NEW YORK (AP) — Thomas Jones would wake up, crack open a few beers and wonder what was next.
No more practices. No more games. No more locker-room laughs with his teammates. Life without football for the former NFL running back was a scary thought.
“I was very depressed, in this weird space,” said Jones, who retired after the 2011 season. “There was this emptiness, almost like you broke up with your girlfriend and then it’s like, what do you do? I had never been much of a drinker, but I was waking up in the morning and drinking Coronas. I needed something to get over it.
“For like eight or nine months, it was a weird, weird time for me.”
Jones was a first-round pick out of the University of Virginia in 2000 and played 12 seasons in the NFL, rushing for 10,591 yards — 24th on the career list — and 68 touchdowns during stops with the Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs.
During those last few seasons, Jones founded a production company called Independently Major Entertainment, which started out by promoting music artists and later developed a film division. Still, Jones couldn’t recreate the satisfying feeling of competition that football provided.
“I was used to working out for a reason,” the 36-year-old Jones said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “I had to really change things around in my life and re-prioritize things. It was a tough transition.”
He found his way while working on one of his company’s film projects with veteran actor Clifton Powell, who has appeared in several Hollywood hits. Powell saw talent in Jones, and encouraged him to give acting a serious shot.
“Any time someone like that is in your corner,” Jones said, “it kind of makes it worth your while to try it.”
It was as good a play call as Jones has ever made.
In the three-plus years since he retired, Jones has scored appearances on Showtime’s “Shameless” and IFC’s “Comedy Bang! Bang!” Then came a breakthrough role on BET’s “Being Mary Jane” as Gabrielle Union’s love interest. His first day on set was eye-opening: He went to wardrobe looking for his clothes, and there was just a robe and sandals waiting for him.
Largely because of his love scenes in “Being Mary Jane,” the chisel-chested Jones has become a hit with female fans– going from gridiron great to Hollywood heartthrob.
“It’s been an experience, man,” Jones said, laughing. “It’s definitely been flattering. I was always in the public eye, but it was a pretty big transition to go from being seen with a helmet on to being seen with basically no clothes on.”
Next up is a major part in the made-for-TV movie “Runaway Island,” which premieres Saturday night on cable network TV One. It stars Lorraine Toussaint from “Orange is the New Black” and is directed by the Oscar-nominated Dianne Houston.
“I’m so excited for people to see this,” Jones said. “Diverse cast, all ages. It was perfect.”
He’s also in the upcoming big-screen flick “Straight Outta Compton” about the rap group N.W.A that’s due out next month.
“My character is very intense, very angry,” Jones said. “I just went back to pregame and pulled those emotions from as if we were playing the Patriots in Foxborough.”
Acting has become more than just a hobby for Jones, who has also developed CASTAR, a social networking app for people in the entertainment industry.
He is following in the footsteps of a handful of other NFL stars who became successful actors such as Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Alex Karras and John Matuszak. Jones even added his middle initial — Q for Quinn — to his name for his acting credits.
“I’m a full-time actor,” he said. “I’m no longer Thomas Jones, the football player. I’ve spread my wings, come out of my cocoon. This is who I am now.”
Jones, who largely avoided the spotlight during his playing career, sees plenty of similarities between acting and his old career, from reading scripts instead of playbooks to working off emotions. There’s plenty of competition, too, just like his football days.
“I’ve been able to peel back a lot of layers of who I am,” said Jones, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Miami. “Acting has really given me a new outlook on life.”
Jones hopes his successful career change can serve as an example to young players who are aren’t yet planning for their post-football careers — and to former athletes still searching for their next gameplan long after the cheering has stopped.
“I don’t think I could have ever seen this for me a few years ago,” Jones said. “It’s an amazing thing. I’d tell those guys that life is way bigger than the game. You give a lot of yourself to football, but you need to realize that there’s a lot more to life out here for you than just football.”
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