Normally all a pro football player has to do to be considered an intellectual is to watch a Merchant Ivory movie or keep a copy of the latest Dr. Phil book in his locker. But Dhani Jones is not your normal NFL player. The soft-boiled egghead of the Philadelphia Eagles may be the only strongside linebacker who doesn't think Bacon is something you eat for breakfast.
Jones is a contemplative 26-year-old whose conversation, like his studies at Michigan--he was a premed student who designed his own major, encompassing science, art and liberal arts--bounces around like an onside kick. He marches to the beat of his own one-man band, playing saxophone, classical piano and, during his four-season stint with the New York Giants, a homemade washtub bass in subway stations. Last month he served as guest conductor with the Philly Pops, wielding a baton with flash-sword ferocity. Jones so loves the classical canon that, to relax after Giants games, he'd hire a Juilliard student to play on the Steinway in his living room. "There's nothing better than live music," Jones says. "It's raw energy, and raw energy feeds the soul."
The soulful Jones is also a poet; a dabbler in mixed-media portraiture; a reader of religious texts; a designer of bow ties; and a starter on a defense that, entering last weekend, was yielding the second-fewest points per game in the NFL. "Football is a sport of paradox," says Jones, his Afro combed back in what he calls the Frederick Douglass look. "It requires reaction, not reflection. Yet you must use your mind to calculate, to anticipate--to think and not think at the same time."
Clearly, Jones is no tackling dummy. "Dhani's a Renaissance man," says Eagles strong safety Michael Lewis.
"He's our Thinker," adds fellow linebacker Ike Reese, referring to the brooding statue in front of Philly's Rodin Museum. "He looks deep into things the rest of us take for granted."
"In team meetings Dhani will ask question after question until an answer satisfies him," says teammate Nate Wayne. "It can get annoying, but that's Dhani. He's always trying to soak up knowledge."
The 6'1", 240-pound Jones started soaking it up long before he signed a five-year, $13.5 million contract with the Eagles in March as an unrestricted free agent. He credits his introspection to his parents, both of whom were activists. Dad is a retired Navy commander; Mom is an anesthesiologist. Dhani and his kid sister, Akila, grew up shuttling among naval bases in Japan, California and Maryland.
Jones spent much of his childhood pondering life's imponderables with his old man. On Dhani's birthday his father would wake him at midnight and take him on a long drive. "My dad and I would reflect on the currents of the past year," he recalls. "We'd talk about whether I'd grown positively or negatively." On his 13th birthday the negative outweighed the positive. "Dad didn't like the crowd I was running with," he says. "He told me if I didn't change, I wouldn't live to see my 18th birthday."
Dhani changed. "That talk left a big impression," he says. "I dropped my friends and got involved in sports." Jones was recruited by the U.S. Naval Academy but turned down the chance to go there. "I had been taught to question authority," he says. "I would have asked a question that a superior would have found outrageous, and I'd have been kicked out of the Academy within a year."
These days the only thing truly outrageous about Jones is the line of Italian silk bow ties that he is putting on the market. "Some ties are quiet and conservative," he says, "and some are loud and obnoxious." Jones wears them all. "It's brave for Dhani to be seen in a bow tie," offers Reese, "especially considering he's not a professor at Harvard." Then again Jones sometimes sounds like a Harvard professor. ?