By Dave Morrison
Register-Herald Sports Editor
It is the way of life in Big Stone Gap, Va., much as it is here in southern West Virginia.
And the images are permanently etched in the mind of Thomas Jones — one of the most consistent and reliable, if not one of the most unheralded, running backs playing in the National Football League today.
“Both my parents, as well as my grandparents, worked in the mines,” the newly signed Kansas City Chiefs running back said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “They’d go to the mines, and work the hoot owl (midnight to 8 a.m.) shift. You’d see them come home covered in coal dust. That was life where I came from the whole time I was growing up.”
Jones will be the keynote speaker for The Soul of Coal luncheon Sunday at Tamarack. The event will honor Roosevelt Lynch and Joel “Jody” Price, two African-American miners who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch disaster April 5.
Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children and senior citizens for the event, which begins at 2 p.m. The afternoon will include poetry, music and will focus on the rich history of diversity in southern West Virginia coal mining.
Proceeds from the event will go to the Roosevelt Lynch Memorial fund set up through the Beckley Area Foundation.
Lynch was a long-time coach and educator in the area.
Jones, 31, is obviously no stranger to the mining industry.
“Certainly, coming from a mining background, I understand it,” Jones said. “Nobody wants their parents working underground, especially your mother. But she looked at it as going to work and we never saw her any differently than anybody else who was out there working. It was their life, and they were sacrificing so that we could have a better life.”
Jones’ mother Betty worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift over 20 years ad still raised seven children, including Jones’ brother Julius (a former Dallas Cowboys standout now with the Seattle Seahawks) and five daughters.
Jones’ longevity (entering his 11th year, with his fifth different team) and success (9,217 yards, 62 touchdowns and five straight 1,000 yard seasons) in the NFL is not a secret.
At least as not as far as the 2008 Pro Bowl starter is concerned.
The son of coal mining parents, he saw the blue collar work ethic his mother and father in the mines.
“I guess that work ethic is in my genes,” Jones said. “I keep working on the things my parents taught me. They would sometimes work overtime to have extra money to buy gifts and keep food on the table. So for me to watch extra film, or to workout on a day off, that’s all I know. And that was key for me, as well as my brother.”
But it’s not just on the football field.
A consensus All-American at the University of Virginia, Jones earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in just three years.
His father encouraged the children to learn five new words per day and made them read the front page of the newspaper before the sports section.
Jones was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 2000 and has also played for Tampa Bay, Chicago (who he helped make the Super Bowl in 2007), the New York Jets and now Kansas City, where he recently signed a two-year contract.
His most successful season was with New York in 2008, when he led the team in rushing (1,312 yards, 15 touchdowns). He set the team single game rushing record with 210 yards versus the Bills last Oct. 18.
He and his brother became the first brother tandem to top 1,000 yards in the same season (2006).
Perhaps more impressively, Jones has logged 2,280 career carries and has lost just 13 fumbles, and no more than two in the same season with the exception of his rookie season when he lost three.
He will likely go over 10,000 yards this season for his career, something that has been done just 30 times in league history.
“My dream, since I was about 15, was to play in the NFL,” Jones said. “But you can’t really think about it when you come from a small area like I did. I’ve been blessed to have had a lot of years in the NFL and I have had some success. I’ll do my best and ask Him to bless me.”
Jones said he is looking forward to Sunday’s event, a memorial for two men who gave their lives working in the mines. And that fact clearly hit home for Jones.
“As a young child, you don’t really think about the dangers in the mines, it’s just your parents going to work,” Jones said. “But the older you get, you understand the job and where they are. When I was in college, my mother was still underground and that was tough. So I can understand from that perspective what it’s like for the people in West Virginia. I know for my brother and I, and our five sisters, our job was to do whatever we could to get them out of that environment because we all realized the sacrifices they made for us.”
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