Like a great prizefighter attempting to unify a weight division, Thomas Jones continues to collect title belt after title belt.
Only two days after NFL players, coaches and fans selected Jones for his first Pro Bowl, his teammates voted him as their Curtis Martin Team MVP and also as the Dennis Byrd Award recipient as the club's most inspirational player.
"I'm grateful to be thought of highly by my teammates. That really means more than anything," Jones said today. "These are the guys I'm around every day and the guys I go to war with on Sundays, so for them to feel that way about me is definitely an honor."
Jones has had a franchise-record-setting year with the "TJ Trio": most touchdowns in a season (15), most rush touchdowns in a season (13) and most consecutive games scoring a touchdown (8).The 5'10", 215-pounder, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, leads the AFC with 1,222 yards on the ground and needs just 114 yards in his final two contests to set a personal best..
"Every time I get out there on Sundays, I'm living a dream and I'm blessed to have the opportunity to play," he said. "I just cherish the moment every time I'm out there and I just make sure everyone else feels the way I feel about the game."
The Jets acquired Jones from the Chicago Bears on March 6, 2007, moving down 26 spots in the second round to get their hands on a proven vet. The Jets struggled last season, managing four wins as TJ reached the 1,000-yard mark for the third consecutive campaign. But the end zone proved hard to come by as Jones totaled just one rush TD and one receiving TD.
"I think it was more frustrating for us," said center Nick Mangold, "because Thomas kept running hard and we weren't able to get him the holes — even that little space he needs to make a big play."
The Jets made sure they had more space this season, adding perennial Pro Bowl LG Alan Faneca and veteran RT Damien Woody to the line. Through 14 games, the Green & White rank ninth in the NFL in rushing and the hard-charging Jones has averaged 87 yards a game.
"It's exciting, but I'll say Thomas runs hard for every yard," Mangold said. "You appreciate that as an offensive lineman. You take a lot of pride that he won [the MVP], but he did a lot of it on his own."
Head coach Eric Mangini said: "This year you really get a sense of how dynamic of a player he is and the impact that he can have on a locker room."
It wouldn't be accurate to call Jones shy, but he doesn't gravitate toward the spotlight. He loves his teammates and has endeared himself to them with his work ethic and his fire.
"He's an outspoken guy, but not in a negative way," said QB Brett Favre. "He's always the one calling us up, breaking the team down. After a tough loss, he's the first one to speak up in the locker room. Those are things that you can't coach."
It's no surprise Jones has become an inspirational leader. The Big Stone Gap, Va., native didn't have to look outside his childhood home to find motivators. His parents, Thomas Sr. and Betty, worked miles under the ground to provide for TJ, brother Julius — now the Seattle Seahawks' featured back — and their five sisters.
"They went underground and worked at night from 12 to 8 in the morning. My mom worked in the coalmines for 20 years," he said earlier this season during a radio appearance on newyorkjets.com. "When you grow up and you're in a situation like that and you see your parents giving the ultimate sacrifice, taking a chance on their life for you, it just makes you work that much harder and want to do what you can do for them.
"I still have that mentality. When I come to work, I know I'm blessed to be in the NFL and I don't take it for granted. Every day I'm here, I practice hard, I work out hard and I enjoy the experience. My parents' hard work — I'm benefitting from that right now."
The weightroom is TJ's second home. He's a sculpted specimen, a guy who's got enormous arms to deal with the heavy punishment that is part of the job description.
"I like lifting with the linemen because it helps me a build a good relationship with them. We're in the weightroom working together and we're working together on the field," he said. "I've always been like that. I like to work out with those guys. They lift heavy — I like to lift heavy. A lot of times I can't lift as much as they can, but if I'm trying, it's constantly pushing me to get stronger."
Long Road to Redemption
After nine NFL seasons and four teams, Thomas Jones — the No. 7 overall selection of the Arizona Cardinals in the 2000 draft out of the University of Virginia — has reached unprecedented personal heights.
"The attitude the guy brings to this locker room and brings to the field is something I haven't seen since I've been here," said Leon Washington, Jones' backfield mate who captured the team MVP honor last season.
With multiple belts in hand, TJ is focused only on obtaining a team championship. He credits his teammates for his success and is thankful for their recognition.
"We have great relationships. We care about each other. I think that's why we've had so much success this year," he said. "To be thought of like that by your teammates — the guys you're around every day, the guys you play with on Sunday — to know that they think you can go out there and inspire them or they think that you're a valuable player on the team, that's really what all the hard work is for."