Night Lights,’ and to win the title with guys you have played on teams with since kindergarten, through grade school, that was special. I remember after it happened thinking, ‘No one can take this away from me.’

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“Then there was winning the NFC Championship Game with the Bears, over the Saints in (January) 2007. It was at Soldier Field, snowing, and I ran for 112 yards … and we were going to the Super Bowl in Miami. I was going to the Super Bowl, a kid from Big Stone Gap. Those two would have to be the ones … Wait … one more.

“It was the Pro Bowl (in 2008), when I was with the Jets (and Jones was named an All-Pro first team selection). I got to take my dad and mom to Hawaii for the game, a vacation for them, and a special time for me. Peyton Manning was the (AFC) quarterback for us and I’d watched him at Tennessee, and now we’re on the same team, after he’d beaten us in the Super Bowl the year before. And I got to fly my parents there, and that made it special.

“It’s going to be the same for me when (‘A Violent Man’) is at the Miami Film Festival in March. I’m going to fly my mom and dad down there, and they’ll be there, just like when they sat in the stands at Powell Valley and Virginia and at that Pro Bowl.

“I’ve already lived one dream in football. Now, I’m getting to live another, and it all goes back to them.”

Retired award-winning sportswriter and columnist Jack Bogaczyk is a 2017 inductee to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. He spent more than 45 years in the sportswriting business, including 27 years at The Roanoke Times.

The 2018 Spotlight Series is presented by Dominion Energy. The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame welcomes Dominion Energy as a proud partner for 2018 Induction Weekend.