Thomas Jones knows that playing in the NFL takes a certain attitude. Preparation for each game is so compressed that it requires forgetting about what just happened on the field, whether it be a career day or a stinging defeat.
And Jones knows both extremes. In October, he set a New York Jets franchise record by rushing for 210 yards, yet the Jets lost to the Buffalo Bills in overtime.
“It was bittersweet. We lost the game, and any time you have a good game and you lose, it’s tough because you don’t get to enjoy the whole situation,” says Jones (Col ’99). “You have to have a short memory in this league, whether you win or lose, and move on to the next week.”
Off the field, however, Jones is not about to forget the tough circumstances of growing up in Virginia’s coal-mining country or the breaks that paved his way to success at UVA and beyond. In 2006, he established the Thomas Quinn Jones Scholarship Fund, which provides annual scholarships of $2,000 to UVA students from the region around his hometown of Big Stone Gap.
“I just think that when you come from an area like that and you make it to a certain level, it’s good for you to give back to your community and let people know ‘Hey, I’m from where you’re from,’” he says.
Jones’ mother worked in the mines to help provide for the family’s seven children. His father nurtured intellectual rigor by encouraging them to learn five new words a day. Jones excelled academically and led tiny Powell Valley High School to two state championships.
“All of a sudden, every college in the country was coming there [to recruit],” Jones says.
He chose UVA and graduated in three years, along the way setting the school’s all-time rushing record (3,998 yards) and being the University’s first consensus first-team All-American in decades.
UVA made a lasting mark on him as well. “My first year, my first day of class, seeing so many people—different races, different cultures—it was just a melting pot of people. It was really amazing,” he says.
Now Jones, 31, is amazing fans and peers alike by rushing for his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season—he finished the regular season with a career-high 1,402 yards—at an age when many running backs are losing their punch.
“I take care of myself. I work out really hard; I prepare as hard as I can during the week and during the off season,” he says. “I look at my age as a positive because I get more and more experienced every year.”
That experience helps him counsel his brother, Julius, a running back for the struggling Seattle Seahawks. “They’ve had a tough year. He’ll have his opportunity to do what he needs to do. He’s a great player.”
Though Julius went to Notre Dame, three of Thomas’ siblings followed him to UVA, including current student Katrice (Col ’11).
Looking back on his rise from a small-town unknown to a big-time star, Jones says adversity motivated him. And he says there’s one thing young people should never forget: “It doesn’t matter where you’re from—whatever you feel like you want to do, and you have a dream, chase it.”