The second act of Thomas Jones: UVA football great making his mark in Hollywood
Adding a Q. to his name, Thomas Jones, the all-time great Virginia and NFL tailback, set out on a second career, in acting, and now, a decade since he last broke a tackle, he’s one of the busiest actors in movies and TV.
“In this business, you’re always moving to the next project,” said Jones, a 2000 University of Virginia alum and 12-year NFL veteran. “It’s similar to football. It’s like, you know, you win a game, OK, cool, next game, you lose a game, OK, we got to do better next game. It’s the same thing in this business. You film a project, next, you film a project, next, film a project, next.”
A native of Big Stone Gap, Jones had two 1,000+-yard seasons at UVA, including a record-setting 1,798 yards in 1999, when he finished eighth in the Heisman balloting.
In his 12 years in the NFL, Jones tallied 10,591 yards, with a run of five straight 1,000+-yard seasons, from 2005-2009.
He retired in 2012, admittedly, without much of an idea of what life after football was going to hold.
“I never, never thought about acting,” Jones said. “Honestly, I was always interested in the entertainment industry. I had a music label for a few years when I was in the NFL, because I just love music so much, and I had a few artists that I was working with, and managing and producing music with, and writing songs and things of that nature. And it was fun, it was a lot of fun. I met a lot of really cool people in the music industry. But, you know, I wasn’t the artist, so I wasn’t a talent.”
He was just 33 when he was done with football, and the first few months after hanging up the cleats , “it was weird for me,” he said, “to just kind of be in this kind of void space of nothing in regards to just what I was passionate about, and something that I could accomplish and push myself and, you know, try to, I don’t know, be the best at.
“That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, is trying to be the best, as a running back, the best team. You know, that was just something that had always been a part of me. And then, I didn’t have that anymore.”
Jones had settled, post-football, in Miami, and he was persuaded by actors who were fans of his from his football days to get involved with them on a TV project, so he gave it a shot, “and I realized that I liked it,” Jones said.
He picked up a bit role on the Showtime series “Shameless,” then the talk-show parody “Comedy Bang! Bang!”
His first break came with a role in the 2015 box-office smash “Straight Outta Compton,” which opened doors for Jones to bigger roles in “Being Mary Jane” and “Luke Cage.”
Funny thing about how TV works: Jones is probably known by more people now for being Cutty Buddy in “Being Mary Jane” and Comanche in “Luke Cage” than he is for running for 10,000 yards in the NFL.
“The majority of people that follow me now don’t even know that I’m the same person, especially because I added the Q. in my name, and so they don’t realize I’m the same person,” Jones said. “I mean, that was, think about it, you know, I retired in 2012. I was drafted in 2000. We remember those times like yesterday, but a lot of people don’t remember those days. They only know me as Thomas Q. Jones from ‘Luke Cage,’ or Thomas Q. Jones from ‘Being Mary Jane, or ‘Straight Outta Compton’ or ‘P-Valley’ or, you know, Omar Johnson, they only know that guy.
“That was a weird adjustment for me, having to be recognized as an actor, and not as a football player. Because I’ve only been doing this for about nine, ten years total, and I played football the majority of my life. And so, it’s weird for someone to kind of be walking in, someone saying, hey, Comanche, you know, it’s like, turn around, or they say, Cutty Buddy, or, you know, Mane, or whatever your name is from the show.
“It’s powerful, because people really believe your character, and they think that you’re that person,” Jones said. “So, that was different, because in football, you have a helmet on, so, you know, you’re number six, or Jones, because when they see you do your work, you’re fully covered, you have a helmet on, shoulder pads. But as an actor, it’s your mannerisms. It’s your facial expressions, it’s your energy. It was definitely interesting at first. I’ve gotten adjusted to it, but the first thing was, it was definitely a little awkward.”
The success with “Luke Cage,” a Marvel series that ran from 2016-2018, led Jones to the opportunity with “Johnson,” a groundbreaking series in which he co-stars with creator Deji LaRay.
