This past Wednesday officially marked the 20th anniversary of the 2000 NFL Draft, a life-altering event for Powell Valley High School and University of Virginia graduate Thomas Jones.
What was it like in the months, days and hours leading up to that exhilarating afternoon at New York’s Madison Square Garden when the Arizona Cardinals selected the running back from Southwest Virginia with the seventh overall pick?
“It was like a hurricane,” Jones said in a telephone interview earlier this week.
Jones was in the eye of the storm as one of the nation’s elite ball-carriers and just days after rushing for 110 yards in his final collegiate game for the UVa Cavaliers – a loss to Illinois in the MicronPC.com Bowl – immediately began preparing for his pro career.
“After my last game, I went back to campus at Virginia and got my stuff,” Jones said. “Then I flew to Bradenton, Florida, because Tom Condon and IMG was my agency and I was working at their facility. Venus and Serena Williams were there at the time, baseball players Gary Sheffield and Pat Burrell were there and a lot of different football players. I was training to get my 40-yard dash time down and work on my agility drills.”
Jones had actually contemplated entering the draft following his junior year with the Cavaliers.
“A couple of other backs also came out [in 1999] in Ricky Williams and Edgerrin James,” Jones said. “I talked to a couple of scouts and they said I had a second-round draft grade. They told me if I stayed my senior year, had a good season and remained healthy, I might move up to a high pick in the first round.”
That is what transpired as Jones became a consensus first-team All-American and Virginia’s all-time leading rusher.
Jones joined the Penn State duo of LaVar Arrington and Courtney Brown, Alabama offensive lineman Chris Samuels and Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick as the five players invited by the NFL to sit in the green room and wait for their name to be called. They’d then stroll across the stage and shake hands with commissioner Paul Tagliabue, hold up a freshly-minted jersey from their new squad as photographers clicked away.
Jones didn’t figure to be playing the waiting game long.
“The mock drafts had me going anywhere from two to five,” he said.
The Baltimore Ravens at No. 5 appeared to be the most likely landing spot for Jones.
He had become fast friends with fellow college running backs Ron Dayne, Shaun Alexander, Jamal Lewis and Trung Canidate, all of whom went in the first round.
“I had met some of those guys at banquets and the Doak Walker Award presentation,” Jones said. “None of us really wanted to go to the Cardinals, because they weren’t very good. We teased each other about that. Then the next thing you know Arizona’s pick is up and I am the last guy sitting back there.”
Baltimore opted for Lewis, a star at the University of Tennessee, instead of Jones.
“I didn’t get selected at five and I am hoping Philadelphia takes me at six and they go with [defensive tackle] Corey Simon [from Florida State],” Jones said. “Now, I’m wanting to go to the Pittsburgh Steelers at eight. At the same time, I just want to be picked, because I am the last one sitting back there. My mom, dad, sisters and my agent are looking at me and I’m getting a little antsy.
“Then my phone rings and it’s a 602 area code and I know that’s a Phoenix number. I picked it up and I think it was [Cardinals executive] Mike Bidwill telling me that Arizona was taking me with the seventh pick.”
Unlike college football, where players pick where they will continue playing and have plenty of time to make that choice, the destination is decided for you by professional teams.
A guy can end up in Miami, Seattle or many points in between.
Jones had lived in Virginia his entire life, but was destined for the desert.
“I flew out to Arizona after the draft for a press conference and to meet with the coaches,” Jones said. “I got there around midnight and when I got off the plane to get in the car and go to the hotel, it was like 95 degrees. It was like someone was making macaroni or something and opened the oven. It just hit me. The next morning I pulled the curtains back in my hotel and the landscape was brown, cactuses. It looked like one of those Roadrunner cartoons. It was a culture shock and it doesn’t really sink in that this is going to be your home for the next three or four years.”
There are many other factors in that adjustment period, including a seven-figure signing bonus and the fact you must produce to remain employed.
