Thomas Jones came to the sideline with one demand: “Don’t take me out.”
“I was in this zone,” Jones told me last week as we discussed Super Bowl XLI. The gameplan was to alternate playing time between he and Cedric Benson, but early on, Jones felt he had the Colts defense figured out.
“I had broken this long run,” he said. “I really felt that was going to be a game where I would go for 200 or 250 or something crazy.”
He had a great game, but he left the stadium wondering if he’d done enough. The Bears had a great season, but left the stadium as runners-up. Jones had a great 2006, but the Super Bowl was the final game he played in a Bears uniform. As he notes in bemusement, he was the first player ever to get traded after running for 100 yards in the Super Bowl.
His professional career has been a study in contrast. He is remembered as a bust in one city and a hero in another. He does not identify himself as a “football player” yet was deeply affected by the football environment. He retired from one career in which he saw himself as an actor and began another career in acting.
Today, Jones lives in Los Angeles with a burgeoning acting career. In L.A. he is Thomas Q. Jones (that’s his Screen Actors Guild name), with a recurring role in the Gabrielle Union show “Being Mary Jane” on B.E.T., and small, memorable parts in “Straight Outta Compton” and the Netflix series “Luke Cage.”
He is “Thomas Jones first,” he always says, yet football — and his time with the Bears — are forever a part of him.
In this edited interview, Jones looks back on his Bears career and his time in the NFL. He still wonders how the Bears managed to lose Super Bowl XLI. And he explains why, despite his love of the game, if he had to do it all over again he would not play professional football.
You started your career with three years in Arizona, went to Tampa for a year, and then I think you signed with the Bears on the first day of free agency. Who made first contact — the Bears or you and your agent?
Coming from Tampa, it was my fourth year in the league. I had a pretty good year. And going into free agency, I was ranked the #1 free agent running back. I was debating staying in Tampa. I really loved it in Tampa. I loved playing for Coach Gruden and finally having a chance to get my career jump started.
But Chicago reached out, literally, as soon as free agency started. They were looking for a back to fit the new kind of offense that they were trying to implement with Terry Shea. It was the Kansas City-style running game that they had with Priest Holmes and Tony Richardson. I felt that I could fit in really well in a situation like that.
It was a numbers game at that point. Tampa, I really wanted to stay there, but what they were willing to offer wasn’t what I was looking for. Plus having the opportunity to play for a storied franchise like the Chicago Bears, and then also to play running back with the same team as one of my idols growing up, Walter Payton, was something I just couldn’t turn away from.
As far as the offense was concerned, we didn’t really have an identity. It was something that we had to find in training camp and over the course of the season. We had some injuries. Rex Grossman was hurt. We went through a lot of different quarterbacks and a lot of different players on the offensive line. We also had injuries on defense. But I don’t think we found our identity on offense in that first year. We had too many injuries and I don’t think we ever recovered from them.
The defense was starting to take shape, though, and I always got the feeling that you were a defensive-minded player on offense, like you had some sort of connection with the defenders that maybe other guys on offense didn’t. Am I reading that wrong? How do you remember your first interactions with Urlacher, Mike Brown, Alex Brown, other guys on the D?
I knew those guys because we came in the same draft class. I knew Lak (Brian Urlacher) from college. I met him at the college football awards show in Orlando. He was up for the defensive back award and I was up for the Doak Walker Award. And then we were both on the Walter Camp All America team.
Same thing with Mike Brown. I remember Mike Brown from just hearing his name in high school. We were all pretty highly recruited, so we were familiar with each other. Plus I played against them when I was in Arizona in preseason.
Once I came to Chicago, I think because I had a very aggressive mentality as a running back — I was a very physical player — I connected to the defense, because clearly to be on defense you have to be physical. I think just the way that I trained, the way that I ran, they had a lot of respect for me. They realized I wasn’t going to shy away from contact. I worked really hard, and we had some great players on defense who did the same. They didn’t shy away from contact and they worked hard. It was a perfect match.
Did you get that from watching Walter growing up and his whole “never die easy” mentality?
Yeah, I used to watch Walter Payton. He literally ran each play like it was the last of his career. That was inspiring. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with putting that Bears uniform on in that backfield. There’s a lot of mystique. There’s a lot of history there, between Walter Payton and Gale Sayers and Neal Anderson. A lot of those guys. Even with what Anthony Thomas had done and some of the guys before him, it was important for me to come in and live up to that legacy and those expectations. I took it very seriously.