“Johnson” is about four black men, all with the same last name, Johnson, who live in the Atlanta metro area. “They’ve been friends for over 20 years, since grade school, and they’ve kind of, you know, ventured out in the world, and now they all have their own personal lives and personal situations and personal conflicts that they’re dealing with. The purpose of the show was to create a little more balance in Hollywood in regard to just how black men are portrayed,” Jones said.
“I’m thinking a lot of shows and projects, we’re portrayed as kind of one-dimensional. We just didn’t see balance. This show gives us an opportunity to show how we see the world in these specific life situations, whether it’s marriage, whether it’s, you know, being in corporate America, whether it’s, you know, being in an interracial relationship, what that may look like, you know, dating, there’s, I mean, there’s just so many different elements of black men’s lives that I think are really, really misunderstood,” Jones said.
“We wanted to provide an opportunity for people to kind of get an inside look at some of the ways that we kind of go about our lives and some of the things that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. It’s a really fun, provocative show, but it’s very honest, and I think anyone, regardless of what culture you come from, can watch this and be entertained, and be enlightened and be educated as well. And certain things that you may not even know.”
The leap for Jones, career-wise, is that in addition to being a lead actor on “Johnson,” he’s also an executive producer and showrunner, “so, it’s a lot of responsibility, which is right up my alley,” he said.
“It’s almost like I had a chance to kind of relive my football days and be a captain again,” Jones said. “It wasn’t just a guest star role on one episode, or a few episodes on the show. It was literally my show, and my producer partner, Deji LaRay, it was our show. We were in charge of everything, I mean, from the budget, to casting to locations, to the scripts, to who the directors are, to selecting the music, all the decisions went through us.
“It’s just great to be able to have your fingerprints all over TV show and then for the people to respond to it so well, and for the content to resonate with people. And then to get renewed for Season 2 before the first season even ended, that’s a that’s a dream in Hollywood, for a showrunner and executive producer.”
Jones, now with the Q., has come a long way from his early days in the entertainment business, when his main goal was just not being treated like an ex-jock doing a cameo.
“A lot of times when you have someone that kind of dabbles in another industry that’s known from another industry, people don’t necessarily take them that seriously,” Jones said. “I know a lot of times in my first couple of roles, people would say it was a cameo, you know, so you had a cameo in this, a cameo in that. To me as an actor, it’s like no, it wasn’t cameos, that was acting, I was playing a character. But I understood that people were used to seeing me in football, so it’s going to take them a while to get used to seeing me consistently as an actor, and then also having to be a good actor, so they believe you.”
In the course of transitioning from football player to actor, Jones sees growth in himself as a person.
“Football is X’s and O’s, it comes down to X’s and O’s, but then it comes down to just heart and grit, and there’s not much room to grow and evolve as a person, because it’s a very isolated world, whereas acting is wide open,” Jones said. “There are so many different stories that have to be told, there’s so many different perspectives that have to be, you know, shown, and me as an actor, I’m the vehicle for all of those stories and those perspectives. And so, in order to be the vehicle, you have to be able to understand where the creators of the content are coming from, which means they may think different than you. You have to open your mind to other ideas. And that helped me grow and helped me evolve as a person, because growing as a football player is totally different growing as a person.
“With some of the projects that I’ve been able to work on, some of the characters that I’ve been able to play, some of the trauma in my life that I didn’t deal with as a football player, because you’re not supposed to show vulnerability or weakness, whereas as an actor, those are your most powerful gifts, are vulnerability, and weakness, because we’re all human. That’s how people connect to your character the most, is when they see a piece of them in you. And that helped me grow as a person. That was therapeutic for me. So, you know, it’s almost kind of like the last 10 years as an actor and producer has been therapy for me, been very powerful, very, very powerful for me.”
It was a big risk for Jones to start over, and at the bottom, in a new industry, that ended up working out, with a lot of hard work.
“A lot of guys, I think when they retire, they’re scared of trying something new, because they don’t want to let go of what they they’ve already accomplished, and they don’t want to take that chance,” Jones said. “In reality, life is all about chances, and opportunities in growing and evolving and trying something new and experiencing something new. So, acting wasn’t in my path, or I didn’t see it, but it definitely was something that was necessary for me. I’m very fortunate that I was able to find acting.”
Story by Chris Graham