Q&A: Thomas Q. Jones on NFL career, working in Hollywood, and creating his own content

Thomas Q. Jones played in the NFL for 12 seasons from 2000-11, rushing for 10,591 yards and 68 touchdowns over his career. He helped the Bears reach the Super Bowl in 2007 and was named to the 2008 Pro Bowl with the Jets.

Post-retirement, Jones has become an accomplished actor/producer. He currently co-produces and has a starring role in “Johnson,” a series revolving around four lifelong friends living in Atlanta — all with the last name Johnson — who find themselves in different places in their lives and must work to secure the bonds of their friendship. “Johnson” premieres Aug. 1 on Bounce TV at 8 p.m. ET.

Sports Section sat down with Jones to discuss his NFL career, his transition from professional athlete to actor/producer — and, of course, “Johnson.”

How did “Johnson” come about?
I met the creator of the show, Deji Laray, who is now my producing partner — we have our own production company, Midnight Train Productions — through a mutual friend in 2017, and Deji had created this idea for a show in 2014. When we met, we talked about the show and where we both were in our careers, in regard to wanting to create our own content.

So we put some money and friends together for the pilot episode and then just took it around Hollywood while auditioning for our own individual projects.

We eventually ended up getting it to Reesha L. Archibald, one of the executives over at A Bird and a Bear Productions, which is Eric C. Rhone and Cedric the Entertainer’s company. She showed them the pilot, and they loved it. They brought us in a couple days after they saw it and told us they wanted to work with us.

We shopped it around and ended up getting it to Bounce TV. They loved the concept and the narrative, thought it was fresh and new. We filmed from November through the beginning of February.

The focus of the show is on the strong representation of Black men. Is that something that you’re passionate about?
Yes. I think we’ve seen a lot of shows that definitely represent women and their perspectives on a lot of different things in regard to love and relationships and marriage. Deji and I just felt like it would be interesting to give a man’s perspective on some of these same topics, and hopefully it will give women a different perspective to sometimes see how we operate and maybe how we think.

The consensus seems to be that a lot of women believe men don’t open up enough, specifically Black men in the Black community, and there’s definitely some miscommunication that’s created by a lot of stereotypes and a lot of things that just might not necessarily be true.

I don’t think we’ve really had a show that gives a completely honest perspective from the man’s point of view on a lot of controversial topics. Usually, the shows are very comedic, or they’re more crime/drama shows — as opposed to what “Johnson” is, which is a show about the everyday man, specifically four Black men and their journey through life and brotherhood, and their conflicts and relationships with their significant others.

How do you go about defying expectations with your storytelling?
I think a lot of it is just bringing those stereotypes to the forefront so that you can see for yourself. In regard to Black men in general, there’s a very narrow scope sometimes in what Hollywood will allow us to convey. A show like “Johnson” opens up the world of Black men in regard to just how people see us.

This show isn’t the stereotypical show, where it’s just a straight-up comedy, or there’s some sort of street element to it. The majority of Black men are represented in this show, like every other human being, just trying to make an honest living. They’re flawed, but they’re trying to do the best that they can. It’s important to show this narrative.

How did the transition from professional athlete to producer/actor go for you?
It’s been incredible. I retired, and I was a little bit lost. I didn’t really have anything I was passionate about. When I started to take acting seriously, it really helped change my trajectory. I found something I loved, that I was willing to put 100% effort into on a day-to-day basis — something that I felt was going to allow me to grow and evolve.

And it really has. Being in classes for four years and being able to study techniques have made me the actor that I am now, one very dedicated to the craft. Not only that, but just the relationships with meeting people like my producing partner, Deji, who’s not only an incredible person but also incredibly creative.

Working with other actors that have been doing this for a long time and learning from them — the Alfre Woodards of the world, the Paul Giamattis, the Gabrielle Unions — has been an incredible experience, and I’ve learned so much in a fairly short period of time.

This industry became therapeutic for me once I retired from football, so I’m thankful I found it.

When you were playing in the NFL, did you have show business in the back of your mind?
I never thought about it, honestly. I wasn’t really into it. I never really watched much TV my whole life. From the time I was a kid, I was focused on football and just loved every aspect of it. And I would come home from practice, turn the TV off, and watch game film.

So it was kind of a shock for me, as I’m sure it was for a lot of other people.

But it helped me evolve. I added a middle initial to my name — my stage name is Thomas Q. Jones because it kind of symbolizes a new person, not Thomas Jones for the Bears or the Jets or the Chiefs or the Cardinals or Buccaneers.

This is Thomas Q. Jones, the creator, the actor, the producer — the man outside the helmet.

So it was important for you to separate the professions?
I didn’t want people to even connect the football player with the role, because people like to compartmentalize and put people in boxes, and I’ve never been that kind of person.

I’m very, very aware of what I did in football. I have a great legacy as a football player, but the curse is that it’s all people will see you as unless you reinvent yourself.

My main goal once I started acting and took it seriously was to actually reinvent myself as Thomas Q. Jones, the legitimate actor, producer, and creative type. I wanted the respect of the industry. There’s nothing worse than not really getting your just dues when you’ve put so much work in.

“Thomas Jones” as an actor would still correlate me to the Bears or to the Jets because I had a really solid career. But Thomas Q. Jones, some people don’t even know I’m the same guy, which is beautiful for me because I can weave in between both worlds.

I didn’t get it easy. I didn’t want it easy. I went the same route that everyone else went: I studied for four years at two different actors studios, six hours a week. I made my own relationships in Hollywood. I didn’t ask for help, I didn’t use any football references or anything of that nature. I just went to the auditions like everyone else and got told “no” most of the time.

Eventually, I was told “yes” a couple of times until I built up a resume. And then I started to get “avail” checks, which means that, “Hey, we know he can act, let’s just see if he’s available.” And now I have my own content.

So it’s been a short journey in the last six years, but I’ve learned a lot and have truly reinvented myself. I’m really, really excited and happy about where I’m going in my career.

What do you miss most about the NFL?
Probably the one thing I miss the most is right before we’d go out for the game. I miss that brotherhood of sitting there — you could hear a pin drop, just looking at all these faces ready to go to battle and that intensity and that adrenaline.

I missed that kind of out-of-body experience and just knowing that for those next three hours, I’m going to battle with my brothers, and we’re going to lay it on the line. Just the guts and the glory of the game.

What’s your fondest NFL memory?
Winning the NFC Championship game in Chicago. My career started off a little slow in Arizona — I had to dig myself out of a hole, and I was able to do that. And I think once we won the NFC Championship game in Chicago, it was like a dream come true.

As a kid, I would watch all of Walter Payton’s games on Sundays — I was always a big Bears fan as a kid because of Payton and 1985 Bears, with the Super Bowl Shuffle and all of that. It all kind of just hit me at once: “Wow, I’m in Chicago and we just won the NFC Championship game, and I had two touchdowns and over a 100 yards to help contribute to that win, and we’re going to the Super Bowl.”

Coming from where I came from, a very small town in Virginia — and starting off really, really slow in Arizona, and even being labeled a bust – then being able to look around and see all those faces in the stadium and those No. 20 jerseys, with the snow falling and my family in the stands, knowing I’m going to the Super Bowl… it was just perfect.

Chris Kuc is a sportswriter who covered a myriad of sports during his career with the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic, and the Chicago Blackhawks before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris at Chris.Kuc@thesportssection.com or on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.