FLOWERY BRANCH – His arms are covered with ink, evolving into a canvas of his life. Spirituality runs down the left side. Temptations run down the right.
“Not finished, still working on it,” Julio Jones said, as he looked at a depiction of a roulette wheel and playing cards below his right shoulder. “See, over here is my Christian side. Doves, guardian angels, things like that. Then on my right side, I have vices, things you don’t really need but you have or you just want to have, like cars. I like roulette table, I like playing cards. Texas Hold ’em. I’m a pretty good bluffer.”
The man isn’t merely one of the great wide receivers ever to play in the NFL, he’s in perfect balance. Yin and Yang, the Tao of Julio.
Seldom have we seen his combination of speed, strength, focus, intelligence and, most of all, a complete lack of ego at the most diva of football positions. Steve Sarkisian, the Falcons’ new offensive coordinator, said, “Sometimes you see the big, physical players and they (act like), ‘I got it. I know what I’m doing.’ Julio works at it. He sets a real standard for everybody: This is how you prepare, this is how you do things.”
In a logical world, the Falcons would've won the Super Bowl last season, and the victory would've been punctuated by typical Jones acrobatics. Playing in immense pain from a mangled foot that would require bunion surgery one month later – “My toe was just sort of hanging there,” he said – he made a leaping, sideline 27-yard catch at the New England 22 with 4:40 left that ultimately should have sealed the Falcons’ title win.
“I knew if I could take the field, I could do anything,” said Jones, who refuses to take painkillers, even after surgery. “I might not be 100 percent. But 65 or 70 percent is pretty good.”
He will be remembered for more than being pretty good. But his desire is to be remembered for more than football.
Jones is only 28 years old and entering his seventh NFL season. He might not even be at the halfway point of his career yet (Jerry Rice, the greatest of all-time, retired at 42 after 20 seasons.) But his aspirations stretch beyond touchdowns, wins and Super Bowls.
Last September, there was an announcement of a $200 million mixed-use project in Buford near the Mall of Georgia. Jones has a partner, but he's a principal investor. This isn't a name-only thing. The Foley, Alabama, native has desires to build things and give back to the community that he has felt a strong connection with since 2011 when the Falcons drafted him.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was criticized by many when he decided to trade up in the draft to get Jones. I’m not sure if any of those critics still exist, but understand this: That trade will go down as one of the greatest decisions in franchise history.
Jones is a four-time Pro Bowler, has been first-team All-Pro the past two seasons and is on track for Hall of Fame honors. It's rare to see an athlete become such a significant part of a city’s fabric and show a desire to give back beyond just charity events. Magic Johnson did that in Los Angeles, building movie theaters and investing in businesses. Former Braves pitcher John Smoltz did it to some degree when he spearheaded building Kings Ridge Christian School.
Jones is next. He didn’t want to get too specific about the extent of his financial involvement in the project, which will sit on 16 acres and includes apartments, condos, a hotel, retail space and a family entertainment center. But he didn’t hide his passion or motivation for the project.
Jones lived in Buford for two years, and he came to realize there wasn’t much to do “other than go to the mall.”
“Initially I was just thinking about a sports facility and a family entertainment center,” he said. “I thought, maybe get some computers in there, let kids go there to do their homework and also do athletics. Then we started talking and we thought, we can just make it a mixed-use development. So the apartments came in, the retail around it.”
When I reminded Jones that most athletes usually don't go beyond starting a foundation, he said, "This is more hands-on. No shade to the guys who have foundations and things like that, but I’m more of a hands-on guy. I don’t need the media to cover things. I do a lot of (charity) things. I’ll go to feed the homeless, get food trucks and just go feed people. But I don’t do it because I want you to cover it. I do it just because it’s what I feel like doing.
“This (development) is more about creating something, creating jobs. These kids will have something to do. When I had a house in the Buford area, I saw a lot of kids just walking around in the mall who had absolutely nothing else to do. There’s so much more you can do.”
Jones' back story feeds into all this. He grew up in difficult circumstances. His mother, Queen Marvin, raised two boys alone in the crime-ridden neighborhood of Aaronville in Foley, Alabama. Queen initially balked at letting Julio play football, but when she relented, her son promised her he would make it in the NFL and one day buy her a house and a car.
After the draft in 2011, Jones was asked why left Alabama after his junior season.
"Because I feel ready, mentally and physically, and I wanted to be able to take care of my mom," he said.
That sense of giving back and serving as an example for others stuck with him.
“It’s about creating jobs for everybody around here, in Georgia but especially here in Atlanta,” he said. “People here have supported me and welcomed me with open arms since I got here. It’s amazing. Coming from those (tough) situations and being successful, it’s important for me to show people you can do that and give back.”
Jones also has become friends with many rappers in the Atlanta area and filmed a video for Champs Sports with Migos, whose song, "11 Birds," could be hearing blaring over the Falcons' practice field the other day. Sing it:
Got a win for the ring (winning) ... Yeah, we know game (yeah) ... I'm-a teach you how to score ... Touchdown, Julio ...
"I gained so much respect for those guys," said Jones, who traveled to some of the concerts. "Like, I go to New Orleans. They go to London, Arizona, Canada, Miami, Bahamas, L.A., New York. Every night they have a show. It’s crazy."
Back to football. He is taking reps in camp, but the Falcons want him to ease in after foot surgery in March. He said he learned "around Week 10" last season that he would need postseason surgery.
"I was like, cool. I knew, I can’t mess up anything else and I’ll be completely fine. As long as I could run and do everything else, I could control the situation."
He's excited about this team and this season and has responded well to Sarkisian. He also is attempted to defuse the story of early training camp, when he lost one of his reported $100,000 diamond earrings while jet-skiing in Lake Lanier.
Jones denied reports that he hired divers to look for it and said the earrings were insured. But I had to ask: With the set broken, what would he do with one earring?
"You make a ring out of it ..."
"For your bride to be."
I looked at him.
"Nah. See? Told you I could bluff. You didn't know if I was BS-ing or not. I’ve got jokes."
He's got moves. He's got dreams.
Migos' "11 Birds" video, with Julio Jones
Subscribe to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with the AJC's Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. Episodes also can be downloaded from on-demand link on WSBRadio.com.
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