When Thomas Jones found out on Thursday morning he was among the nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020, he knew who he had to call first.
That would be his father, who is also named Thomas.
“It was an emotional conversation with him, just remembering all the times throughout the years,” Jones said in a telephone interview. “I can remember the first time he took me to Bullitt Park in Big Stone Gap to try out for P-Nut Football and from that day, to the last [NFL] game I played at Denver [on Jan. 1, 2012], he and my mom [Betty] were always there supporting me. .. It’s a testament to them and my family for being so instrumental in my life.”
Jones is one of 122 modern era players to be nominated for enshrinement. That list will be whittled down to 25 in November, 15 in January and the inductees will be announced the night before the Super Bowl.
A record-setting running back at Powell Valley High School and the University of Virginia, Jones spent 12 seasons in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs.
He racked up 10,591 rushing yards, 2,023 receiving yards and 71 total touchdowns. Jones helped lead the Bears to Super Bowl XLI and gained 112 rushing yards in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
His career rushing total ranks 26th on the NFL’s all-time list.
“I felt like my career numbers kind of stacked up to some of the other nominees and inductees,” Jones said. “I’ve been eligible for a couple of years, so you kind of hope one day to at least be nominated for the chance to get in. It’s up to the voters to vote and it is kind of unpredictable. It’s exciting. I got the call this morning and saw it on social media and I’m really excited about it.
“I’m happy and honored to represent Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, the Lonesome Pine District, the Powell Valley High School teams I played on and just the entire area. To be nominated for the pinnacle of football, it’s a testament to everyone that was part of that.”
Phil Robbins coached Jones at Powell Valley and saw the path to superstardom unfold.
“I guess the longer you stayed around him the more you appreciated the things that set him apart from everybody else that I ever coached and that was his work ethic,” Robbins said. “He studied more film in high school than any kid I’ve ever been around.”
Eighteen other running backs were nominated, including Roanoke, Virginia, native Tiki Barker, Jones’ one-time teammate at UVa.
Barber is now a television and radio personality, while Jones is an actor with seven film roles and eight television appearances currently on his resume.
“A lot of us were always competing every year about who’d get the top spot whether it be rushing titles or Pro Bowls during the mid-2000s,” Jones said. “All those guys are deserving and each one of them has their own highlight reels that are incredible. To be mentioned with those guys is an honor. At this point, I’ve been disconnected from the game for seven years and have been acting and producing, but to see my name in that group of guys, it brings back a lot of memories.”
Southwest Virginia’s only member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame is “Bullet” Bob Dudley, a standout at Graham High School in Bluefield who played in the NFL from 1942-53 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins.
Many folks in these parts feel Jones is worthy of having his own spot in Canton, Ohio, including his former coach.
“He played 12 years in that league and I don’t know if ever had a major injury that cost him more than a week or two of playing time,” Robbins said. “He was extremely durable and was the same way in high school and college. If the Bears had won the Super Bowl that year he would have been the MVP of that game. He had more than 10,000 yards and had longevity. What more would you have to do?”
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