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Thomas Q. Jones’ football work ethic prepared him for ‘Luke Cage’

‘A lot of my future was depending on how hard I worked, and that’s what I was used to’

Thomas Q. Jones didn’t know that he would turn to acting after leaving the NFL, but he was ready for anything.

Jones spent 12 years in the NFL and the transition from football was hard. But he relied on the work ethic instilled in him by his parents.

“When you retire, your whole world changes,” he said. “I started playing football at 8 and retired at 33. For the majority of my life, I was playing football. From 17, when I was signed and went to the University of Virginia, to my last game in 2012, I mean, I was part of a system, the football system.”

Jones, a running back, was drafted seventh overall in the 2000 NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals. He put in significant time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs. During his time with the Jets, he had the most rushing touchdowns in a single season (14). Over his last two years, with the Chiefs, he had more than 1,300 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

Now starring in both film and television, his most recent appearance is as a prison villain turned street sensation in the Netflix series Luke Cage.

He had a role as a love interest opposite Gabrielle Union in the BET series Being Mary Jane. He’s also had roles in Straight Outta Compton, Shameless, Born Again Virgin, and the independent film Runaway Island.

The Virginia native also has a technology company that launched an app two months ago called Castar Applications in which subscribers can post gigs and book talent for their productions.

Jones, who earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in three years, later established the Thomas Quinn Jones Academic Scholarship. “I put 30 students through the University of Virginia on my scholarship,” he said.

Jones plans to donate his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation (formerly known as the Sports Legacy Institute) for research to help further its study on links between sports and brain trauma.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?

I was in Miami and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I had a music label, and I had artists that I was working with. But it’s one thing when you’re managing artists and it’s another thing when you’re the talent. Being an NFL player, I was the talent. So a lot of my future was depending on how hard I worked, and that’s what I was used to.

I didn’t want to have to be in L.A. I wanted to be able to stay at my house [in Miami] for a consistent amount of time since I really hadn’t been able to while I was playing. But [my agent] just continued to push me, and continued to send me on auditions, which I’m forever grateful for that. That’s when I ended up going to L.A., getting booked for Being Mary Jane. It really hit me like, ‘Wow. This is for real. I’m on a major show on BET with one of the best actresses in the game and I have a really specific role.’

How did you land the part of Comanche in Luke Cage?

I was fortunate enough to have a meeting with Cheo Coker. He’s the showrunner and creator of Luke Cage, and we just clicked. He’s a big football fan. He was a fan of my career. I was a fan of some of his work that he had done as a journalist back in the day … There was just a lot of really, really positive synergy there. He said, ‘Listen. I’m gonna be doing Luke Cage, I want you to send in a self-tape.’

So I sent in a self-tape audition for the role of Shades and they liked it. I got the role of Comanche.

When did you know you’d be part of season two?

I was in New York filming season one. I looked into the comic book, and I knew Shades and Comanche. Their characters were best friends and they were always together in the comic books. And I knew a lot of the backstory about them as far as just them being a part of the Rivals gang and Hoodlums for Hire. Randomly, I get a text message from Cheo that says ‘Comanche lives.’ I was like, ‘OKAY. RANDOM,’ in capital letters. I’m like, ‘OK. I don’t know what this means exactly, but I’m assuming that I’m back for season two.’ He actually called me about a month before season two started filming and said, ‘Listen, I have this incredible character arc for Comanche. You’re back on the streets …’ Next thing you know, I’m back in New York and the first scene of season two that we shot, Lucy Liu was the director.

What changed for you after football?

I had to change how I worked out. I had to change my diet. I retired and started eating whatever I wanted and then I wasn’t as motivated to work out. My relationships changed with people. A lot of people that were there when I played were gone. There were a lot of people that I thought were my friends and close family that turned out to not be who I thought they were. So there were just a lot of emotional and psychological changes that happened.

These are things that I slowly figured out through my acting training and it helped me as a person, evolve and grow and realize like, ‘Hey, I have to become more human if I’m going to be able to do this at a certain level.’

What would you tell other athletes as they make their transition from professional sports?

First of all that, there is life after football. I even struggle with moments where I feel like I could’ve done more. I ended up with 10,591 yards rushing, which is a lot of rushing yards. It’s 25th all-time in NFL history, but constantly I will beat myself up because I didn’t get 11,000. Because I feel like if I would’ve gotten the ball more in my last year, I only needed a certain amount of yards, 400, a little more than 400 yards to get to 11,000. That would’ve put me in a different class. And I’ll always beat myself about that. That’s something that I just can’t help, it’s just the competitive nature in me.

But what helps me is knowing that, that doesn’t matter. What matters is what I’m doing now and if I’m happy doing what I’m doing now, which I am. I would tell anybody that retires from any sport, because you know, unfortunately for us, when you’re in retirement you think, 50s, 60s, when we retire sometimes at 23 or 24. If you only play two years in the NFL, three years in the NFL, you’re a retired NFL player. You’re 25. What do you do now the rest of your life? So retirement is more than just a word, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a mindset. Retirement means you’re finished. But that’s not really what it means. Regardless of what age you retire, I would tell them to find something that you really love. And pursue it.

What makes you sad and how do you use those emotions in acting?

I use a lot of football. I use the fact that I played in the Super Bowl in 2007 and we didn’t win. That still haunts me to this day. The parts that I do miss about football are being around my teammates. It’s almost like being in the military. You create these really close brother friendships. When I think about those things, it makes me sad. That’s a part of my life that’s gone. I have great memories. But sometimes it is kind of like, ‘Wow, those are some really good times.’ It’s more so about the relationships and not the game.

What are you most proud of?

Being able to take negative things that I would try not to think about or that would hurt, and put that stuff into my characters. And to see it come alive on screen.

Who’s your childhood hero?

My childhood hero is my dad. … Not only did he make sure I was disciplined as an athlete, but he made sure I was disciplined as a person. I wouldn’t be as well-rounded of a person if it wasn’t for the example that he set.

What’s your favorite throwback TV show?

It would have to be The Cosby Show. Just being a black man and seeing a black family that was educated, that was inspirational. They were proud, unapologetically black. I think that was motivation for a lot of people to go to college.

What was your first major purchase when you started making money?

My mom and dad’s house.

What was the first concert you ever attended?

Ready for the World, Oaktown 357 and MC Hammer. I was there with my MC Hammer shoes and biker shorts on. Doing the running man. It was crazy.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.