Watching someone like Walter Payton was definitely inspirational. Putting that uniform on every day. I had a picture of him in my locker. And Soldier Field — the mystique and the energy — it just felt like he was there. That was one of the defining moments of my life, not just my career — to play running back for the Chicago Bears like Walter Payton did. I had his Kangaroo shoes as a kid growing up. I had the headband. He’s Walter Payton. It was a dream come true.
You had a strong first year in Chicago. When did you know that the Bears were going to draft Cedric Benson? And did you have a preference for what they did with that number 4 pick?
I mean, 2004, we had a lot of injuries. A tough year. 5-11. But since I was a kid I would always play football like every game was my last. I think I ended up with nine-hundred forty-something yards, and I had a hyper-extended toe. I played through injuries all year and I still almost had 1,000 yards and seven or eight touchdowns. In the situation we were in I felt we needed some help in different places on offense, so I definitely didn’t anticipate them drafting a running back. I figured, “I’ll be here for the next four years. I think I’ve shown that I’m a starter and that I can make plays despite the circumstances.”
But at that point I’d learned not to be shocked by anything that happened in the NFL. I was fortunate to understand that early in my career. It is a business first and football second. But I definitely felt as though we could have used some help in a different position, and that was nothing against Cedric Benson. The kid did everything he needed to do to be drafted where he was drafted. He earned the right to be drafted at the number 4 pick. It just so happened that he went to the Bears, the same team that I was on.
I interviewed Cedric a few of months ago. What was your first interaction like with him? I’ve read about the vets knocking into Benson in practice. Was there hostility there? What was that like?
When I came to Arizona I was the 7th pick in the draft. And the person I learned from more than anybody in my NFL career was Michael Pittman. He was a 3rd-year player. I was a rookie. And he handled the situation with so much class and dignity. He tried to teach me the plays. He tried to help me as much as he could. We were competing, but we’re both running backs, we’re both good people with good hearts. I wanted him to do well. He wanted me to do well. That’s all I knew. I didn’t look at it as competition. It was, “We’re both here to help the team win. Let’s both try to get 1,000 yards and go to the Pro Bowl.” That was our mentality. That’s all I knew.
I took that same mentality into Chicago. When Cedric came, it wasn’t his fault that he was drafted. They drafted him and, hey, he’s an employee here just like me. We’re here to get it done. I want a Super Bowl ring. So when he came in I tried to take him under my wing as a younger brother type. He was the 4th pick in the draft. I was 7th. I’d been through some adversity and fought my way out of it.
I took him under my wing. I tried. It was my running back group. I’m the veteran. I’ve weathered the storms. The younger guys took my leadership and took it to heart. They listened and followed my lead. I stayed in the weight room. I did all the extra things that leaders do. And when Cedric came in, I don’t necessarily think that Lovie and Jerry Angelo did a good job of explaining to him the situation. I think when he came in, he didn’t necessarily expect to have to compete for the job. I think he just thought that because he was picked so high, and what he had done at Texas, that he was going to come in and be the starter.
And that’s really not how the NFL works. There is a lot of competition. When he first came to Chicago everything was fine. I had no issue with him. I was never a cry baby or a whiner. It was, “Let’s go. We’re here to work. I get my plays, you get your plays. I’m going to do the best I can and you do the best you can and hopefully we’ll both help the team.”
He didn’t come to training camp. And I was in training camp. I was there. I was dependable. I was reliable. I didn’t miss a day of practice. I didn’t miss a day of meetings. Anything. When he didn’t show up, that was kind of a scary thing for Lovie and Jerry because this is a first round pick. They’ve given him a lot of money — or, they’re going to have to give him a lot of money — and he’s not there.
When he came back, he made a comment that he would be ready to start by the second game of the season. And of course, people hyped up the whole “Benson-Jones” thing. I never fed into that stuff because we’re on the same team. This is a 21-year-old kid. I’ve been where he was. So I didn’t look at it like that. But when he made that comment, it definitely made me feel like he wasn’t respecting the work I had put in. It kind of drew the line in the sand for me. It wasn’t personal. It was just, if that’s how we’re going to play it, we’re going to compete.
So he didn’t show for camp, and at that point it was my offense. It wasn’t Rex’s offense. Rex wasn’t there the year before. He was injured. I looked at it like it was my offense, Olin Kreutz’s offense, John Tait’s, Ruben Brown’s. The guys who had been there in the trenches, it was our offense. We’re veterans and we want to win a Super Bowl. We weren’t thinking about Pro Bowls and all that stuff. That was my 6th year in the league. At that point I was like, I want to win a Super Bowl. I want to go to a playoff game. I want to experience that.
