Ex-Eskimo hard hitter now throws his weight into housing the poor
When former Eskimos all-star defensive back Ed Jones first flew into Edmonton in the fall of 1976, he wasn’t exactly sure wherehewasgoingor what to expect. The Eskimos had called the NewJersey native whenhe was released from the Buffalo Bills.
“I cameuphere not knowing where I wasgoing,” Jones recalled last week. “I knew it was nowhere near Toronto — and it was cold.”
Raised in Navesink, near Asbury Park on the heavily populated Jersey coast, he wassomewhataghast to look out the plane window on his descent into Edmontonandseenothing but farmland. “I remember wondering: ‘Where the hell is downtown?’ I got off the plane and I didn’t see any civilization.”
Jones arrived on a five-day trial and he has called Edmonton home ever since. Part of the reason for that was his chance meeting on his first night in town with a local girl, Jamie, who would later becomehis wife. Heliked the team and youthful coach Hugh Campbell andheliked living in acommunity where people aren’t judged by their colour. AnAfrican-American whoplayedfootball in Texas after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, he had seen discrimination.
“Living in New Jersey wasn’t too bad, but prejudice was all around you. In Texas, it was really bad, but up here you are accepted for who you are and not what you look like.”
Jones, born on June 29, 1952, didn’t start playing football until Grade 9, but despite being only five-foot-two and 115 pounds, he made his school team as a running back.
His team was undefeated in its first two years and Jones went on to win a football scholarship to Jersey’s Rutgers State University. At Rutgers he switched to defensive back and ended up staying on the defensive side of the ball most of the rest of his playing days. “I would rather hit than be hit,” he says ruefully.
His first year in Dallas with the Cowboys under coach TomLandrywasn’t that great. “Tom Landry said I didn’t fit in.” As soon as the Cowboys released Jones he was snapped up by the Bills, made the NFL all-rookie team and wasrunner-upfor rookie of the year. He played 12 games in Buffalo, but his relationship with management soured when it was time to renew his contract. They cut him and the Eskimos snatched him up.
He played the Eskimos’ last four regular-season games and two play- off games before they dropped the Western Final to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. TheEskimos madeit all the waytotheGreyCupthenextyear, 1977, losing to Montreal, but Jones, a CFLall-star four straight years, helped them win five consecutive championships after that.
“Hewasahellofahitter,” recalls Eric Upton, an Eskimos offensive lineman in the glory days. “He was a good leader and one of the hardest-hitting defensive backs that I have ever seen play.” Jones smacked Ottawa Rough Rider Tony Gabriel so hard in 1981 that he broke the receiver’s ribs.
The Eskimos traded Jones to the B.C. Lions in 1984, but he spent most of his last season in football on the injury list. Over his career he had five knee operations and four shoulder surgeries and he is waiting for a knee replacement. But he has no regrets.
Upton explains that the bond that was forged between the players on the five-in-a-row squad will never be broken. “In those years you spent more time with the guys than with your wives,” says Upton.
“We still count on each other. It really wasaspecial time. People probably know some of us better than the players playing now.”
Upton, an executive with an equipment supply company, says it is nosecret why he and Jones and many of their teammates are still here contributing to the city. “It isn’t the most hospitable climate, but the city opened its arms to us and gave us a lot of opportunity.”
Jones, now 56, says the first years after football were tough. But he got a break whenhelanded jobs with the Boys andGirls Club of Alberta andlater, the Boys and Girls Club of Edmonton. He joined Habitat For Humanity, building houses for needy people, andhehas been putting roofs over people’s heads in one way or another ever since.
Today, when he’s not on the sidelines of a football field coaching, you will find the father of two at City Hall, where he’s first contact for the Cornerstones grant program, working with community agencies to provide more affordable housing in the city.
“If you look at my whole career, it’s always been in positions where I could help people out, and that has been very rewarding,” Jones says. He also serves as vice-president of the Eskimos Alumni, helping out former teammates and encouraging the young stars of today to give back to the city. “A lot of guys who came by here got that messageandstayed, and they do good work,” he says. “This is our community and we want to contribute to make this the best community around.”