On May 16, thousands of Virginia Tech students will walk across a stage at Lane Stadium and receive their diplomas during the university’s commencement ceremony. However, for one member of the Tech class of 2014, it will be a welcome return to the stadium where he dazzled fans during his football playing days. Kevin Jones, wearing a cap and gown – not his iconic No. 7 jersey – will receive his diploma 10 years after he left school early for his NFL career.
KJ, as most of us know him, had an All-America career at Tech, rushing for over 3,400 yards and 35 touchdowns. He left school early following the 2003 season, and he was a first-round pick of the Detroit Lions in the 2004 draft. He became only the third running back in Lions’ history to rush for 1,000-plus yards in his rookie season (Billy Sims and Barry Sanders were the others). KJ was named to the NFL’s all-rookie team and was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2004. He spent five seasons with the Lions and two seasons with the Chicago Bears before retiring because of injuries.
KJ ultimately returned to Blacksburg, along with wife Robyn (former Tech class president and currently a learning specialist in the Tech athletics department) and their three children – Kevin, Jr. (7), Kennedy (5), and Kensington (5) – to finish his degree in industrial design.
I had the chance to visit with KJ to discuss his academic goals and his upcoming return to Lane Stadium.
BR: Why did you decide to come back?
KJ: “I always wanted to get my degree. I just didn’t know when. The desire was always there. Coach [Billy] Hite and I kept our relationship after I left, and when I got hurt in Chicago, he told me that he thought I should come back and get my degree. The last three years that I was playing, it was something I thought about often.”
BR: How satisfying and emotional will it be for you to be back at Lane Stadium, but this time in cap and gown and not a helmet?
KJ: “It’s a big deal for me. I’ve been working so hard on my thesis now. I’ve been focused on that, so it probably hasn’t hit me yet. I’m in the middle of a project, and I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”
BR: Tell us about your degree. It’s a tough one.
KJ: “I’m studying industrial design in the College of Architecture. It’s basically product design. I feel like all my life I’ve been training, just as an NFL player and a dominant athlete, and now I’m trying to use the platform that I’ve gained through sports and transfer that into design and see how I can combine those two traits and be of service to people.”
BR: Specifically, what would you like to design?
KJ: “My major is so broad. I want my hands on everything, but on the design side, this past summer, I had two internships in Switzerland – one with a modular furniture company called USM and the other one was Scott Sports. They do Tour de France bikes, snow goggles, ski helmets … stuff like that. So from both ends of the spectrum, I like both.
Right now for my thesis, I am designing a piece of furniture. But in terms of sports, one of the reasons I came back to school was so that I could give back, and guys can see me and say, ‘See, look at him. He played in the NFL, and he came back.’ I think that can be inspiring to a lot of people. I can combine sports and design together, whether it be through strategies and administration, or to help design a product to get a player back on the field and keep him healthy.”
BR: Not many NFL players would do what you are doing. Most NFL guys, once they have their money, they’re done at least academically. Why?
KJ: “I think there are a lot of guys in the NFL who couldn’t care less if they get a degree. They say to themselves ‘I got the money,’ but the fact is a lot of them don’t know how to manage their money. I think a lot of guys are naïve to the fact and think the NFL is the ‘end-all, be-all.’ I think there’s a misconception that, if you get to the NFL and you get your money, then that’s the end. Actually, it’s just really the beginning.”
BR: That’s deep, KJ.
KJ: “Football isn’t the first thing in my life any more. I understand people know me for that, but I’m trying to show a different side and offer more than that.”
BR: Many athletes, especially guys who have achieved so much success, have a hard time making that adjustment.
KJ: “It’s super hard, but at the same time, I feel like God has blessed me with a big heart and an open mind. Because, yeah, I had those talents, but I’m able to produce other things outside of sports, too. Sports is the avenue, but a person has to learn to use those skills in other areas.”
BR: With that in mind, who do you look up to as a role model. Who was a successful NFL player and then made a transition and had a second, completely different, post-football career?
KJ: “A lot of people don’t know that Gale Sayers is extremely successful off the field. He actually has a company called Sayers 40 (http://www.examiner.com/article/gale-sayers-20-20-vision-at-sayers40-inc). When I was playing with the Lions, I went down and got a business certificate from Northwestern University, and Gale was one of the speakers. I was in his seminar, and he was so impressive. He speaks well. He presents himself well. And I had never seen an athlete do both. I think I was inspired by that early on, even though it was early in my career. I went down to Chicago and stayed on campus at Northwestern, and they had the seminar on business and entrepreneurship for NFL players. So there’s a good role model. And (laughing), I have that business certificate listed on my resume!”