I didn’t have time to think about “Benson and me” and “He’s getting more carries.” I was thinking, “Play my best, get to the playoffs. Play my best, win a Super Bowl.” Have the legacy. Do something. You’re in Chicago. If you win a Super Bowl here, you’ll go down in history as a legend. That’s what I was thinking about. It wasn’t Benson. When he got here I tried to help him. He didn’t necessarily want that, so I just went about my business. He made the comment, it drew the line in the sand and let me know where he stood as far as me taking on a big brother role with him. He wasn’t accepting to that so I left it alone.
Was the reporting of an actual physical fight — was that accurate? That you punched him?
Half of the stuff that happens in a locker room is family business. And unfortunately too many people don’t know how to keep family secrets and keep family business family business. We’re all on the team. We’re in a very stressful, violent environment that is not realistic. It’s not like working at IBM. You’re not in a corporate structure in the locker room or on a football field. You’re pretty much at war — mentally, physically, emotionally — and there is a lot that goes on between families.
I’ve never been the type of person to tell my family business. I don’t do that. I don’t see the point in that. You keep it in-house. I’ve never commented on anything that’s ever happened in a locker room with me or anyone else. I don’t comment on those kind of things. Family business is family business. Things happen with everybody. I’ve had situations with several people over my NFL career. It’s just part of the game.
Fair enough. Fast forward. You had the first touchdown of the ’06 playoffs. It was that run against Seattle. And I swear, when I watched that play I thought after you crossed the goalline, your whole body was going to explode. I’d never seen you that demonstrative. What was going through your head when you scored?
My motivation was not to have that feeling that I had the year before. The feeling that I had the year before was emptiness. It was misery to lose to Carolina. We had a bye week. We were confident in what we were able to do, and we lost at home? Against a team that we already beat in the regular season? Yeah, that feeling never left. It never left. It stuck with me throughout the whole offseason. For us to finally get back to that place? I did everything in my power to make sure that, “At least we make it past this game.”
We ran the ball really well against New Orleans, and Indianapolis was smaller up front. Small and quick. But it rained a lot, so of course we figured we’d run the ball the majority of the game. And, uh — (pause) I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s one of the weirdest situations I’ve ever been in. I look back at that game and I don’t have the answers.
The number one thing we did: we turned the ball over. You turn the ball over in any game, you’re going to lose. You turn the ball over in a Super Bowl, you’re definitely going to lose. And we turned the ball over way too many times. Unnecessary turnovers. Things that you look at and you’re like, “Man, this is the Super Bowl.” Yes, mistakes happen, but this is the biggest game ever. Every game you’ve played in — as a kid, as a collegiate athlete, as a pro — has been to get to this one game. And some people just aren’t meant for that big stage. It’s just too big for certain people.
That’s understandable. It’s a huge opportunity to shine. Or it’s a huge opportunity to drop the ball, literally. And that’s kind of what we did. Indianapolis played a great game. They did what they had to do to win. But we didn’t help ourselves at all. The gameplan? I think it just took a mind of its own.
I ask because when I was watching, as a Bears fan, I just kept saying, “I don’t understand why we’re not running the ball more.” Was that something you and Coach Turner and Lovie were discussing? Was it something you were wondering about? You only had 15 carries but you went for 112 yards.
I think a lot of it had to do with the two-back system that they had established with me and Cedric. I think they wanted to make sure they got Cedric in as well to get him some carries and maybe possibly try to wear them down. But I think you have to be strategic. This is the Super Bowl. I felt as though it was one of those games where I was in a zone. Every couple of series, we’d rotate. I’d go two series and Ced would go in two series, which was great. We wore defenses down and it helped us get all the way to the Super Bowl.
But in that game, I remember I came to the sidelines and I knew that the next series would be my series out, and I said, “Don’t take me out.” I just remember saying, “Don’t take me out, don’t take me out.”
I was in this zone. I had figured out what they were doing on defense. I had broken this long run. I’d watched so much film during the week that I understood exactly what they were going to do. They were going to come up the field — and I was going to tell the coaches, “Run this play, run this play.” There were two or three plays that I wanted to run. And the coaches have to make their decisions. They’re the coaches. I play, they coach. I really felt that was going to be a game where I would go for 200 or 250 or something crazy.