“In high school you are playing for fun with your friends. In college, you’re playing for your scholarship, bragging rights and you have all the bells and whistles with the band and the students. Now, I’ve signed a contract with a corporation and I’m obligated to perform a job,” Jones said. “You get to the facility every day at 7:30 in the morning and you don’t leave until 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Your whole day is nothing but football. It’s a real interesting time and a lot of people on the outside have no idea of what the transition is like. You also have some money and people coming out of the woodwork. It’s a lot for a 21-year-old.”
Injuries and inconsistency hampered Jones in his three seasons in Arizona and the 511 yards he compiled during the 2002 season was the most he gained for the Cardinals, who were a bad team with an aging offensive line, few playmakers and lackadaisical fan support.
“Honestly, I never really got comfortable,” Jones said. “You go from being the seventh pick overall to being labeled a bust because you are not producing. What it does is it tests your fortitude to see how bad you want it. You have to dig yourself out of a hole and it really tested me as a man and as a football player.”
In 2004, Thomas Jones watched as his younger brother – Julius Jones – get taken by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round (43rd overall) of the NFL Draft after a sterling senior season as a running back at the University of Notre Dame.
“I was struggling and I wasn’t living up to expectations,” Thomas Jones said. “Having Julius come in the league was a boost of energy and a boost of motivation. I felt if I could get my career going and if he does well, it can be just like we were in college when we were both playing at the same high level.”
That is exactly what happened.
Thomas Jones gained 1,210 rushing yards for the Chicago Bears and Julius Jones amassed 1,084 yards on the ground for the Dallas Cowboys during the 2006 season. They became the first siblings in NFL history to surpass the 1K rushing mark in the same season.
Thomas Jones finished with 10,591 rushing yards over the course of a 12-year pro career with five different teams, a NFL journey that officially began that night in NYC.
“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years,” Jones said. “The time has flown by.”
Thomas Jones is in a small fraternity of local players to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, which dates back to 1936.
“Bullet” Bill Dudley (Graham) was the first overall pick in the 1942 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers and four years later was named league MVP as he played offense, defense and special teams. He was eventually enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Quarterback Steve Spurrier (Science Hill) was plucked out of the University of Florida by the San Francisco 49ers with the third overall pick in the 1967 NFL Draft, just a few months after winning the Heisman Trophy.
Like Jones and Dudley, Heath Miller (Honaker) became a first-round pick after starring at the University of Virginia. The Pittsburgh Steelers made him the 30th overall pick in 2005 and the tight end played all 11 of his NFL seasons with the franchise.
Former Richlands High School star Mike Compton and Wise, Virginia, native Carroll Dale were both third-round choices.
The Detroit Lions needed help up front and liked Compton after watching him pave the way for running backs at West Virginia University.
“By 6 p.m. the draft was basically off TV, or at least it was at my house in Morgantown, West Virginia,” Compton said. “Everyone had left and I was actually starting to wash some dishes at home by myself when Detroit called to let me know they were gonna select me in the third round with the 68th pick.
“I was shocked that there was a drop off from the first round to the third round for offensive linemen that year. I think maybe three offensive linemen were drafted in the second round total. Detroit had showed some interest back when I was a junior. ... Rick Spielman was a scout for them at the time and talked to me after working out. I knew they had come to a game or two, but honestly that whole process is funny, because the teams you think are interested in you usually aren’t the teams that draft you. I was surprised by just being picked to be honestly with you.”
Compton arrived in the Motor City to begin what turned into a 12-year NFL career, eight of which were spent with the Lions. He later won two Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots
“I think the biggest adjustment for me was the fact that I was starting all over again as a rookie,” Compton said. “The first mini-camp, I was big-eyed and afraid that if I did something wrong or not what they wanted, I’d get cut. The whole process of being on a new team and living in a major city like Detroit also was an adjustment. Plus, now you were on a team with grown men that were 30-plus years old as well as famous players like Barry Sanders. New system, bigger, faster and stronger players than you saw in college on a weekly basis. For me, it took a year or two to adjust, but all in all – as stressful as it was – it was just as enjoyable and fun as well.”
