ANDERSON – Rookie tight end
It will not be his first game in Pennsylvania this year, however. He earned that distinction this spring by playing with the Reading Express of the Indoor Football League as he chased his dream of reaching the NFL.
Jones is a free agent acquisition of Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson this year. Grigson knew of Jones as far back as the 2011 draft when he worked out the Shepherd University product. The opportunity to join Grigson, then with the Eagles, did not pan out, so Jones took his talents on the road – to two different leagues.
Jones played with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League before heading to Reading to ply his trade on an indoor, eight-man team. He was laboring away on the minor league level when the phone rang in April.
“I didn’t even recognize the number. The Indy number, I didn’t recognize it because I never had been out here before,” said Jones. “I had talked with him (Grigson) and had a (pre-draft) workout with him when he was in Philly. That’s where he knew me from. I worked out there, they picked another guy. It was a blessing by God that Ryan ended up coming here and I got an opportunity here.”
Grigson is a personnel grinder, the type of general manager who will look for talent anywhere at anytime to build his team. As he is doing so with the Colts, he thumbs through his files and mental rolodex of players to find those with skill sets that match the vision he shares with Head Coach Chuck Pagano. Jones was a fit.
“I played tight end and a little bit H-Back (at Shepherd), kind of similar to what we’re doing here,” said Jones. “We had a fullback there, so sometimes we switched out and played double tight ends. I played a little bit of everything I’m doing here.
“After my senior year in college, the (NFL) lockout kind of hurt, being from a small school and (being) relatively unknown, I had to go the long route. … I played in the UFL last year in Sacramento for the Mountain Lions. After that season, I came out and played in the IFL (Indoor Football League) in Reading, Pennsylvania. I’ve been everywhere. (I’m) just trying to make it. All you can do is continue to play. God has blessed me and brought me here. It’s a great opportunity.”
The path Jones has taken to get to this moment is not unique totally. There are thousands of players electing to do everything possible to reach the sport’s pinnacle. Jones saw it first hand in two minor leagues.
“They (the UFL) wanted to do a minor league for the NFL, but little ins-and-outs didn’t work out,” said Jones. “It’s sort of like the minor leagues. A lot of guys who have played in the NFL are in the UFL right now.
“(The IFL), that’s eight-man ball, basically like eight-on-eight. It’s a real small field, only 50 yards. It’s nothing compared to the outdoor game. You continue to play, stay in shape and hopefully get that opportunity to get that call. I was out there and Ryan (Grigson) gave me a call and brought me in for a tryout. It all worked out from there.”
Jones is one of five tight ends on the roster, and none has played for the Colts other than last week against St. Louis. Jones converted a third-and-one rush in the first half that kept a drive going that ended with a touchdown. In the second half, he had a 22-yard first-down reception on a drive that reached the end zone again.
The skills that benefited the Colts were honed in a different league.
“In the IFL, it was more footwork (fundamentals),” said Jones. “I played a lot of receiver in the IFL because there was no tight end there. It was more getting my feet quickness and being able to get around smaller guys and get around linebackers. In the UFL, it’s not as high-level as the NFL, but there are a lot of guys who have been in the NFL who have been pushed back in that league. The competition is there – bigger guys, faster pace. (It’s) faster than college, so I learned the speed of the game a little more. The easier transition once I got here helped me here from coming from there, rather than just from college.”
Jones sharpened his craft under conditions considered miniscule by NFL standards, and for far less pay.
“(The IFL) was like working nine-to-five in a restaurant or something like that. It wasn’t very high at all,” said Jones. “It’s smaller than baseball minor leagues, I would think. The same type of thing (as the movie, Bull Durham), you rode on buses wherever you went. Practices were not that high intensity, a couple of days a week. Coaches worked, though. We didn’t have practice until nine o’clock at night. We only had practice on Tuesday and Thursday. It was like the minor league. I didn’t have a job. My coach (Mark Steinmeyer) and his wife were schoolteachers. … You always played for the love of the game.”
While Jones was in Reading, he kept tabs on the Colts’ roster. Grigson was keeping tabs on him, and the phone call and offer to join Indianapolis arrived.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity. I looked at their roster when I was in the IFL and saw they lost a lot of tight ends,” said Jones. At the time, they didn’t have very many, a couple. Then in the draft, they brought in two very good tight ends. I feel I can come in and help, and they gave me the opportunity.
“I am versatile. I can play anything. I can play fullback, tight end, in-line blocking. I can split out and do that, too. I played some fullback in college. In our offense, it was similar stuff – double tight ends, motion, everything we are doing here.”
Pagano cites Jones for his ability to do multiple things in the offense, and he hopes Jones will continue to improve.
“He’s a really good athlete. He catches the ball well. He’s becoming a better blocker. He has to become a more consistent blocker, and I think that will come with time. We’re asking him to do some things he probably hasn’t been asked to do in the past. He’s a versatile guy. He can do a lot. He can play a lot of positions in our offense. That’s a credit to him and what he’s been able to digest,” said Pagano.
Jones played just once in college in front of a crowd the size of the one last Sunday. This time, he shared it with family.
“It was a great experience, just from the atmosphere of the crowd and being in a big stadium like that. I hadn’t played in front of that many people. I started at Liberty University and we got to play at West Virginia and they had about 60,000 fans,” said Jones. “My family was in the stands (Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium). They got to experience with me the whole NFL experience. That was pretty sweet. They really enjoyed it, and it was fun to be able to share that with them. It was a huge opportunity.”
When asked if he sensed any irony in returning to play in Pittsburgh this Sunday when he just came to Indianapolis from Reading, Jones did not take time to reflect. His eye only is on the prize.
“Not really,” said Jones. “I’ve played in so many different places. It’s just another city on the map. I’m just trying to have the opportunity to play football. … There’s nothing like (chasing a dream) it, just continue to fight, drive, stay humble and continue to move forward.
“Anything. Anything. Anything the coaches want me to do, I’m going to try to do it, just to make the team.”