Sometimes as a running back you have this special feeling in a game that, “No one can stop me.” And if you get taken out of that space and the game gets out of hand, and then the play-calling has to fit the way the game’s going, you get out of that space. And I think that’s what happened to me.
We gave them a chance to figure out what was going on by not letting me continue to attack them. Even the linemen — I went up to Olin and Ruben Brown and Tait and Garza and Fred Miller and said, “We’re gonna kill these guys.” And they were looking at me like, “We know.” I was like, “Run draw and inside zone. Draw and inside zone. Draw and inside zone. We’ll kill them.”
(Pause) But it’s in the past. Hindsight’s 20-20. That might not have worked. Who knows? That’s just what I felt. So I would never throw anyone under the bus. We all did the best that we could to help our cause and it just didn’t happen for us for whatever reason. And it sucks, because that’s one thing that I’ll never get over. Every year around playoff time you kind of get a little depressed subconsciously. I haven’t watched the Super Bowl since we lost. It’s too hard to watch.
Are you serious?
Yeah. I haven’t watched one Super Bowl since we lost. I don’t watch it.
Did you watch it growing up?
Oh yeah. Every year.
Did you watch it in your playing career prior to 2006? From 2000 to 2005?
So you watched every Super Bowl until the one that you played in, and since that time you haven’t watched any?
No, it does something to you emotionally. It’s like a girlfriend you never really got over. It’s that serious. You go from beating the Saints, and literally looking at guys — I remember looking at Desmond Clark after we beat the Saints and he was in tears. He was like, “We did it. We did it.” And I was just looking at him like, “Is this really happening? Are we really going to the Super Bowl?”
We were in Chicago. It’s snowing. This is a kid’s dream. The Chicago Bears are going to the Super Bowl. And I just remember looking at Dez Clark and he was in tears. And then two weeks later, the worst feeling of your football career. A two-week swing. The best feeling ever in your football career to the worst.
It’s raining. It’s wet. They’re pulling the ropes out. They’re ushering you off the field so they can pull the platform out for the Colts. I’m in the locker room, and I didn’t know how many yards I had but I knew in my mind that I could have had more. I’m thinking, “What else could I have done? Maybe on this run, if I would have cut left — ”
You’re just constantly beating yourself up about it. Every year, somebody will call me. Brian Urlacher will call, or I’ll call Lak, or on Twitter we’ll reach out to each other. “How did we lose that game? How did we lose?” That was 10 years ago. That will never leave. It was tough for a while. It was pretty depressing.
@KevinHorn_KH depressed about is not having a Super Bowl ring after 12 years. Money or fame cant take that pain and regret away. Real talk.— Thomas Q. Jones (@ThomasJonesRB) July 4, 2016
When did you know that you were being traded from the Bears? How did you hear?
The year before, I felt like, okay, I’ve been here two years, you guys brought me in to be a starter, and then you brought another guy in to compete with me for a starting job. And that’s fine. But if I’m putting in all the work and I’m being a great leader and a great teammate and a great example — which I was, I was trying to do everything right — then I thought, maybe they could at least reward me at some point.
I was with IMG at the time, and my agent Tom Condon and I asked to see if they could give me a raise or restructure my deal. They didn’t want to do that. And so the only other option was to be traded.
Because at some point, there comes a time when you’re like, “Listen man, I’m a running back. I have a short shelf life.” From the business side, I have to be able to take care of myself, and take care of my family and my future family. My hard work can’t just go down the toilet. I signed a contract, yeah, but I’m doing more work than what my contract is worth. So I felt like I wasn’t asking for that much for them to restructure my contract so that I could be in a better situation. They didn’t want to do it, which I felt was another slap in the face.
My agent at the time, Tom Condon, who had done a great job up to that point, I just think they were trying to work out a trade and they didn’t want to trade me. And they didn’t want to accommodate me, so at that point it just felt it was really unfair. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I’m not the kind of guy who is going to go around and act like I’m okay when I’m not. I’m a very honest person. I’m a very truthful person. I don’t say anything and if I do say something I mean it.
So we had the whole offseason situation where I didn’t come to the offseason program. It didn’t have anything to do with me not wanting to be around my teammates. It was just the business part. A lot of people have trouble understanding the business in football. Me, I can completely wear two hats. “It’s football time.” “It’s business time.” I can separate myself because they can separate themselves.