The Los Angeles Rams took Carroll Dale in the eighth round (86th overall) of the 1960 NFL Draft after he established himself as one of the most reliable wide receivers in the history of Virginia Tech’s program.
He ended up getting a $500 signing bonus to go along with his base salary of $8,000.
“I would have paid them to play if I had the money,” Dale said. “I was just excited to have the opportunity. … Going into the draft, I thought the San Francisco 49ers were the team most interested in me. They had really scouted me and been in the stands at Virginia Tech.”
Dale was drafted by a team in another league as well.
The Minneapolis club of the American Football League (a franchise that never played a game in Minnesota and relocated to Oakland) picked Dale.
“They never really contacted me, showed much interest or made an offer,” Dale said. “Of course, I was really just interested in going to the Rams.”
There have been other interesting NFL Draft moments for players from these parts.
Future Hall of Famer Jason Witten (Elizabethton) surprisingly lasted until the third round of the 2003 event, landing with the Dallas Cowboys.
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (Graham) was a seventh-round choice of the New York Giants out of Marshall University in 2007 and eventually became an integral part of two Super Bowl-winning squads.
Virginia Tech offensive lineman Chad Beasley (Gate City) went to the Minnesota Vikings in the seventh round of the 2002 NFL Draft. That happened 25 years after his father, Tom, was a third-round choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Brothers Ed Cifers and Bob Cifers both attended Dobyns-Bennett High School, the University of Tennessee and were drafted. Ed was a sixth-round choice of the Washington Redskins in 1941 and Bob Cifers was taken in the second round by the Detroit Lions three years later.
Another D-B brother duo – Denver Crawford and Darrell Crawford – were drafted as well. Denver was a 15th-round pick of the Green Bay Packers out of the University of Tennessee in 1947, while Darrell went in the 17th round five years later as the Chicago Cardinals took the Georgia Tech standout.
Emory & Henry College had two players selected in the 1969 event as wide receiver Larry Bales (Marion) was chosen by the Dallas Cowboys in the seventh round and quarterback Sonny Wade went to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 10th round. Bales later became the head coach at Abingdon High School and E&H, while Wade led the Montreal Alouettes to three Canadian Football League Grey Cup titles in a career that spanned from 1969-1978.
The hurricane-like feel that Jones spoke of will be experienced by a whole new crop of players on Thursday when the 85th edition of the NFL Draft begins.
Now, for a look at high school baseball moments which occurred this week in history:
April 15, 1955
Frank Jessee had three hits in Virginia High’s 6-4 victory over Lebanon. … Chain Lawrence and Robert Duncan each had two hits in Saltville’s 11-8 win over William King of Abingdon. The Shakers scored seven times in the first inning. … Melvin Carrier and Arvil Cross combined to pitch a one-hitter as Bluff City got the best of the Holston Eagles, 8-3. Norman Mitchell had the lone hit for Holston.
April 21, 1969
Terry Eldridge scored four runs and Dave Overbay pitched a three-hitter in Sullivan Central’s 6-2 triumph over Sullivan East. … Greg Harvey and Darrell Steffey homered in Marion’s 6-5 vanquishing of Virginia High. … Mike Keesee struck out 15 in pitching a two-hit shutout and also homered as Tennessee High overpowered Erwin, 11-0.
April 20, 1973
Castlewood posted a 43-2 beatdown over Gatlinburg-Pittman – yes, 43-2 – as Doc Adams and Randall Dotson homered. The Blue Devils led 29-0 after three innings in the five-inning contest. … Eddie Absher pitched a one-hit shutout in J.I. Burton’s 6-0 victory over Appalachia. Tom Newton had the lone hit for the losing side. … Ronnie Doss spun a no-hitter in Virginia High’s 2-0 blanking of Marion.
April 18, 1980
Tony Helton homered twice as Sullivan Central outslugged Sullivan West, 11-8. … Terry Fields had three hits and Ken Egan homered in Rye Cove’s 9-4 trumping of Twin Springs. … Tony Ritchie stole two bases and was also the winning pitcher as Holston recorded a 2-1 win over Rural Retreat in the first game of a doubleheader.
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