BR: So at the end of the day, are you going to be better at football or design?
KJ: (Laughing) “I’ve got to say football, man. I put in a lot of work in high school. I was basically a pro player in high school with the hours I put in, and the hours I spent with my dad, who was training me. I put in more hours in high school training than I did in college or in the pros. I was always primed to do that. But now, I’m priming myself to do more.”
BR: You played seven seasons in the NFL, and the average career for an NFL tailback is …?
KJ: “Three and a half seasons. And for a while, it bothered me that I only played seven. When I started reading some statistics, it surprised me. I thought I could play forever. I had an ACL and a Lisfranc fracture and an ankle injury.”
BR: What’s next?
KJ: “In the future, I want to be involved in design and sports. Wherever that turns out, we’ll see. Maybe administration. Coaching. Life skills. Mentoring. Design.”
BR: I’m curious. How much of the holistic “Tech experience,” or the “Beamer experience” influenced you to come back and finish this?
KJ: “Virginia Tech is unique. Blacksburg is unique. Both Coach [Frank] Beamer and Coach Hite treated me well. Even though I played early, I had to earn my stripes. It wasn’t like I came in and was the starter from day one. I just wanted to make sure I was kicking A-double-S, and they treated me so well and made me comfortable here. I met my wife here, and the entire coaching staff always made sure I’ve been welcomed when I come back. Blacksburg has been a great place to raise kids. A lot of [NFL] guys struggle because they don’t know what they want to do, and some don’t have a place to go back to. I do.”
BR: Yeah, you do. Congratulations on coming back to Virginia Tech. We’re proud of you and looking forward to your return to Lane Stadium and to seeing what’s next in your life.
KJ: “I’m excited about Round Two.”
A Thank You to Hokie Nation
As many of you recall, two years ago, Virginia Tech started an endowment to honor my sister, Lynda, and my broadcast partner Mike Burnop's wife, Ellen, who both lost their battles with cancer within weeks of each other in 2012. Well, Hokie fans were amazingly generous (of course!), purchasing these commemorative prints (http://www.hokiesports.com/billandmike/endowment/) at $25 each. That money was invested, and Virginia Tech freshman Bucky Hodges from Virginia Beach, Va., will be the first recipient of this scholarship. I'm excited for Bucky – who has a great future both academically and athletically – and proud that such a terrific young man will receive this scholarship. He has the spirit and character that both Lynda and Ellen would love. Thanks to Virginia Tech athletics for honoring the memories of Lynda and Ellen and to the Hokie Nation, friends, and fans everywhere who made this possible.
What’s better for Tech – an eight-game ACC schedule or nine-game? I heard you discussing this on Wes McElroy’s show, and my thought is we should scrap divisions and play nine games each season. What’s best for Tech? Todd, Richmond.
Good question, with no easy answer. Lots of variables here. If ESPN wants to launch an ACC Network, it might need the added inventory of a ninth conference game each year. Therefore, it’s in Tech’s best (financial) interests to go to nine. I’m also of the opinion that Tech should play Florida State and Clemson more often (although the coaching staffs at those schools would likely not agree). I like big games every week. But at the same time, we have to keep things as fair and balanced as possible. You don’t want to “over-schedule” yourself.
Also, we know that Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech have big nonconference rivalry games with SEC teams each season, and throwing Notre Dame into everyone’s schedule really limits the scheduling flexibility of those schools’ AD’s. They’re unlikely to vote for a ninth conference game unless the money is right. I like divisions, and I like the idea of a championship game. How the league picks the participants is another topic for debate.
I think we should play Tennessee every year in football. The Vols need to play at least one major nonconference foe each year. It should be HOKIE SMOKIE border classic each year. Kyle, Kingsport, Tenn.
That idea would get a lot support in the Tri-Cities, I’m sure! Let’s see how the ACC schedule vote turns out first. Thanks for the note.
I’m scared to death of going into this season with an inexperienced quarterback. I saw a couple of scrimmages and was not confident in what I saw. How good is Michael Brewer? What have you seen? Robert, Radford.
That’s a difficult question to answer without having seen him play, or even practice. But here are some clips of Brewer from high school to give you an idea of his talent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcZJoTH2qzY and from Texas Tech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYD9LmMCvwc
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