I did not want to leave Chicago. I struggled in Arizona. I went to Tampa for a year. I was finally in a place where I loved the fans. I loved the city. I fit in. I was finally appreciated for once in my NFL career. We just went to the Super Bowl. We just had consecutive years where we had a bye week in the playoffs. I’m playing with my friends, my brothers. No, I didn’t want to leave.
But after the Super Bowl it came time to reach out again to Jerry and say, “What are we going to do? I did everything you asked me to do. I was a good teammate. I was a leader. I ran for 1,200 yards.” And he didn’t want to restructure my deal again. So it was kind of like, (laughs) “What do you want me to do? We had this conversation before the season started and now you’re going to re-neg.”
It just so happened that the Jets were looking for a running back, and Drew Rosenhaus and I had a conversation with Jerry that was like, “Listen, he doesn’t want to leave. Just restructure his contract.” And they had spent a lot of money on Cedric and they just didn’t see it working out. I think I’m the first running back to ever get traded after running for 100 yards in the Super Bowl. It makes no sense. But it happened.
After three years with the Jets, your NFL career ended in 2011 with the Chiefs. You’ve now got this whole new career in acting, but you’ve said that you experienced some depression after you retired, which was part of your path into acting. What happened?
I started playing football when I was 7 or 8, and then at 33 it’s over. There’s that realization that you’ll never again do something that you’ve always done. I think that was pretty tough.
I remember the day before my last game. We were playing at Denver. It was New Year’s Eve and I was in my room, and I was walking around back and forth thinking, “This is my last curfew night.”
I woke up the next morning and I called my sisters, called my family before the game, and just thanked them for always supporting me and being there for me with my career. And then I went to the pregame meal, looked at the guys. Me and Casey Wiegmann — there were a couple of us where it was going to be our last game. Man, it was just incredible. Everything was my last. I was on the slab getting my ankles taped, and it was like, “This is my last tape.” And then during the game, “This is my last first quarter.” “This is my last second quarter.” “This is my last halftime.” “My last third quarter.”
I remember getting in the locker room. We won. I got a game ball — me and Casey and the other guys. I told the guys, “Don’t ever take this for granted. Because one day it will be over.” It was really tough.
And I was not a “football player.” That was my job. Some people live and die by football. That’s all they want to be known as, which is great. Me, I’m Thomas Jones first. I’m a man, I’m a college graduate, I like to laugh, I like to joke, I like to have fun — first. And then my job, which was in the NFL. I loved football but I never identified myself as a football player. That’s just not me.
But even though I didn’t do that, it’s just a reality that that environment is not a real environment. It’s one of the most unique environments you’ll ever be in, to be in an NFL facility and an NFL locker room and to be an NFL player. So you have to come back to reality when you retire. You’re not around guys who understand what you go through on a day-to-day basis.
We’re trained to be violent people. Every single day in practice, we’re being violent. The games are violent. And we’re around other violent people who understand the raw environment that that is. The raw, harsh, cold, almost sometimes soulless environment. That environment is not real life. And sometimes people will try to correlate an NFL locker room or an NFL facility or an NFL lifestyle with another lifestyle, and it’s impossible.
So I think a lot of it was me not being around the guys and having to kind of re-invent myself. Who am I now in real life? In football practice if something happens, I can hit a guy or I can tackle a guy or I can run a guy over and I get praised for it. But if someone cuts me off in traffic, I can’t tackle him. I’ll go to jail. Psychologically, it’s a totally different lifestyle, and a lot of people don’t really get that, because if you’re not in that environment you don’t see it that way.
I think that’s what pushed me into acting because acting was an outlet. I was able to take all of these raw emotions from football and all these thoughts and all these things that you have as a football player, and you’re able to put all that stuff into a character once you learn the technique. It’s therapeutic. That’s how I got into acting.
Does acting help your mental health? Because you have been very outspoken about concerns about concussions.
Yeah. I think it does. As a football player you’re literally going from zero to 100, super fast. An away game is incredible. Especially in a dome, when it’s loud and you can’t hear anything. You’ve got hand signals. You can’t hear the cadence so you have to watch the ball move, but you still have to block the Mike. But the Mike doesn’t come and you have to block the Sam. Sam and the safety comes, you have to pick which one. Backside corner comes, you have to look back. Your mind is constantly all over the place. Constantly, at a high level.
