The older brother leads and the little brother dutifully follows.
That’s the path Thomas and Julius Jones have followed in their football careers, beginning at Powell Valley High in the small, southwestern Virginia town of Big Stone Gap – pop. 5,854.
Thomas Jones, the older brother, helped his school win consecutive state titles his junior and senior seasons. Back then, Julius Jones mostly played in mop-up duty, though he occasionally lined up in the same backfield with his brother.
“It was cool just to be back there,” Julius Jones said about playing with his brother. “I guess it’s just something with brothers, but it was fun to be able to play on the same field with your brother.”
After Thomas graduated, Julius duplicated his brother’s feat, also leading Powell Valley to consecutive state championships his junior and senior years.
The two dreamed of one day playing in the NFL, and after accomplished college careers – Thomas Jones at Virginia and Julius Jones at Notre Dame – both now find themselves living that dream.
In fact, they will face each other for the third time in the NFL on Sunday when Thomas Jones and the New York Jets visit the Seahawks and Julius Jones at Qwest Field.
Julius is 2-0 against Thomas after two Thanksgiving matchups in Dallas. Now, the Jones family will fly out to watch their sons’ third match, this time in Seattle.
“Every time I get to play against him, it’s like a dream come true,” said Thomas, who leads the AFC in rushing and was selected as a Pro Bowl starter for the first time this year. “We dreamed of being running backs in the NFL as kids and we have a chance to play against each other. It’s very unique. I am very thankful and very grateful.”
But the Thomas brothers’ success has not come without adversity.
Drafted seventh overall by Arizona in 2000, Thomas was cut by the Cardinals after just three seasons. Thomas spent 2003 with Tampa Bay but played little. He moved on to Chicago the next season, where, after rushing for over 1,200 yards and helping the Bears advance to a Super Bowl, he was rewarded by being traded to the Jets for a second-round pick.
No matter. Thomas Jones has become a team leader for the Jets because of his hard-nosed running style and a work ethic to match, instilled in him by the two brothers’ parents, Virginia coal miners who demanded accountability from their children.
“I can’t be more proud of him,” Julius said about his brother. “He’s having a career year, and he deserves it. He’s been through a lot in his career in nine years and this is kind of like the top of it.”
Julius Jones also has suffered his share of bumps. Notre Dame ruled him academically ineligible for his senior year, so he moved in with Thomas, who was playing for Arizona at the time, and enrolled at Arizona State to get his grades up. Julius stayed in shape by training with Thomas until he was eventually reinstated by the Fighting Irish.
He topped off his Notre Dame career by gaining over 1,200 yards, including a school single-game record 262 yards against Pittsburgh. Dallas, which noticed how well he played, drafted him in the second round in 2004.
“I was just kind of lacking a little bit in focus and took things for granted, and that was kind of like the reset button for me,” Julius Jones said about the year off at Notre Dame. “I would just go watch him (Thomas) and work out and just kind of get back to the way things used to be.
“You know, he was going through his things in Arizona, so we were just kind of there for each other to make it through, and it worked out. I definitely look at that year as a big learning experience for me.”
Now in Seattle, Julius Jones faces another challenge. He has not played much lately, with Seattle coach Mike Holmgren seeming to favor of Maurice Morris.
“He’s had some tough moments,” Holmgren said about Julius Jones. “And I think some of that is not his problem. It’s how he’s been used.
“I think he’s been a little frustrated. I think next season that will kind of sort itself out. They’re all potentially starters, I think, and just how we’ve juggled that in trying to be fair probably hurt Julius a little bit this year.”
Julius Jones said he’s not discouraged by this season, and has been buoyed by weekly conversations with his older brother.
Like Thomas, Julius Jones sees better times ahead. Thomas is setting the pace, and Julius just needs to follow his lead.
“You can’t really keep a good back down,” Julius said Thomas has told him. “No matter what happens, you can’t hide