Photo: Ian Maddux

It’s been almost seven years since Thomas Q. Jones stepped away from the gridiron and retired from football as one of the 25 leading rushers in NFL history and a member of the 10,000 yards club. Jones, a native of Big Stone Gap, Va., and University of Virginia grad is now taking on another endeavor that doesn’t cause CTE. Over the last couple of years, Jones has added acting to his repertoire and wants to take Hollywood by storm, not only in front of the camera, but behind the scenes as well.

In 2015, Jones caught everyone’s attention with his role on Being Mary Jane, as “Cutty Buddy,” Mary Jane’s friend with benefits. Soon his character became a trending topic, and most people immediately recognized him from his past NFL career. But according to Jones, acting just happened.

“Acting wasn’t something I was aspiring to do. I never wanted to be an actor, I was always heavy into music and had an artist label. I started working on a project in Miami, and right after I retired, I added a films division to my label. I had a chance to work with Clifton Powell, and the publicist for the show said I had some raw talent,” Jones recalls.

Eventually, Jones headed to New York, and got an agent who started sending him on auditions, which landed him in Los Angeles. Jones’ first role was a non-speaking role on Shameless, and the second role he landed was on Being Mary Jane.

“The first season of Being Mary Jane was nerve wracking, because I didn’t have any acting classes. It was all instinct and working with Gabrielle Union, there was a lot of pressure on me at that time. I was the new guy and I started realizing that I need to get into acting studios if I want to take it seriously,” Jones said.

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From “Cutty Buddy” to now being a strong arm on Luke Cage’s season two, Jones’ Comanche character has garned lots of attention. Comanche appeared in the first season of Luke Cage, but Jones had no clue he’d be appearing in the second season until he received a call from executive producer Cheo Coker.

“Shout out to Cheo, he’s literally like the Bill Belichick of this. He’s been so influential in my career before I even auditioned for season one, and we just clicked,” he says.

Initially, Jones said he auditioned for Shades, but got cast as Comanche. During season one, Jones kept on getting added to more scenes. After season one, Jones received a text message from Coker which simply said, “Comanche lives,” and it was at that moment, he knew he’d be back for season two.

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Shades’ and Comanche’s relationship is something that many people were caught off guard by. Sure, we knew they grew up and spent time in prison together, but there was a deeper layer to their relationship. But Shades wasn’t having none of that on the outside, especially since he was all up in Mariah. And that was a hard pill for Comanche to swallow. The complexity of Shades’ and Comanche’s relationship was delicately written by Coker, and deftly portrayed by Jones.

“On Luke Cage, I wouldn’t say my character is a villain, he’s just trying to make it. He’s fresh out of prison and he’s trying to get adjusted to the world again, and he has a complex relationship with Shades and feels that Mariah is a hindrance to what he’s used to with Shades,” Jones says.

The innuendos about Shades’ and Comanche’s relationship were definitely something many people caught, and according to Jones, yes, they were lovers. But one has to wonder why that relationship wasn’t delved into deeper.

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“I think the fact that they had a relationship in prison, made it more complex outside, and Shades moved on from that life, he didn’t want to deal with it. Comanche was fresh out of jail and that’s all he knew. I think they wanted to show the human side of the friendship,” according to Jones, “That was just a part of our backstory, and not the main focus.”

Jones appreciated the fact that his character in Luke Cage allowed him to show his range, especially when some people just assume that those who transition from sports to acting just won’t be that good. But what’s also clear is that even though Jones has a new fan base because of his acting, there will always be those who remember him from football. And that was clear as we sat in the lobby of the W Hotel in Hollywood when a couple of people stopped by to give him his athletic props. He says he feels heartened to hear football fans saying that he’s a good actor.

“These comments are very encouraging. It’s hard to do this. When you’re trying to crossover, you have to be very specific as to what you’re trying to do,” he says. “I’m grateful for everyone who appreciates the work that I’ve put in.”

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When it comes to Jones’ career, he’s not waiting for people to give him opportunities, instead, he’s making his own by producing and creating shows and movies that he wants to see. He’s currently raising funds for various shows and pitching with his production partners. As for acting, up next for Jones is his film A Violent Man, that tells the story of an MMA fighter who gets accused of murder.

Jones stars opposite of Chuck Liddell in the thriller directed by Matthew Berkowitz, and of course in order to prepare to play an MMA fighter, he trained with the best.

“I trained two months with John Lewis, who also trained Liddell and Tito Ortiz. The training wasn’t too hard coming from football. I took Lewis’ classes three times a week,” he says. “I was in there going in. It’s very difficult, but it paid off because the fight scenes are super believable.”

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Jones started playing football as a young kid in rural Virginia, and says that acting as a career is actually the more difficult undertaking.

“Acting is probably harder for me since I’ve been doing it for such a short period of time,” he says. “With football, I started playing when I was 8 years old, all we knew was football. This is very foreign, sometimes I think, ‘Am I really doing this?’”

When it comes to his footprint, both in football and in acting, Jones is quite specific about what he wants his legacy to be.

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“I think my legacy with football was being a team player, I prided myself on being a tough guy. I felt like I was a throwback player from the ’60s and ’70s. In acting I want to be able to bring characters to life and entertain people, and being a black man, I think I have a unique opportunity in these times, to create my own opportunities,” he says.

He continues, saying that playing a diverse range of characters as a black man creates an impact he can be proud of.

“I want to be able to be a positive influence through my characters, and show the world what it’s like to be a black man. Whether it’s my character on Luke Cage and the relationship he had in prison, I think that storyline was therapeutic for a lot of people,” he says.

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“I have little black kids looking up to me. When I think about roles I take on, I think about these kids, and how can it open up their eyes to certain reality. Being a black man in America is an extreme sport. We pose a threat to everyone in some shape, form or fashion.”