When you retire, there’s nothing you can do to really simulate that. It’s almost like you’ve been driving a Lamborghini for five days straight, and all of a sudden you put it in the garage and you only drive it every two months. It’s the same thing with your brain. I’m memorizing lines and reading scripts and constantly diving deeper and deeper into the character and thinking about real life things that I’ve gone through or that I go through that can help me connect with the character.
So yeah, it definitely helps your mind. It’s really helped me. When you retire, clearly you’re not going to be pushed to the limits that you’re pushed to as an NFL player, and I think a lot of guys when they retire, they always mean to get back to where they were but it never happens. Unfortunately for some guys, it just keeps getting worse and worse.
Yeah. I read about your reactions to Jovan Belcher and Junior Seau. I assume that you’ve seen the news about Rashaan Salaam. What health issues do you deal with on a day-to-day basis? How are you doing, man?
I broke my ribs in Arizona when I played for the Cardinals, my rookie year. I was misdiagnosed. I had three ribs that came out of my sternum, (Ed. note: this led to breathing problems) and the trainers, they misdiagnosed me. They told me I had everything from asthma to valley fever to a hundred other things that were completely wrong. They sent me to see a psychiatrist. (Laughs.) I was like, “Listen, I can’t breathe. I’m not crazy.”
But because they didn’t send me to a chiropractor first, they didn’t understand. I went to the Cleveland Clinic to have an endoscopy on my stomach to see if acid reflex was causing the shortness of breath and chest pains. I literally went through twenty or thirty thousand dollars of hospital fees to try to figure out what was going on. And then a local chiropractor in Virginia figured out what was going on and he adjusted my ribs. But because my ribs had been out for so long I’ve had shortness of breath. So I played with shortness of breath for the rest of my career.
That’s probably the main thing that bothers me now. I still have spurts of that sometimes because I developed a shallow breathing pattern. And then obviously my knees. I didn’t have any major surgeries but I was one of those guys who just played hurt. I could be hurt and you would never know. I would stay in the cold tub. I would go to the facility at 2, 3 in the morning and sit in the cold tub just to get the inflammation down. I’d wear a brace, or get super taped up, take a Toradol shot, and I would play.
A lot of those things now, they affect me. A lot of numbness in my hands. Numbness in my arms. One morning — it’s not funny, but my whole left leg had gone numb from my hip down. I wasn’t laying on my hip. I was laying on the opposite side, actually. I tried to get up and run and I fell because my leg was numb. It scared me. My dogs were barking at me like, “What are you doing?”
When was that?
This was probably about five months ago. I mean, your body — we are not meant to play football. We created these games and we make it normal but it’s not normal to crash into people daily. It’s not normal for your brain. It’s not normal for your bones, your muscles, your joints. So of course there are going to be problems.
I have a lot of physical issues I deal with. And I still try to go to the gym. But you just accept it. I’m 38. I get up to go to the bathroom and it’s like, you slide. (Laughs.) You scoot. You scoot to the bathroom. It takes you about 10 minutes, because you have to get warmed up. So I slide. It’s like I’m roller skating, because my ankles and everything are so stiff and tight. It’s like everything is locked up.
I had turf toe in my right toe. I had a hairline fracture in my left ankle. So when you get up, you can’t just take off. I scoot for maybe the first 10 minutes around. People look at me and are like, “Wow, you look like you’re in great shape.” Yeah, I take care of myself, but my body is still beat up. It’s bad.
If you had to do it all over again, would you still play football?
That’s a million dollar question, man. (Pause.) No. No, I wouldn’t. Especially not with what I know about football, some of the injuries and things that come with it. Some of the consequences. And it’s not even just the physical. The emotional issues that come with it. Football is a very emotional job. You make it to the NFL and there’s a lot on the line. Your namesake is on the line.
I was in Arizona and I was called a “bust.” I didn’t live up to the expectations they had. And that was my fault. It wasn’t “My situation.” It wasn’t the fact that the team I went to was never good. It wasn’t any of those things. It was me. I am man enough to accept that, and I did.
But it’s tough when people come up to your family, or they overhear people saying, “Your son’s terrible. He’s trash.” Or “Thomas Jones is terrible. Thomas Jones is a bust.” It’s tough, man. It’s hard on your family. It’s hard on people who love you. And then from a financial perspective, you literally come into a situation that you’re not used to, especially if you’re not used to being a millionaire. You become an instant millionaire and there are a lot of things you don’t know. There are a lot of things the people around you don’t know and don’t understand. Some relationships get tainted and tarnished. People change. The people you think love you run away from you and the people who don’t know you run toward you.
It’s super weird, man. There is a lot that goes on as a professional athlete, and especially as an NFL player. And then because of the physical demands, there’s a psychological element that comes along with that. You don’t just play as an NFL player and not have violent tendencies. It doesn’t make any sense. And unfortunately no one tries to see that side of it because people only know what happens. No one wants to figure out why it happened. They just know it happened. So I think sometimes we’re put in a tough predicament. And then the decisions that we make, the environment that we’re in on a day-to-day basis isn’t taken into consideration.
Are you thinking of anything in particular when you say that?
No, I’m saying just in general. That environment is not realistic as far as the way the mainstream world works. Even in an NFL facility, the third floor is corporate. If you go to the top floor of an NFL facility, you wouldn’t even think it’s an NFL facility. It’s all business. We’re churning money in and out. Second floor is offices — coaches’ offices. First floor, that’s the players’ world. That’s where we live. The coaches and administration, they don’t even come down there. They don’t come to the locker room area. That’s our environment. And what goes on in that environment — you know, it matches what goes on in the field.
So sometimes people will be in the locker room environment and they don’t understand that perspective. They expect the locker room to be like the third floor, but it’s not the third floor. It’s the locker room. Of course guys have to be responsible adults and things of that nature, but at the same time, the locker room environment and guys being on the team, it’s not realistic. And I think sometimes we get assessed unfairly.
Those are some of the things that I’ve seen since I retired. When I was in it, I didn’t really care. I didn’t think that much about it. Now that I’m retired and I’m out, I just overhear other people’s conversations. It’s so funny now. I’ll go the bar or somewhere to grab something to eat, and a game will be on. The first time I heard somebody yelling at the TV and cursing at the TV, I was like, “What is this person talking about? What happened?” I thought they were talking to someone else. I turned around and they were looking at a game. The Steelers were playing. And I’m like, “Wow, this is weird,” because I’ve never been in a bar when people are watching a game. I’m always playing.
It’s almost like I didn’t play. It’s so weird man. It’s such a weird transition. I rushed for over 10,000 yards, had over 70 touchdowns, played in a Super Bowl, a Pro Bowl, I was a first round pick, an All-American in college. All these things. And it’s almost like none of it happened. It’s almost like it was a dream.
That’s a trip. So last thing: final legacy for you of that 2006 season. When you think of it, what comes to mind first?
The Super Bowl. Those people on that team, Cedric Benson included, are my family for life. I’ll always love those people. Any and everyone who was associated with that team. Lovie, Jerry Angelo, Cedric Benson — everybody. There’s no way you can have a year like that and not be connected to everyone in some capacity. The ups and downs. That will go down as one of the best years of my life.
I would have dreams of the parade. Because when we stayed at the hotel in Chicago downtown during playoff time, they would show the ’85 Bears parade on the TV and monitors, and in our room they had a channel with the parade. And it was like, “Man, that could be us twenty years later. That could be us.”
(Sighs.) That’s the only thing I regret — that we didn’t win a Super Bowl for that city and go down in history as the next team to win the Super Bowl. But that was one of my most proud years of my life. I’ll never forget that. How could you? We had so much fun, man. It was such a fun year. It was like I was in high school on my high school team. We literally kicked people’s asses. We were physical. We were tough. We were mean. We didn’t care. We did things our way. We bullied people. We literally bullied people. We bullied grown men that year. It’s just an adrenaline rush, man. Something I’ll never forget.
And back to Benson — I just want to say one thing about Benson: Cedric Benson went on to have a great career. His career was a little bit like mine: we started out on a team where it didn’t work out, and he went somewhere else, a couple teams, and he did his thing. I’m proud of him. I’m proud of Cedric Benson. I’m proud of his accomplishments and what he did. He’s a super talented kid. Super talented.
I know what it feels like to fight your way out of a tough situation like that. You go to a major market like Chicago or New York or one of these cities and you don’t do well, early? It’s tough. It’s a tough crowd, man. They want to win now. When you go to a team like that, it’s very tough if it doesn’t start off well.
The guys on the team didn’t dislike him because he was there and I was there. If Cedric Benson had a great run, the same guys that were congratulating me when I had a great run were congratulating him. It wasn’t like, “We don’t like him because he’s here and you’re —” There was none of that. Guys were like, “You’re a rookie, you’re on the team, you’ve got to pay your dues and earn your respect. When you make a good play, we’re going to cheer you on. When you don’t make a good play we’re gonna say something.” That’s just how that team was.
You know, me and Olin Kreutz would laugh because he might miss a block, and I’d be like, “Go block your effing man, Olin. What the eff are you doing?” And I might dance in the hole or I might not catch up to him, and he’s like, “What the eff are you doing, T-Jones? You’re slow as eff. Hurry the eff up. What are you doing dancing in the backfield?”
But it was all love. We loved each other. It was real criticism, genuine constructive criticism, and I would take it that way. “Olin, my bad, I’ve got you the next play.” Or he’d be like, “My bad T, I’ve got you the next play.” We didn’t take it personal because we knew that we were just passionate about trying to win a Super Bowl for that city. And sometimes I think people take that the wrong way.
The NFL’s a grown man’s job. It’s no place for the faint of heart. No place. It’s just in the air. It’s a really unique environment to be in. And sometimes I miss it. Sometimes I do miss it. But I haven’t been to a game since I retired. Not one. I haven’t even been to a football field since I retired. The last football field I was on was Mile High Stadium at Denver. I have not been to a football game or on a football field.
You would get such an ovation going to Soldier Field. I can tell you that.
Listen man, I’m in L.A., and every day or so I see a Bears fan. It’s incredible. The Bears fanbase is like a cult. They’re everywhere. Somebody sent me a picture on Twitter and somebody was in South Africa with my jersey on, on a bike. I went to Rio in 2011 and there were four Bears fans there at the same hotel I was at. To play for the Chicago Bears is really an honor. If you’re going to play football in the NFL, the Chicago Bears, man (pause) — I went to the Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. Nobody can ever take that away from me. Period. When it comes to football, it doesn’t get any better than that.
But that puts such a different spin on what you said earlier about saying that if you had to do it over again, you wouldn’t play football. Yet you also say it was the best year of your life.
Because I played it. But knowing what I know now about just football in general and the injuries and some of the ramifications of it, no, I probably wouldn’t play again because of the issues I’m having now. The shortness of breath. Scooting to the bathroom. I’m 38. Hopefully I’ll live a long life. But these are things I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life. It’s like I said: hindsight is 20-20. If I had to do it over again, if I had to play football again? No. Would I let my kids play? (Pause.) I mean, I wouldn’t force them to. If they wanted to play I guess I couldn’t say no. But I wouldn’t force them to play.
Football is a serious job. It’s a very serious job. There are a lot of really bad things that can happen to you as a football player. Physically. Mentally. I’ve seen a lot of really bad injuries. I’ve heard guys yell and scream. Guys tearing their ACL, hearing the “pow.” Junior Seau breaks his forearm right in front of me. I think I was playing for the Bears, when we played in New England in ’06. He breaks his forearm. I’ve seen all those things.
At the time, you’re numb to people getting hurt. You get praised for hitting people hard. If I would have hit a linebacker head up in the hole and he staggered and fell? I won. I would get praise for that. I would get up and feel this adrenaline rush, like, “Yeah!” Now I see a guy get a concussion and I’m like, “Whoa, whoa.”
But I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to play. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to experience those things. When I say I wouldn’t play again I’m not saying that because I didn’t appreciate the experience.
It’s just some of the things that I deal with now and the things I see other guys deal with — my close friends — it’s heartbreaking to see some of the things guys go through. It’s tough to watch, because these are people who I love and care about. There are a lot of people who are out here struggling and no one knows what’s going on in their heads. It’s tough. It really is. You get close to these people and they become your family, and when something like that happens it hits home. Like, that could be me. That could have been me.
Postscript: At the end of the interview, I thanked Thomas again for speaking with me and giving me his time. I then reiterated that if he ever did decide to come back to Soldier Field, he would be warmly and joyously embraced.
“Thank you so much,” he told me. “And, please make sure you put in the article that I love Bears fans. I love everyone who has ever supported me in my career and as a Chicago Bear. I’m forever grateful to them and the love they have. And I did not want to leave Chicago. I think if we could have kept the team together, maybe another year, we could have done it.
“But at the end of the day I’m very grateful for how they welcomed me in ’04, and I appreciate all the love and support to this day. I’ll never forget them or my experience there, ever. Because without the fans, you don’t have the game. They’re the ones who pay the tickets to come see the games. They watch on TV. They cheer you on. They buy your jerseys. To have the Chicago Bear fanbase embrace you like that, it’s pretty powerful.”